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Trusting MLS Statistics, Or The Perils Of Experimentation

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The year is 1998. By the end of this year, the LA Galaxy will set the MLS record for points. What exactly that record is will become a matter of some dispute, not because of disputed wins, but because of the difficulties in MLS record keeping. 

Those of you who have been following the Galaxy since they were in the Rose Bowl know that in the early days of MLS there was some experimentation to win over the casual American sports fan. One of these "innovations" was that if a regular season match ended in a draw, there would be a shootout to decide the "winner". 

Except, MLS grew afraid that teams would play for the 0-0 tie, going into a shootout for the three points. So they made these shootout wins worth 1 point, and a shootout loss worth nothing. Essentially, teams were playing for the draw; which is a weird thing to say, when only one team is getting the point. 

However, usually that draw-win was simply recorded as a win. In 1998, both the LA Galaxy and DC United went 24-8-0 and 72 points. Incredible, isn't it. Two teams ending with the exact same record and no draw-wins. In fact, according to MLS' records, there were no draw-wins in 1998 at all! What a year! 

Of course, that's not true. Two of those Galaxy wins are draws, and seven of DC's wins are draws. Which means the Galaxy actually finished with 68 points (the current MLS record that this years Galaxy team is chasing) and DC United 58.

Look at that table, ten times over the course of the regular season, DC United had to play one of those terrible shootouts. If you remember, they weren't the goal kick shootouts we know now, but the ball started 35 yards out, and the striker was free to try and juke out the keeper. Like in hockey. Gag. 

As this Angelfire page shows, (back then, the only fan talk about MLS happened on Angelfire and AOL chatrooms, look how far we've come) newspaper recording of the MLS standings is really to blame:

Los Angeles Galaxy 3 (1)-3 or

Los Angeles Galaxy 3-3-1 and a few

Los Angeles Galaxy 2-3-1 

Now, the bottom one is the currently in use W-L-D, and it's the only one that to this writer screams 7 points. The middle one I'd give 10 points, and that top one is just confusing. In all three examples, the statistician is trying to imply the Galaxy have three "victories" one of them in a shootout. All three of them should result in 7 points, but only in the last example (the rarest one) is it clear that the Galaxy have played just six matches, and have only won two games outright. 

From that same Angelfire page: 

However, this is complicated by the way the results are published. First, a match that ends scoreless, say between DC United and New England, but is won by DCU in a shootout is listed... DCU-New England: 1-0 (SO). And even then, some places fail list the all-important qualifier (SO). What they should do is something more along the lins of... DCU-New England 0-0 (SO: 5-3) or maybe DCU-New England: 0-0 (DCU wins in SO).

So it's not entirely surprising that doesn't have any draws in 1998. It's unfortunate that the league website gets the point totals for every year before 2000 (when MLS finally allowed both teams in a draw to take the point) wrong. Of course, 2000 was also the start of three four team divisions, so it wasn't a perfect time. 

MLS has the same problem as MLB in 1900 or the NFL in 1950. Because the league wasn't launched with a large pre-sold fanbase (and no league ever is), super accurate records just weren't a priority by the newspapers. And before every league had their own website, it really was the newspapers that were the major record keepers. 

Which of course isn't to say the individual teams didn't keep accurate records. The LA Galaxy team guide for 2011 shows the Galaxy with 68 points in 1998, although they do record the shootout winner as one more goal (W 1-0 SO or L 2-3 SO) . 

Even now, occasionally MLS standings will be printed win-draw-loss as in the top example. It can make things terribly confusing, and just one of the reasons why I don't understand MLS' history of trying to reinvent the wheel, when there's a perfectly good standardized one. The results can't speak for themselves when it's hard to even know what the results were. 

MLS is quite clearly divided into early days and modern era, because of the record keeping change. For the Galaxy, both of their MLS Cup wins came in the modern era, but before the Beckham era. How important is it to you, as a fan, to connect back to the early days? What does 68 points in 1998 mean to you? Or do you only judge the Beckham era against the Cup wins in 2002 and 2005?