By Ridge Mahoney
There's no way to know for sure, but could this rash of tied games in MLS be related to a very crowded and quirky schedule?
In the week after group play concluded in the Gold Cup that took about 30 players from their MLS teams, the league scheduled several midweek matches as well as a full slate of nine league weekend games. All six of the teams that played Wednesday (both games ended 0-0 by the way) and Thursday will play again on either Saturday or Sunday, and while this kind of scheduling isn’t unique to MLS, it can produce games of moderate energy and tepid intensity for long stretches.
The percentage of tied games hovers at around 40 percent, and while no team was able to duplicate the incredible feat of the 2009 Galaxy – which tied nine of its first 11 games – a few teams are plucking ties at a frightening pace. Chicago’s 0-0 deadlock with RSL Wednesday left the Fire with an absurd record of 2-4-10 (win-loss-tie), Toronto FC is 2-6-9, Vancouver is 2-6-8, etc.
The Red Bulls blew a great opportunity Thursday when an own goal by Seattle defender Zach Scott knotted up the game at 2-2, setting up New York to improve its record to 5-2-9. Instead of packing up shop to grab that valuable point, NYRB went for the win, and paid the price.
While scheming how to best launch the next onslaught keeper Greg Sutton dawdled with the ball at his feet and when pressured, caromed a desperate kick off the legs of Roger Levesque, who tapped in the fourth goal of a 4-2 win that left the Red Bulls clinging to the top tier of ties at 5-3-8.
During that 2009 season, a high percentage of ties – about 38 percent – highlighted the first one-third of the season. By the end of the season the percentage had dropped to 30.6 percent (69 ties in 225 regular-season games). Last year, with a two-week break imposed by World Cup group play, about 24.1 percent (58 ties in 240 games) of MLS games ended even. Whether 2011 is just going through a early part of the season comparable to 2009 or the trend continues into the second half will bear watching, with Concacaf play due to resume in about a month and some teams squeezing high-profile friendlies into busy league programs.
Many factors – coaching changes, two expansion teams, bad weather for an unusual number of games, player absences due to injuries and suspensions and callups – can contribute to how games turn out, and there’s also the reality that high-scoring weeks can be followed by barren spells not easily explained. Irregular schedules might also be a reason.
By opening the season on a Tuesday against Seattle, and playing regularly since then, the Galaxy reached the midway point of its season – 17 games played – before any other team. It played its 18th game last weekend, yet five other teams have only played 14 games. One of those teams, Sporting Kansas City, began the season with an unprecedented 10-game road trip, so its record – 3-6-5 – skews the data somewhat.
When it expanded its schedule from 30 to 34 games in the same season it also increased its membership from 16 to 18 teams, MLS essentially assured its teams of playing games on shorter rest despite moving up the start date to mid-March. Playing three games in seven or eight days is becoming more and more common and factoring in non-league commitments is producing some brutal realities.
Because it begins U.S. Open Cup play early next month, the Sounders will play 11 games in four weeks, including the Open Cup match on the Tuesday following a Sunday league game. That is not strictly a league issue, as the Open Cup schedule is determined by U.S. Soccer, yet for a team that has marked its first two seasons in MLS with Open Cup titles, it’s not so easy for the Sounders to send out a watered-down lineup as many of its league partners would choose to do.
This season the league expanded rosters to 30 players to help teams deal with a heavier load of games. How efficiently burdened teams use their personnel will shape how the standings, especially in the ‘T’ column, look as the scramble for postseason spots heats up. Only time will tell if too many teams are too tired to do anything but tie.