Wednesday, February 11, 2009

MLS vs USL-1 head to head

It's not uncommon for threads on internet forums to run off the rails. For whatever reason, sensible discussions often degrade into an old fashioned pissing match.

A pissing match. Who's winning?

Even a place like the Voyageurs forums, usually the best place to go for news and views on Canadian soccer, has threads that follow this pattern.

A discussion on whether the Canadian cup tournament, currently known officially as the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, though referred to by many others at the Voyageurs Cup, should be expanded to include more teams mutated into a debate of the relative strength of the USL and MLS. It had something to do with a suggestion that Toronto FC, as a member of the better league, should get a bye into the later rounds of the competition.

It is taken for granted by most that MLS is stronger than USL-1 (formerly the A-League). In the Canadian context, it is not as clear, since Vancouver and Montreal are perennially among the strongest franchises in USL-1, while Toronto FC has been decidedly mediocre, at least on the pitch.

And since teams from these leagues don't compete in a single-table or promotion-relegation system, it's hard to compare. All there is to go on is results of American teams going head to head in the US Open Cup.

Without going into too much detail, I was waiting for yesterday evening's episodes of Scrubs to finish downloading so I could watch them before bed. I used that time to get into the numbers a bit, and see how well MLS and A-League/USL teams fared head-to-head.

The results, in brief:

Year MLS wins USL wins
1996 2 2
1997 5 1
1998 5 1
1999 4 6
2000 8 1
2001 9 3
2002 8 1
2003 5 1
2004 7 4
2005 4 4
2006 3 0
2007 6 4
2008 4 4
Totals 70 32

A 70-32 record (all extra time games and shootout results could have been counted as ties, which would have narrowed the spread a bit), seems like pretty convincing evidence in favour of MLS. (A more detailed version of the spreadsheet, including all the matchups, is available here).

But is it enough to draw any conclusions? Likely not. To argue that this places USL in a clear subordinate position, like a second division, you'd have to look at European cup competitions and see how 2nd tier teams fare against those of the top flight, and see if the numbers compare. And I haven't the time to do that. ***

There is also evidence that the stable clubs in USL do pretty well. Rochester, Charleston, Minnesota, and Seattle all had records near the .500 mark. In the last 5 years, when USL-1 has become a much stronger division that it has been in the past, the win-loss record for MLS in these matches is 24-16 (a 60% winning rate).

My own conclusions are really only matters of opinion. MLS is clearly a better league than USL. I don't think anybody would argue the point. (Are franchises really with $40M? Hell, no. But that's another discussion).

But the gap between the top teams in MLS and the top teams in USL-1 is smaller than the gap between the top teams in MLS and the bottom teams in MLS. In other words, the best USL-1 sides (Vancouver, Montreal, a few others) are better than the worst in MLS. If they played in that league, they wouldn't finish last. And for me, that means a player is better off being a starter in USL than a bench player in MLS.

There is still some riffraff in the USL-1 division that will almost always lose to MLS sides. But there is some quality (Charleston, for example) that will always compete.

Care to argue the point?

Remember, in Canadian competitive matches between USL and MLS sides, each league has won and lost once, with 2 draws.

I flexed my academic muscles this morning and plowed through a whole lot of the work that I needed to complete, so I had a few moments to spare to look at how a few other lower divisions have fared.

I looked at the DFB Pokal competition of 2007-08 and 2006-07, particularly because that country is thought to have one of the strongest second divisions among European nations.

I went pretty quickly, so I can't be entirely sure of the numbers (I had to look up each team to see which division they were playing in at the time), but I know that they are close. In head-to-head match ups between 1. Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga teams, the results are:

Season 1. Bundesliga 2. Bundesliga
2006-07 12 3
2007-08 7 4
Totals 19 7
Percentage 73% 27%

The 73% winning percentage is better than the 68% rate enjoyed by MLS teams in US Open Cup competition, and significantly better than the 60% clip that MLS teams have shown over the last 5 seasons. But this is a situation of a sample size that is far too small to provide any statistically valuable information.


Duane Rollins said...

I probably will argue the point tomorrow (I have a couple more Ottawa posts I want to hammer out tonight). But, for now, I do want to point out that the debate that started had nothing to do with anyone arguing for TFC to get a bye. It was people theorizing about what would happen if more MLS and USL-1 teams came in. So it wasn't *just* about TFC and not at all about the current situation.

Duane Rollins said...

And I really don't want to know what Google image results you had to sort through to find that photo...

J said...

I honestly didn't read the beginning of the thread, because I don't tend to take the CSL very seriously, and that happened to be in the subject heading.

So maybe I misread things. But I don't think it is that unfair to substitute Toronto FC for "theoretical future MLS team". I don't hate Toronto FC. I like them. They're my third favourite team in North America. Maybe 2nd.

Which, again, isn't what this post isn't about. This is a sidebar discussion, where I ask whether there is enough evidence to decide whether MLS is clearly a better league than USL. I think it is. But I don't think every MLS team is better than every USL-1 team.

Anonymous said...

well, look at it this way. Montreal and Vancouver last year were some of the best of the USL.
In the Voyageurs Cup, Montreal barely squeaked by TFC (never beat TFC) while Vancouver finished below TFC (close games, and only beat TFC on a debatable penalty kick call).
TFC was one of the worst teams in MLS last season. So the best of the USL are basically on the same level as the worst of the MLS.

Bishopville Red said...

Ultimately, I think what you've stated as a conclusion could be said about many top flight / second division setups throughout the world. While not at an alarming rate, every year seems to spring up a Championship "upset" of a Premiership team in the FA Cup. every year it appears we get a bigger gap in clubs where the lesser overturns the greater.

Additionally, when you consider the horrendous form of Clubs like Derby, Sunderland and Watford in the last few years of Premiership football, it's no surprise that there's a better side somewhere out there. As it stands, in the last 5 years, two sixth place clubs have won promotion to the EPL. By definition, a handful of better teams were left behind.

What would be really first rate is if they turned the Canadian championship into a full out national tournament, complete with knock out tournament round for interested senior & semipro clubs.