Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Scratch a Win, Expose the Rot: The Maddening Relativity of Form

Wow. Financial people really are incredible tools.
Because I don't read about soccer much (way too much bum-fluff out there), I've been spending some time just staring at the standings and the Results Map (hereinafter, "The Map") to see if I can’t yank some meaningful trends out of 'em (or maybe just make some up?). The one that came to me over the weekend builds on an argument I made (and disguised well beneath excess verbiage) in my write-up on the Portland Timbers' win over Seattle. The further examples/research/thinking have allowed me to compact this argument into something succinct:
Not all wins are created equal.
Succinct and, as it happens, really obvious. Still, the point is, when any given team is bad enough – say, the Seattle Sounders in recent weeks and/or most of the season – a win against them doesn't say much more about the team that beats them than that they aren't as bad as said terrible team, in this case Seattle. The naked statement above is generic to the point of banality. It only gets interesting when you start applying it to specific Major League Soccer teams.

As noted before, I view The Map as a modern goddamn miracle, and that's my source material for this little exercise (and so many other things). If you run your cursor over a string of results for any given team, it'll light up the final score as well as who that team played and where. In that process, you’ll get a better measure of that team.

For example, the New England Revolution just hopped back to the right side of the red line on the back of a good min-run of games (2 wins and a draw). That whole thing looks less relevant/sustainable once you consider the opposition over those three games: Columbus Crew SC and the Chicago Fire in New England and Real Salt Lake on the road. First, none of those games are the tallest of orders, second, they've got maybe three or four "soft" games through the rest of 2016: if you want a reason why I'm not feeling bull-ish on the Revs, there it is.

To go another way, one of the great throw-away stats in soccer commentating comes with the phrase "unbeaten in ___ games." The Rapids make a good case study here: yeah, they're unbeaten in 15 games, but one can just stare at The Map and see that, lately, they're picking up a lot more neutral, yellow "Ds" than happy, green "Ws" lately; more significantly, their last three "Ws" – and this pushes them back about two months - came against teams Chicago and SKC at home and, earlier, Seattle at home. There are hints, basically, that the Rapids are slipping off their torrid, early-season momentum. Stay frosty, the rest of the Western Conference...and come up with a better slogan.

You can wander down this rabbit hole with just about any team, obviously, but with each club’s narrative getting a little more fixed with each passing week, it’s now possible to look for certain wins – say, over Chicago or Columbus or Seattle, teams that have stunk year ‘round – and put an asterisk over them...

...damn, why do I think all of the above is telling me that I should go all the way down the rabbit hole and see if I can’t pull out some good, meaningful power rankings?

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