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Stats show link between number of draws and playoffs; are there lessons there for MLS?

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As of Thursday, 31.7 per cent of Major League Soccer’s game end in draws.

That’s not a number that falls far from the conventional soccer wisdom that says that between a quarter and 30 per cent of all games will end in ties. But, probability changes as the game evolves. And, if you look at other leagues around the world, the 30-per-cent-draw figure isn’t such an accurate reflection of how the game is being played nowadays. The rate of draws is actually closer to 20 per cent, if you look at the major Euro circuits.

In the previous English Premier League season, just 78 of 380 matches ended in draws — or a shade above 20 per cent. Major League Soccer has seen 61 draws already, in just 192 games played so far in 2014.

In the previous Bundesliga campaign, 64 of 306 matches ended in draws. Just a bit under 21 per cent, and consistent to the English trend. In Spain, 86 of 380 matches were even after full time, a rate of 22.6 per cent. A little higher than in England or Germany, but nowhere close to MLS.

In the 2013 season, MLS had a 25.4 draw percentage. Slightly higher than the elite-European-league norm, but 2014 is trending upwards, thanks to the likes of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire, who each have drawn more than half of the games on their schedules (and, so fitting, played to a 0-0 draw on Wednesday).

But this is where it gets interesting, and this is where we can begin trying to pinpoint why there are so many more draws in MLS than you’d find at the top levels of the game in England, Germany or Spain. We’ll turn to Mexico. In its last full season/tournament, a whopping 36.6 per cent of Liga MX games ended in draws.

So, what do Mexico and MLS have in common? What do the European leagues have in common?

In Mexico and MLS, a significant number of teams make the playoffs. Ten of 19 teams in MLS make the post-season. In Mexico, eight teams make the playoffs. In Europe, it is winner take all.

For example, if Chelsea or Manchester City or Liverpool or Arsenal is playing Crystal Palace, and the score is 1-1 after 80 minutes, the big boys chase the result as if they were down a goal. With only one point available for a draw and three for a win, dropping points because of ties could kill a championship push. Meanwhile, if a team in MLS or Mexico is positioned in a playoff spot, it can afford to settle for a draw. In the end, the hay is made in the playoffs.

This isn’t to suggest that the no-parity EPL method is better for fans. I think a lot of Southampton supporters who watched their team get picked over in the off-season would tell you just how much the big boys rule the league, and how hard it is for anyone to break their dominance. At any sniff of success, a team that could challenge the status quo is gutted as players are lured away. And we simply go along and nod and say these players are “ambitious” for leaving for bigger clubs — when we should be saying that if they were truly ambitious, they’d stay to help Southampton try and join the big boys club rather than accept the status quo.

OK, let’s put the preaching aside.

While this is just a single-season sample, these numbers do suggest there is a correlation between playoffs and draws. That is, if your league has a playoff system, the chance of there being more draws in the regular season go up. If your league has a straight table, there’s a greater chance of seeing more wins and losses.

Playoffs in North American sport aren’t going to go away. While NASL has promised that it won’t expand the format further, the league doubled its number of post-season entrants from two to four for this season. In MLS, 10 of 19 teams make the playoffs, and we’ll see what’s done to the format as more expansion teams are added in the future.

But if MLS wants to see more exciting games, more late match-winners, especially with its new TV deals in the United States, it could look at reducing the number of teams that make the playoffs. As it becomes more competitive to get a playoff spot, coaches and players may not be as willing to settle for draws.

It might not be a bad trade off; the playoff numbers, TV wise, for MLS aren’t great. There’s no great surge in interest in the playoffs; it’s not as if the TV numbers dramatically increase for post-season matches. So maybe the best course of action is to reduce the number of playoff teams, which would likely make the regular-season matches a better TV property. In short, build the game as a whole by reducing the playoffs.

Yes, there would be victims to reducing playoffs. For example, teams like this season’s last-place Montreal Impact would be writing off their seasons a lot earlier. There would be no artificial championship hopes in September or October. But the salary cap does ensure some level of parity, so it would be hard to see one or two teams running away and hiding when it came to the standings.

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One Comment

  1. kahkakew yawassanay

    July 31, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Easy to understand..the glut of marginal north americans and the large increase in Latinos who, although more skilled, are not finding employment in their countries or regions, the resulting parity only enhanced by the ridiculous restrictive salary cap….the quality of MLS is controlled by this cap and does not allow for a rise in the number of highly skilled pllayes wth calibre… the exception is a few DPs but, all in all, the large balance of rosters are filled by marginal players who would not find employment anywhere else other than NASL and USL pro…the parity result in a high rate of ties=boring, uninspiring football

    Reply

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