Climbing the Ladder: Who has the toughest schedule?

See who's schedule will mean tougher sledding through 2012

MLS is using an unbalanced schedule for the 2012 season. It’s the first time in a few years that one has been used, and it’s also the first time ever that some matchups will occur only once over the course of the season. That means that some teams won’t be visiting others, and, as a result, this year will have real differences between the teams in terms of strength of schedule.

While the hierarchy of teams is certain to change from one year to the next, every advantage counts. MLS is a league where the final playoff berth is almost always decided by three points or less. That’s only one game, which means that it’s quite possible that the schedule could play a major role in determining the next MLS Cup champion.

There are a few different ways to look at strength of schedule. Let’s start by seeing how it looks based on opponents’ 2011 regular-season records (at right).

Strength of Schedule: Based on 2011 Overall PPG
Rank Team PPG
1 Vancouver 1.403
2 Chivas USA 1.382
3 San Jose 1.377
4 Portland 1.366
5 Colorado 1.348
6 FC Dallas 1.340
7 Real Salt Lake 1.388
8 New England 1.320
9 Toronto FC 1.314
10 Seattle 1.312
11 LA Galaxy 1.301
12 Montreal 1.288
13 Chicago 1.286
14 D.C. United 1.281
15 New York 1.275
16 Houston 1.272
17 Philadelphia 1.263
18 Columbus 1.260
19 Sporting KC 1.256

The points per game are based on last year’s numbers, except for Montreal. As an expansion team, they have no previous data to use. For this exercise, the Impact were instead given an average of the first-year performance from the last five expansion teams.

Despite Seattle’s 2009 MLS Cup Playoffs berth, that doesn’t turn out to be very good – it’s just shy of 1.1 points per game, or the equivalent of 37 points during the course of a full 34-game season.

The Vancouver Whitecaps were one of those expansion teams a year ago, and they ended up as the league’s worst team. They’ve been rewarded with the league’s toughest schedule. That's the result of their residence in the Western Conference, as well as the fact that it’s impossible for Vancouver to play itself in a match that counts.

Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City have the league’s easiest schedule based on this method.

Using overall performance from last season doesn’t mean much for Western Conference teams, since they all play the same schedule: three games against one another and one against each Eastern Conference team. The order ends up being exactly the opposite of last year’s standings since the only difference is that each team can’t play itself.

Also, since the West had a better record against the East last year (for the third consecutive year), Western Conference teams ended up with the most difficult schedules on paper because of that trend.

Of course, since the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs have been tweaked to avoid teams switching conferences, the schedule comparisons will matter most among teams in the same conference as opposed to league-wide. The East is more interesting to look at compared to the West, as the addition of Montreal means that each Eastern Conference team will play two conference opponents twice instead of the usual three times.

The Columbus Crew (HOU, NY) and D.C. United (CHI, SKC) benefit slightly from this, since their two missing opponents were a bit more difficult than the other teams in the East. Toronto (NE, NY) and Houston (CLB, NE) end up being hurt slightly.

Perhaps a more accurate reflection of SOS involves looking at the home and away records of each team instead of just the overall PPG (at right). There is some movement in the list when taking into account game locations.

Strength of Schedule: Based on 2011 Home/Away PPG
Rank Team PPG
1 Vancouver 1.426
2 Portland 1.391
3 San Jose 1.388
4 FC Dallas 1.366
5 Chivas USA 1.360
6 Toronto FC 1.338
7 Real Salt Lake 1.336
8 New England 1.324
9 D.C. United 1.323
10 Colorado 1.321
11 Seattle 1.291
12 New York 1.288
13 LA Galaxy 1.287
14 Montreal 1.285
15 Chicago 1.271
16 Philadelphia 1.262
17 Sporting KC 1.252
18 Houston 1.250
19 Columbus 1.223

Using home/away records, Columbus move down to the bottom. That’s a good thing, as it means they now have the easiest schedule. What changed for the Crew?  It comes down to the location of their “extra” third games against Eastern Conference foes as well as those against Western Conference opponents.

Basically, they were lucky enough to avoid playing one of those games away at any of the top-four home teams (LA, HOU, RSL, SKC) from a year ago. They also play Vancouver in Columbus, a team that had the worst away record in the league last year by some margin and finished winless on the road. The Whitecaps still have the hardest schedule.

D.C. United’s schedule changed the most in the opposite direction, becoming significantly more difficult and jumping from 14th to ninth in the process. Unlike Columbus, they play the top-three home teams at their places (LA, HOU, RSL) as well as meeting three of the top-four away teams at RFK Stadium (SEA, COL, DAL).

In addition, New York and Toronto moved up three places, while Chivas USA and Colorado moved down a few spots.

Fast/slow starts may be in store for some teams

As usual in MLS, the locations of some team’s schedules are unbalanced as well. Houston are opening BBVA Compass Stadium on May 12, which means a seven-game road trip to start the season not unlike the one Kansas City undertook last year.

Montreal are in a similar situation, playing six of eight away from home while they await Saputo Stadium’s upgrades.

DC may be a good bet to start strong, playing six of their first nine games at home. LA (four of five) and Seattle (four of five) also have similar starts, and will be looking to put up some points early to continue their 2011 form.