Major League Soccer Is Actually More Competitive In 2020. Just Ignore The Blowouts

On the surface, every day this month in Major League Soccer appeared to bring new levels of one-sided competition.

On September 10, the Seattle Sounders set a record in building the quickest 5-0 lead in MLS history in a 7-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. That was just part of a dumbfounding month for the Quakes, in which they posted a record of 1W-3D-4L, with a goal difference of minus-19.

Thirteen days later, LAFC broke the Sounders’ briefly held record while drubbing the Vancouver Whitecaps 6-0. That was one of the 13 matches on Sept. 23, the busiest day in MLS history; four of them were decided by three or more goals.

It’s tempting amid all the carnage to suggest the unusual circumstances of this 2020 season — disrupted, shortened and condensed due to the Covid-19 pandemic — have taken a toll on the league’s competitiveness. The numbers suggest the opposite.

By several metrics, the 2020 MLS regular season is on pace to be the most competitive since 2016. And 2016 is an important marker because it’s the last season that began without a single new expansion team entering the league for other more experienced sides to target (or at least try to target) for easy points.

Seasons are asymmetrical, of course, so there’s no guaranteeing these trends hold. But the number of close matches played and the tight races at both ends of the table suggest there are narrower differences between this year’s 26 clubs than in previous years. Whether that’s due to an escalating MLS arms race, the unusual circumstances of 2020, or some combination of both is anyone’s guess.

% Games Decided By Multiple Goals

2016: 31.2% (106 of 340 games)

2017: 40.6% (152 of 374 games)

2018: 38.6 % (151 of 391 games)

2019: 39.0% (159 of 408 games)

2020: 34.6% (62 of 179 games)

One of the tradeoffs for the lower scoring nature of soccer is a better shot a given game will still be in doubt up to the final whistle. And although there hasn’t been loads of late drama in 2020, there’s been lots of potential for it, with less than 35% of matches this season decided by more than one goal. When you remove the 46 draws, victory and defeat has been decided by a single goal more often than not (71 of 133 games, 53.4%). That’s up considerably from a low point for MLS competitiveness in 2017, (132 of 284 games, 46.5%).

Top Five Gap, Points Per Game

2016: 0.20 points per game (1. Dallas 1.76 ppg | Toronto 1.56 ppg)

2017: 0.44 points per game (1. Toronto, 2.03 ppg | 5. Columbus 1.59 ppg)

2018: 0.41 points per game (1. NY Red Bulls 2.09 ppg | 5. LAFC/Dallas 1.68 ppg)

2019: 0.50 points per game (1. LAFC, 2.12 ppg | 5. Philadelphia 1.62 ppg)

2020: 0.29 points per game (1. Columbus, 2.14 ppg | 5. Seattle, 1.85 ppg)

What’s most interesting about the narrowing at the top is that it comes despite an unbalanced schedule that prioritizes convenient travel over competitive fairness. And unlike the neck-and-neck race for the 2016 Shield, the 2020 race is on a pace that might have challenged the league’s all-time points record in a 34-match season.

Bottom Five Gap, Points Per Game

2016: 0.24 (16. Vancouver 1.15 | 20. Chicago 0.91)

2017: 0.21 (17. Montreal/Orlando 1.15 | 22. LA Galaxy 0.94)

2018: 0.44 (18. Minnesota/Toronto 1.06 | 23. San Jose 0.62)

2019: 0.41 (20. Columbus/Kansas City 1.12 | 24. Cincinnati 0.71)

2020: 0.21 (22. Atlanta/San Jose 1.00 | 25. Miami/D.C. 0.79)

This is not a general statement on supporting or opposing bringing promotion and relegation into MLS, but if there were a relegation fight this year, it would be a doozy. As if Jackson Yueill’s stoppage-time winner against LAFC on Sunday evening wasn’t already dramatic enough.

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