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What it Takes to Win in MLS: Analyzing 10 years of MLS Cup success

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On April 16, 2021 the 26th Major League Soccer season will kick off when the Houston Dynamo go head-to-head with the San Jose Earthquakes at the BBVA stadium in Houston.

After the COVID-19 pandemic and CBA negotiations caused initial delays to the start of the season, Austin FC will now join the Western Conference for it’s inaugural campaign, taking the league to a total of 27 teams. Despite the 2020 season being cut short as a result of the pandemic, Columbus Crew will enter the new season as the defending MLS Cup Champions after beating Seattle Sounders 3-0 in the final back in December 2020. With the upcoming season returning to a 34-game regular season fixture list, the top seven teams from each conference will eventually battle it out in the playoffs, before the season concludes with the MLS Cup final on December 11.

With the 2026 World Cup coming to North America and the addition of several expansion teams in the coming years, MLS is set to not only see growth to its spectatorship and revenue but also an increase in the level of competition across the league. While each MLS team ultimately strives to win the MLS Cup, seven different winners over the last decade highlights the difficulties inherent in reaching that goal. Nevertheless, each team will undoubtedly have its own strategy and methodology for winning, but a general benchmarking across the league offers an insight into the demands of the journey. Here at Sportsology, our dedicated research team has been analyzing the data over the last ten years to try and quantify what it takes to win in MLS. Our curiosity led us to ask which KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) the best teams were achieving year-on-year?

General Benchmark

MLS Cup winners were highly competitive during the regular season, typically averaging a second-place finish. To ensure competitiveness, teams consistently needed to win 50% of regular season fixtures (17/34) and restrict losses to an average of nine per season. The average benchmark for regular season points was 59.4. By securing a top four regular season finish, MLS teams are now guaranteed home-field advantage in at least one postseason game. Over the last five seasons, MLS home teams have averaged 52.31% wins and 1.81 points per game, an indication as to why MLS is globally renowned for its home-field advantage. These superior performances and the usual combination of louder supporters and less time spent travelling are a major advantage for home teams in the postseason. Therefore, by consistently striving for a top four regular season finish, as seen by the previous 10 winners, seizing home-field advantage may present a significant edge to a team’s probability of winning the MLS Cup.

East v West

The Western Conference was the more competitive conference over the last 10 years, with six MLS cup winners coming out of the Western Conference. Western winners averaged 17.9 regular season wins and a points total of 62.3. In comparison, Eastern winners averaged 17.7 regular season wins and a total of 61.4 points. Interestingly, although MLS Cup winners averaged both a lower points total (59.4) and a lower number of regular season wins (17), they also averaged more away wins (6.6) than Western (6.3) and Eastern (6.1) Conference winners, suggesting versatility and resilience on the road may be favourable to a team’s chances of winning the MLS Cup.

Designated Players

Nine of the last ten MLS Cup winners had three designated players signed to their rosters, an indication that having three DP’s was fundamental to competing. These DP’s had an average age of 28 and were predominantly from Midfield/Forward positions (89.29%), suggesting that experienced and attacking DP’s were advantageous. These DP’s also played in an average of 72.4% of regular season minutes*, demonstrating the importance of keeping your highest paid players on the pitch.

Whilst it goes without question that there are several factors which can contribute to success in MLS, acquiring an understanding from the most ‘successful’ teams can often provide an indication to what the journey requires. Thus, being cognizant of the benchmarks set by previous winners not only provides a team with direction and objectives to work towards, but these KPIs can also be used to create accountability and set expectations amongst both players and front office staff.

At Sportsology, our research team is constantly analyzing the latest data and trends across the major leagues. Through our work, we are committed to providing our clients with data-lead insights in areas where we believe an opportunity for competitive advantage can be gained.

*Average excludes Seattle Sounders (an outlier in 2016) and DPs hired mid-season.

Image: Jannes Glas/Unsplash