Wed. Feb 8th, 2023

During a recent moment of drinking tea and philosophizing, I found myself considering the intellectual intersection of ancient proverbs and soccer. Why should beautiful language and the beautiful game not dance together, intertwined, in meaning?

“Dwell not upon thy weariness,” goes one Arabian proverb, according to the Internet, “thy strength shall be according to the measure of thy desire.”

Deep, no? Perhaps a certain group of Frenchmen would choose their measure of strength to be taking penalties during open play, not shootouts. Perhaps the Germans would leave a group stage out of strength measurement entirely.

And yet these cannot have been the intent of the wise individual who propositioned such a paradigm-defining thought as this. The truest application came in an announcement from one Major League Soccer this week regarding its 2023 schedule.

An uneven distribution among the league’s two conferences (15 teams in the East, 14 in the West) means that schedules will also be imbalanced. Every club in the league will play the teams in its conference twice, unless they’re in the West — then, they might play one or two intra-conference teams three times. Every club in the league will play six teams from the opposing conference, unless they’re in the West — then, they might play seven.

Somehow, some way, it will add up to 34, which is all that really matters. Surely this is the simplest way to establish a format for a soccer league’s regular season!

But while dwelling upon my weariness that stemmed from trying to understand how the 2023 MLS schedule will work — and this was before reckoning with the Apple situation, mind you — I realized that the strength of schedule for these clubs would not be equal. Was it a travesty? Only detailed pondering could reveal the answer.

Thus began my proverbial quest. I returned to the fateful words at hand. “Thy strength shall be according to the measure of thy desire.” The last five words echoed around my head like the cacophony of pure knowledge. If I could measure the strength of schedule in any way I desire, what was stopping me from grading each team’s fixture list by their opponent’s proximity to a McDonald’s?

But I am nothing if not prudent, and so I consulted the ultimate measure: A handmade spreadsheet compiling each team’s schedule and their opponents’ finishes in the Supporters Shield last year, allowing us to see which team faces the most difficult clubs.

If you’re so vegan that you don’t enjoy the context of where the statistics you consume come from, skip this paragraph. Shield finishes were flipped to give more value (28) to the winner, LAFC, and less (0) to newbies St. Louis. It’s not a great indicator of how teams will perform this season, but until we get power rankings or the like, it’s the best we’ve got. I asked the fine inner computer minions of SQL to add up Shield the finishes of each opponent and rank them from hardest to easiest schedule. It’s a very imperfect tabulation. Because the league didn’t post its entire schedule in any easy-to-play-with spreadsheet-like form, I made one myself, and probably made a mistake or 12. I’m thinking there might be some statistical bias that means teams lower in the Shield rankings have tougher schedules, or maybe that’s just a trend. Again, this isn’t even the best measure of strength either — it takes home and road games out of the picture when it very much should be in there. So don’t read into this too deeply — it’s not philosophy. Gosh!

This philosophical study produced a dearth of narratives. But first, the results, ranked from hardest schedule to easiest:

  1. D.C. United (532 coefficient)
  2. Houston Dynamo (524)
  3. Atlanta United (516)
  4. New England Revolution (511)
  5. Chicago Fire (506)
  6. Charlotte FC (500)
  7. San Jose Earthquakes (499)
  8. Columbus Crew (498)
  9. Toronto FC (491)
  10. Inter Miami (488)
  11. Seattle Sounders (487)

T-12. Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers, Orlando City (477)

15. Colorado Rapids (476)

16. New York City FC (473)

17. Philadelphia Union (472)

18. FC Dallas (465)

T-19. Nashville SC, Montreal (464)

21. New York Red Bulls (463)

22. St. Louis City (458)

23. Minnesota United (452)

24. FC Cincinnati (447)

25. Real Salt Lake (445)

26. Vancouver Whitecaps (443)

27. LA Galaxy (437)

28. LAFC (433)

29. Austin FC (429)

Oh, say, can you smell the foul, fishy odor? There sits bottom-feeder D.C. United with the hardest climb to the top. And who else should coast with the second-easiest route to the crown than Shield holders LAFC? Behold the scathing, scornful display of capitalism.

(Statheads, the r-squared of Shield finish to opponents’ total Shield finishes, aka the coefficient, is 0.45.)

A focus on Minnesota’s schedule shows that the Loons should enjoy a relatively easy go of things this season, though, so who are we to complain? Travesty avoided. There is no real trend for the course of the season, but one key patch of games reveals itself upon artistic examination:

Behold the Excel-lently made graphic, for Official Use Only! The key stretch of games lies over a one-month span from mid-to-late August to mid-to-late September, also known as matches 24-31. This eight-game span contains noticeably easier competition — NYCFC, Seattle, Colorado, San Jose, Kansas City, the Galaxy, St. Louis and San Jose again — between matchups against the dreaded LAFC.

It also will arrive on the heels of a break in league play for the Leagues Cup (so intuitive) and lead right into the season’s closing stages. If the Loons hope to secure an upper-tier playoff position, this stretch of 7/8 intra-conference games against lighter opposition will present the ultimate opportunity.

Wanna make your own philosophical ramblings? Check out the Loons’ schedule here.

Lead image courtesy Minnesota United.

By Eli Hoff

Eli is a Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Columbia Missourian and Missouri News Network, where he anchors a one-reporter bureau that provides breaking news and enterprise stories to more than 200 newspapers. The New York Times highlighted his “dogged” reporting in a 2020 feature about his coverage of Covid-19 and Greek Life at the University of Missouri. He’s been developing that journalistic skill since he launched a soccer news site at the age of 14. In the seven years since, Eli has reported on national and state politics, sports, national security, education and public health. Eli’s work has appeared in Major League Soccer, SB Nation, the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Jefferson City News Tribune, Vox Magazine and been syndicated by the Associated Press. His versatile skillset — including investigative reporting, feature writing and documentary production — has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors and Missouri College Media Association. He’s no stranger to using public records, having filed more than 100 records requests with 27 states and several federal agencies. But Eli also brings an eye for unconventional and human stories to his work, combining scoop generation and longform skill. Before his work in Washington, Eli covered varied topics as part of the Columbia Missourian’s higher education team, ranging from a fraternity hazing case and hospital security violations to the myth of an escaped research monkey.

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