Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Which is Better, Scoring Goals or Preventing Them?

Soccer is new to many American fans. By viewers it still doesn't rank even close to the big three of the National Football League, Nataionl Basketball Association, or Major League Baseball. For comparison NFL game viewership dropped 8% in 2016 and was still 60 times larger than MLS (16.5 million for the NFL compared to 270K for the MLS). According to World Soccer Talk, MLS, the major domestic league, doesn't even have the highest TV rating in the United States for a soccer league. The English Premiere League draws more viewers than MLS. As such the general knowledge of the sport is still lacking in the US. Personally I have only been following the beautiful game since 2009 and only seriously since 2012 or so. That means there are some relatively fundamental questions that I still need answered. One of these is which is a better indicator of a team's success scoring a lot of goals or preventing the other team from scoring goal? Basically, does defense win Supporter's Shields and MLS Cup Championships?

Rather than just Google this question, I decide to take a look at data from 2007-2016. I collected every MLS teams wins, losses, ties, final conference standing, goals scored, goals conceded, and goal differential (the difference between goals scored and goals conceded). Using that I was able to look at whether goals for (GF) or goals against (GA) was a better indicator of MLS success. The answer, much like other major American sports it is better to have a good defense than a good offense. But do not just take my word for it. Let us look at the numbers to back it up.
Table 1: Average Rank of GF, GA, and GD by Final Conference Standing.
Take a look at Table 1 for a breakdown of the average rank of GF, GA, and GD for each final conference standing. Teams that finished first in their conference had an average rank in goals scored of 4.2 compared to an average rank in goals allowed of 3.8. So the teams that finished first were on average 0.4 spots better at defense on average. A similar separation held for all four of the top spots per conference. They all had higher average ranks for GA than GF. Basically good regular season teams stop other teams from scoring.

What about the playoffs? Looking just at MLS Cup Champions shows a similar difference between average rank for GF and GA. For MLS Cup Champions the average rank for GF was 5.9 compared to 4.2 for GA. That means MLS Cup Champions were on average 1.7 ranks higher on defense than offense. It appears that good defense wins championships in the MLS.

Interesting this GF to GA average rank flipped in the middle. The teams finishing fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth in their respect conference were all better at scoring goals than preventing them. This seems to make sense because those teams may be scoring frequently or not, but they are giving up just as many resulting in ties and losses. All those ties and losses result in a lower final place in the standings.

I also took a look at the statistical correlation between GF rank and GA rank and having the most wins, the most ties, and the least losses during the regular season. There was a strong correlation between having a high GF or GA rank and having a high wins rank. The correlation was stronger for GA to win total (.74) than GF to win total (.63), which aligns with the previous findings. The correlations for GF and GA to fewest losses also held with a higher GF correlating at .60 compared to a higher GA correlating at .76. That implies that not conceding goals helps teams avoid losing more than it helps them win, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

Interestingly there was no correlation between having the most ties and scoring a lot of goals. A higher GF rank had a .09 correlation to a higher number of ties. There was a weak correlation (.25) between prevent goals and having a lot of ties.  Both of these are basically just noise. It appears ties have more to do with the competition and less to do with a team's own strength.

The number one indicator of a team's success was its goal differential (GD). Teams that ranked high in GD also ranked high in final conference standing, were more likely to win the MLS cup and had a strong correlation (.81) to total wins. Teams finishing first in their conference had an average GD rank of 3.1. This was a higher average rank for the first place teams than either GF or GA. Team's that eventually won the MLS cup had an average GD rank of 3.6. Keeping a wide margin between the goals you score and the goals you concede is the surest way to find success in the MLS, which again makes a lot of sense. It doesn't matter as much if you are a powerhouse offense with a mediocre defense or a stellar defense with a blah offense, as long as you are scoring significantly more goals than you are giving up your team will be fine.

Looking at data between the 2007-2016 season I was able to determine that it better for your favorite soccer team to have a great defense than a great offense. Stopping the opponents attack is a better indicator of success than trying to outscore them. Good teams have a higher average GA rank than GF rank. However, GD is the most important rank of those I looked at. Being able to consistently score more goals than you concede by a wide margin is the most important trait for a team looking for success in the MLS. Teams can get to a good GD by either excelling at one side of the ball or the other. Teams can also achieve good GD with balance. But however they get there great teams have a high GD rank.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The NFL is Not a Paragon of Parity

The NFL sells their fans on the idea that the league is built on parity and equality more so than other professional sports leagues. The NFL has done such a good job convincing fans and journalists about this supposed parity that is has become conventional wisdom. People throw out that the league is built of parity frequently without having to defend their claim at all. The NFL certainly has superior equity when compared to say Spanish La Liga, the top tier of Spanish soccer. However, when the NFL is compared to other American professional sports leagues it doesn’t stand out as a stalwart of parity. The belief of the NFL system somehow leveling the playing field for all the teams is false.

Twelve teams make the NFL playoffs each year. Since 2007 all but three NFL teams have made the playoffs at least once (the three fan bases that haven't witnessed a playoff game in a decade are Los Angeles/St. Louis, Cleveland, and Buffalo). This looks like a good sign pointing to parity of play, but when we dig deeper into the distribution of playoff teams we find things aren't so rosy. 

Take a look at Figure 1 for a distribution of all the NFL playoff spots between 2007 and 2016. Of the 32 total NFL teams just 9 have taken up over 50% of all available playoffs spots. Even more illuminating, two teams, the Packers and Patriots, have been to the playoffs nine out of ten chances. Those two teams are eating up 15% of all available playoff spots just between themselves. If all things were equal they should have taken only 6%. The continued dominance of a few top teams has taken away potential playoff spots from the rest of the league.

Figure 1

All these stats do not prove that the NFL is not a leader in competitive equality on the field of play. The way to see this is to compare the NFL to other professional American sports leagues. The league often held up for its dominate teams that can just buy championships is MLB. Writers, and radio hosts often whine that MLB quality is open to the highest bid and small market teams are priced out of competition. So how does MLB compare to the NFL?

Between 2007 and 2011 eight teams made the MLB playoffs. For 2012 and on ten teams have made the playoffs. This ratio of playoff spots to league size closely compares to the NFL. Also much like the NFL 9 out of 30 MLB teams account of 50% of all available playoff spots. The top three teams, the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cardinals, have each been to the playoffs six times in the last ten years account for 20% of available playoff spots. MLB also has a few cellar dwellers. Three teams that have failed to make the playoffs since 2007, The Mariners (ouch), the Marlins, and the Padres (at least our natural rivals are struggling also). 

Figure 2 shows a similar breakdown of MLB playoff teams between 2007 and 2016. It is pretty clear that the NFL and MLB are very comparable in their frequency of playoff teams. In both leagues a few teams are perennial powers taking far more than their fair share of playoff berths. Instead of suppressing the post season appearances for the whole league, these champions are eating up spots left open by weaklings at the bottom that seem unable to get out of their losing ways. For both there is a large chunk of middling teams bouncing in and more frequently out of the playoffs. In both leagues the expected number of  appearances for any given team is right around 3 (3.75 in the NFL and 3 in MLB). In the NFL 16 teams have made the playoffs between 2 and 4 times, while the number of teams is 19 in MLB. This shows that large group of middle tier teams.

Figure 2

The NFL is not bad at keeping all their teams competitive, but comparing them to the supposed worst of the other American leagues at maintaining parity of play, MLB, the NFL is not a clear winner. In fact the NFL is very comparable to MLB. The NFL and MLB both have a few dominate teams that appear in the playoffs every year and a few terrible teams that just can't figure it out. However, most of the league just sits in the middle reaching the playoffs about as frequently as we would expect if all things were fair. The sports media needs to stop parroting the NFL's marketing message of it being some sort of paragon of parity. The facts just don't back this claim up.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

It's Still Time to Let Lorenzo Romar Go

The University of Washington's Men's Basketball team has had a long slow spiral down the drain. Their loss to UCLA by 41 points cements them as a truly bad team. Not only have the Huskies become a bad team they have also lost relevance (I know I for one don't bother to watch games anymore). In years past people would talk about the Husky men at work and at bars. Sports radio would do whole hours on the team. The team used matter to the sports scene in Seattle. Those days are gone.

All of this is especially sad considering the team continues to have top level recruits pass through the program on their way to the NBA. We have had the opportunity to watch future stars in the making lose more college games than they win. In 2016 the team had two NBA first round draft picks in Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss and they were still unable to make the NCAA tournament. The 2017 feature Markelle Fultz, the consensus projected number one pick in the upcoming NBA draft, yet the team is the worst they have been in years.

When all the players that has suited up and played for the Huskies recently is considered it becomes obvious that talent is not the issue. Instead the blame falls on the coaching staff and their inability to get these premier players to mesh together as a team. Ultimately that blame falls completely on head coach Lorenzo Romar, who has been a constant on the team throughout their decline. It is time for the university athletic department to cut bait and let Romar go.

Many will defend Romar because of his early success with the program. Others will defend him because of his stellar personal character and leadership. Both of these reasons seemed valid a few years into this downward trend, but after five straight years, and soon to be six, without an appearance in the NCAA tournament they have lost their weight.

The other commonly cited reason I hear to keep Romar in charge is ability to continuously recruit top tier high school talent. After all he has managed to bring NBA prospects previously mentioned to UW. Those are the kind of player that usually goes to Duke, UNC, Kentucky, or UCLA. More proof of his prowess is next seasons incoming class that feature Michael Porter, probably the best high school player in the country. Romar recruits players to UW like he is running a blue blood program.

The allure of having Porter in Purple and Gold is enough for many fans to want to risk keep Romar as the head coach for one more year. The see the potential for greatest that a player of Porter's ilk presents. The thing is Romar has recruited players like this before and has failed to find success with them. There is nothing to make us believe that Romar will find some secret formula over the off season to suddenly find success with uber talented freshmen. In fact his track record suggests the exact opposite.

Recruiting all these amazing players is pointless if they don't win games. These players stay only one season (I don’t think they should even have to do one season in the NCAA) and then jump to the NBA and its riches. So, the fans develop little to no report with them because our time with these guys is so short. Any attachment we might develop is further squashed by the lack of victories. There are just no marquee moments to look back upon. No event ties them to the school history. Romar's talent at getting 17 year old to commit to a year at UW is rendered moot by the results on the hardwood floor or Hec Ed pavilion.

The losing for the men's basketball team has grown tiresome. The fans, myself included, have stopped watching games. The most surefire way to fix this problem is to let Lorenzo Romar go. The Huskies need a new coach that can actually turn a collection of individually talented basketball players into a competitive team and win games. Romar's past on court successes, strong moral fiber, and recruiting coups do not justify the continued losing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Patriots Expose One of the NFL's Dirty Secrets

The NFL prides itself on the supposed parity of play in its league. They constantly reinforce the narrative that on any given Sunday any NFL team can beat another NFL team. Every year is a new year and your favorite team has a shot at winning the Super Bowl. Sports commentators eat this up and spew it right back out. They constantly parrot the NFL's lines about parity. As I have written before all this talk is just marketing hogwash when it comes to the bottom of the league, but it also applies to the top tier teams. The NFL is no more a of level playing field than any other major American sport. By winning Super Bowl LI the New England Patriots exposed the myth of NFL parity for all to see.

In the 16 years since they beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI the Patriots been to 6 another Super Bowls and won another 4. That is just Super Bowls. If we look at just the playoffs the Patriots have been dominate as well. They have made the playoffs 14 out of 16 seasons. One of the seasons they missed was 2008 when they won 11 games, but lost out on tie breakers to the Dolphins and Ravens. Basically the Patriots have dominated the NFL for 16 years and made a mockery of the concept of parity.

It is time to stop repeating the same banal sound bites about the league being one of equivalent talent where any team could win. It is time to admit that the NFL is as lopsided and dominated by super teams, like the Patriots, as every other league. It is time to find a new and original way to describe the power distribution of NFL's teams.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seattle Seahawks 2016 Season Recap

The Seahawks divisional round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons was a very fitting end to a very up and down season. The loss highlighted all the problems that that team had during the 2016 regular season. To those watching, the way the game played out was all too familiar. The offensive line failed to protect Russell Wilson or provide consistent run blocking for Thomas Rawls. The playing calling gave up on the run really early and made the team one dimensional. The defense failed to get consistent pressure on Matt Ryan and allow a quick passing attack to rack up big yards. The defense also failed to stop the Falcons from converting on important third downs, regardless of the yards to go. 

The result was not too shocking to me, but I was still disappointed. In my head I knew the Seahawks were going to lose to the Falcons. They were just too flawed of a team to win the Super Bowl, let alone beat good team like the Falcons on the road. But in my heart I hoped that the Seahawks might surprise us. Maybe the pressure of the playoffs would get to Matty Ice, or a freak turnover would change a low scoring game. Alas it was not to be and the 2016 season came to an inglorious end in the Georgia Dome.

The Seahawks showed signs of brilliance during the regular season. They went to New England and beat the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. They dominated the Carolina Panthers 40-7 at home in CenturyLink Field. Doug Baldwin showed he is a legitimate number one receiver totaling 94 receptions and 1128 yards.

However there were also several lows. The Rams beat the Seahawks 9-3. The Green Bay Packers shellacked the Seahawks 38-10. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense to 3 points and those were only because of a short field gifted by a turnover. Maybe worst of all, by ranking 25th in the league in rushing yards, the Seahawks lost their identity as a run first power football team.

The Seahawks players, coaches and executives have a lot of improvements to make over the 2017 offseason. First and foremost they need to drastically improve the offensive line. They need to find more depth in the secondary. They need to cut Jermaine Kearse. Finally they need to figure out, either through play calling or personnel, how to stop other teams on third down. Without these changes the Seahawks 2017 season looks to be much like the 2016. A bumpy ride filled with highs and lows, but ultimately ending in an early exit from the playoffs.

All is not bleak and despairing in Seattle. There is lots to be encouraged by heading into 2017. The Seahawks front office has been one of the best in the league at making changes and improving their team year in and year out. Head Coach Pete Carroll and General Manager John Schneider are one of the best teams in the league. They have consistently been able to add quality players through free agency and the draft, with the only glaring weakness being the offensive line.

On the players side things are also looking good for next year. The team's defense is still anchored by players in the primes of their careers such as Earl Thomas (currently age 27), Kam Chancellor (age 28), Richard Sherman (age 28), and Bobby Wagner (age 26). The teams quarterback, Russell Wilson, despite an injury hampered 2016 regular season, is one of the best in the league. With Doug Baldwin has his primary target, Wilson has a star to throw passes to. The these players give the team a great starting point coming into 2017.

The 2016 season culminated in a fitting loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The Seahawks showed all of their most aggravating weaknesses as the game played out as expected. The defense was unable to handle the dominate offense of the Falcons and the Seahawks offense could not get past their own ineptitude to keep the score close. Despite being a frustrating season that ended on a low note things look good for the Seahawks heading into 2017. They will still be the team to beat in the NFC West because of their super talented core of players and their smart front office. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Boldly Predicting 2017

The new year is upon us and with it will come many new and interesting sports stories. Some will be expected while others catch us completely off guard. Whatever ends up happening in 2017 sports fans around the country will definitely have plenty to talk about. So, to help you prepare for another great year in sports the staff here at Unique Sports Theme Name have compiled a list of news stories to keep your eyes and ears open for in 2017. These may not all come true, but  imagine if they did? We could probably ride that clairvoyance into some sort of paying gig. Anyways onto the soon to be news in 2017.

  • The scandal surrounding Russia athletes doping to boost their performance continues to grow. Not wanting to encourage systematic state sponsored doping in international sporting competition FIFA decides remove Russia as the host for the 2018 World Cup. Now in need of a new host those same FIFA officials decide to award Myanmar the World Cup as an award for their continued march towards democracy and a huge wad of cash that was left at the front door of the FIFA offices.
  • After the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet in the NBA finals for the third straight year (with Golden State winning), NBA commissioner Adam Silver decides to revamp the NBA playoff system. In July he announces that the Warriors and Cavs will play for the 2017-2018 NBA championship without playing in the overly long NBA playoffs. The rest of the NBA will instead play in a consolation bracket with the winner of that tournament being named Third Best.
  • Encourage on by the recent success of the Chicago Cubs, both the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals fans (the only two teams to never make a World Series) rush out to reserve post season tickets during spring training. Despite  exciting seasons for both teams, neither makes the playoffs.
    • On a more positive note Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez will rebound from a rocky 2016 season to make the 2017 All-star game.
  • After giving up 12 sacks in a single NFL playoffs game, the Seattle Seahawks decide to fully commit to investing in their offensive line during the offseason. They focus their draft strategy on getting the linemen with the most potential they can find. Somehow they end up drafting three defensive tackles, two tight ends, and a full back with plans to convert all to offensive linemen.
  • For the second year in a row the University of Washington Men's basketball team misses out on the NCAA tournament despite having a player (Markell Fultz) talented enough to be an NBA lottery pick. The continued inability of Lorenzo Romar to adapt to the one and done culture of college basketball finally becomes obvious and he is fired from the head coaching position.
  • In September, still looking for a head coaching job, Rex Ryan reaches out to the Great Orange One and requests state intervention. Not wanting to let a winner like Rex Ryan down The Donald removes Todd Bowles and appoints Ryan as the new head coach of the Jets via executive order. A massive scandal erupts during the Senate confirmation hearings.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In Defense of Booing

Early in Saturday's Seahawks game the Seattle fans started booing the Seahawks offense for its ineptitude. The Seahawks terrible offensive line has cost them several games this year. Probably all five of their losses can directly be blamed on the inability to block for the quarterback and the running back. The 12's, as Seahawks fans are known, were beyond frustrated with the crap sandwich that is the offensive line. They were angry at management's complete and total failure to address the obvious need on the offensive line at any point since the 2016 playoff loss to the Panthers. They decide to vocalize that frustration in a cascades of boos. This was shocking to hear at CenturyLink Field. The 12's are a rabidly loyal group. They will usually defend players and coaches to a fault. So, see the frustration boil over into booing was unexpected, but it was completely warranted. All fans have a right to boo to express their displeasure and frustration with a team's failures.

As a sports fan there are not a lot of options to try and drive change into your favorite team. Players and management hold almost all of the power related to the on field product. The most obvious and impactful action fans can take, no longer buying tickets and ending games, is also the most risky. While refusing to pay money to attend games will send a message to management the resulting outcome may not be the desired one. Seeing empty stands and dropping revenue the team may decide that the market just can't support the team and then decide to move them elsewhere (e.g. The Saint Louis Rams). In this case the fans completely lose because they no longer even have a team to root for.

Another option to try and drive change into the team is using the media (newspapers, blogs, radio, etc) to bring attentions to the failures and the needed changes. This is an important step. Media needs to highlight these failings because they can reach the large fan base and educate them about the problems. However, media alone will not change the problems. It is easy for coaches and players to ignore sports media as just noise. They can write them off as talking heads trying to drive up ratings. It is only if the fans themselves react to these publications that the team has to listen.

Booing is the clearest and most direct way for fans to literally make their displeasure heard. A loud and consistent booing makes it clear to everyone involved with the team that whatever is going on is unacceptable. It is a call for action to fix whatever it is that ails the team. The players, the coaches, the training staff, the front office, and ownership all hear the chorus of anger and frustration from the fans. Those who do press conferences will be forced to address it in the media. The only way to make it stop is to address the issues that lead to the booing.

Now fans should not boo at whatever small transgression or failure occurs. Verbal beratement of a team should be saved for extended periods of failure or calls for major change. Booing because a single event in a single game doesn't go your way is a misuse of the power of the boo. Using the boo too often creates a sort of crying wolf situation; it becomes much simpler to ignore the jeering of the crowd. Players and management will still hear the calls for action, but they will ignore them knowing that they are used so

Sports fans are often captive to the whims of the teams they follow. It is difficult to influence the outcome or directions of teams. Management and players have a much more direct role to play. However, that does not mean that fans are powerless. They have a few tools at their disposal the most effective of which is booing. Fans shouldn't use this power frivolously because it will render the power moot, but they should use it when teams continuously fail in unacceptable fashion.