As we head into the season, I’d like to give my fellow fans an interesting piece of food for thought:  The 2012 Supporter’s Shield winner may be undeserving of the title.

A few days ago, mlssoccer.com released their latest round of 2012 Pre-Season Power Rankings and, to little surprise, the same team that topped the list last year is once again on top.  For many years, this meant little: the Power Rankings were nothing but a pundit’s best tool to engage his/her readership, stir up the riff-raff… and not much else.  The rankings held little actual value.

But over the last couple of years, thanks to better coverage and writing by those in the business of doing both, the preseason power rankings have been a fairly good indicator of – if not exact table placement – how the playoff picture would shake out.

But not this year.

While I have no doubt that this year’s power rankings are a fair representation of where the league’s concentration of quality lies, lurking beneath them is a dirty little secret:

Thanks to our “new and improved” schedule, at the end of the regular season, a team may find itself undeserving of its final table spot.  Even the regular-season champion, the Supporter’s Shield winner, may be undeserving of the honor.

Does that sort of problem sound familiar? Just call us the BCS.

And through some (slightly arbitrary) number crunching, I’m about to show you how and why.

Now, this ish ain’t an exact science.  Not for me, at least. So here’s my disclaimer:  The aim in writing this article is not to expose you to fact, but to possibility; the recognition of the possibility that an unbalanced schedule, while fantastic from a marketing standpoint, can ultimately destroy the league’s credibility through skewed table placement and, as a result, playoff inclusion, for otherwise weaker teams at the expense of stronger squads – much as what’s happened to College Football with the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series.

The BCS-for-MLS Weighted Schedule Concept:

While the folks around the #g4s watercooler are in relative agreement (insomuch as we can be) when it comes to the top-three – Los Angeles, Seattle, and Real Salt Lake – the picture gets murkier as you make your way down the list.  There is a belief (esp from our West Coast writers) that after the top three a chasm has opened and – all credit due to #4 Kansas City and #5 Chicago – the rest of the league may not be up to the task of pursuing the Supporter’s Shield.

Except that this year’s scheduling may help both out tremendously.

To illustrate my point, I’ve taken the MLSPR and assigned each team a difficulty rating based on their position.  I did this in the most simplistic way imaginable:

#1 Los Angeles has a Difficulty Rating of 19.
#19 New England has a Difficulty Rating of 1.

In this example, a Los Angeles game versus New England would have a Difficulty Rating of 1 for LA and 19 for New England.

Again, this is for illustrative purposes.  In reality, some teams, like #2 Seattle and #3 RSL, would likely not be separated from each other by as large a margin as what separates, say #3 RSL from #4 KC.  Similarly, the differences in the mid-ranked teams may similarly be much less obvious than my simplistic ratings suggest, but the differences are there all the same, if less pronounced.

I’ve also weighted away games with a multiplier of +1/8 Difficulty Points for the visiting team, in recognition of homefield advantage.  This, again, is unscientific, but good enough for illustrative purposes.

So in my above example:

@Gillette Field, LA would have 1.125 Difficulty Points vs NE’s 19.
@Home Depot Center, NE would have 21.375 Difficulty Points vs LA’s 1.

This “homefield advantage multiplier” ignores the fact that teams are not equally effective at their respective homes, nor are they equally effective on the road.  Take my example pairing: New England only captured 35% of total available points at home last season; 20% when away.  And Los Angeles? An 80%/50% for their home/away splits.  The strength Los Angeles has when on the road negates most – if not all – homefield advantage New England might have.

But I’m too lazy to make a statistical model to take that into account.  So we’re just gonna add a +1/8 multiplier  across the board and call it a day.

But I did take the time to think of a snazzy name…

The 2012 Completely Unscientific MLS Schedule Difficulty Index… Thingy.

The lower the number, the “less difficult” the schedule.

Team

Difficulty
Points

Home
SDI

Away
SDI

MLS SDI

Sporting KC

16

156.000

166.500

322.500

Columbus

10

155.000

171.000

326.000

New York

13

169.000

159.750

328.750

Chicago

15

174.000

155.250

329.250

Houston

14

148.000

183.375

331.375

D.C. United

5

149.000

190.125

339.125

Philadelphia

7

151.000

195.750

346.750

Montreal

2

174.000

182.250

356.250

Seattle

18

189.000

172.125

361.125

Los Angeles

19

160.000

201.375

361.375

Toronto FC

4

150.000

211.500

361.500

New England

1

176.000

187.875

363.875

Real Salt Lake

17

151.000

218.250

369.250

Portland

12

179.000

203.625

382.625

Colorado

11

189.000

195.750

384.750

FC Dallas

9

165.000

229.500

394.500

Vancouver

8

189.000

205.875

394.875

San Jose

6

190.000

211.500

401.500

Chivas USA

3

216.000

192.375

408.375

Who has the easiest schedules in the league?  While Kansas City may have the “easiest” schedule in terms of raw numbers, the team with the most to benefit from their unbalanced schedule is Columbus.  Mid-table on the power rankings, the Crew has a much easier schedule than their higher-ranked conference rivals and could find themselves higher up on the table than their Power Ranking suggests they deserve.

But here’s where things get sticky… Unlike seasons past, one (or two) Eastern Conference team will find itself within striking distance of a SS win by end-of-season – all thanks to the difficulty (or lack thereof) of their schedule – and could outright win it if there is no clear dominant leader in the Western Conference’s “Big Three.”

And so MLS may find itself with a regular-season champion (Supporter Shield winner) wholly undeserving of the prize.  While the powerhouses of the league out West beat up on each other, a dark horse in the East could rack up a series of relatively easier-earned wins.  That isn’t to say the East lacks talent or competition, but you have to admit that a Chicago, New York or KC fan is thanking their lucky stars that 4/5 of the lowest-ranked teams are teams they will be meeting multiple times this season.

Again, these numbers mean very little.  And I’ll be the first to admit I can’t predict the season’s course any more accurately than I could have predicted which high school wallflower of a classmate would end up years later a college-aged stud seeking me out for a date.  (True story.  It happened.  Notch one for Tommy! But I digress…)

You can call this bias if you want – seeing as how I’m an admitted Galaxy fan – but after a thoroughly unscientific review I’m prepared to make the following statement:

If an MLS West team doesn’t win the Supporter’s Shield this year, it will be largely thanks to the league’s unbalanced schedule.

Just like the BCS.

And even if it’s not at all due to the unbalanced schedule, some fans will insist otherwise.

Just like the BCS.

MLS… *sniff* my MLS… you’re all grown up.