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Are Frequently Punished Teams in MLS Destined for the Bottom of the Table?

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The 2016 MLS season is off to a roaring start for bookings, and fans might think this is an indication those teams will suffer in the standings.

Sometimes a disciplined soccer player deserves discipline from the referee, as exemplified by Gonzalo Segares.
Sometimes a disciplined soccer player deserves discipline from the referee, as exemplified by Gonzalo Segares.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

MLS has often ignored international breaks and let half strength MLS teams go to battle to maintain their standing.  Unusually, a majority of MLS teams did not play this weekend, leaving Chicago Fire fans watching games with little relevance to the team’s current position (but hey, we are only 1 point out of a playoff spot!).

I decided to tune into the three games that were played on Saturday mostly in the interest of my MLS fantasy team.  It turned out to be a pretty good day if you had the right players from FC Dallas.  Just into the second half of their game against D.C., a red card was shown to Marcelo Sarvas and it got me thinking about the amazing rate of red cards so far this season in MLS.  After all, it was the second red card shown in only the second game of the day.  There have already been 12 red cards issued in just over three weeks of soccer (33 games).  I started to wonder if teams that were punished by referees more throughout the season were more likely to finish at the bottom of the table.  It seemed perfectly plausible to me, but the numbers don’t necessarily agree.

MLS Teams' Disciplinary Points and Their League Finish

While my first observation was about sending players off, it makes sense that yellow cards, fouls, and other mischief could hinder performance.  I decided to look at the league’s Disciplinary Points standings since it includes all punishment that could change the results on the field.  The following factors go into the points totals:

  1. Foul = 1 point
  2. Yellow Card = 3 Points
  3. 2nd Yellow Card = 3 Points
  4. Straight Red Card = 7 Points
  5. Coach Dismissal = 7 Points
  6. Any Supplemental Discipline = 8 points

MLSsoccer.com lists the season totals for team Disciplinary Points going back to the 2012 season, so I compared all teams from 2012-2015 to their finish in the Supporters' Shield standings (some can argue whether this is a fair way to judge a team’s place in the overall league, but it is just about the only fair way to judge in an unbalanced league structure).  The results are as follows.  If you need a refresher on R Value and Correlation of data, please go back to last week’s article.

2015

2014

2013

2012

Data Plot

In no season for which MLS has published the Disciplinary Points standings is there any correlation between a team’s final ranking and its ranking in the Supporters' Shield standings.  The overall correlation for all four of these seasons is 0.0499 (on a scale from -1 to 1) and, as illustrated on the data plot, a strong correlation does not exist.  This is just about as scattered as data can get as its proximity to a 0 R Value shows.

Reason For No Relationship

Does playing a man down mean a team is more likely to drop points?  If a team has accumulated a number of yellow cards during play, is this likely to change the way the team defends?  Perhaps the reason isn’t one of numbers or cards issued on the field.

My proposition is that this is a reflection of the double meaning of the word discipline.  The statistical analysis is a look at whether a team that is punished often suffers in the standings.  A more indicative relationship might be between the discipline (defined as training oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way) of the way a team plays and their finish in the standings.  A successful team is one that is disciplined in the way they play, even if that results in quite a bit of discipline (i.e. punishment) from the referee.

No other player in my memory exemplifies this more than Chicago Fire legend Gonzalo Segares.  In his MLS career (regular season and playoffs), he earned 63 yellow cards and only 4 red cards.  I always admired the fact that he was one of the smartest players on the field and that he never seemed to unintentionally foul a player.  Images exist in my head that show Sega performing a tactical foul during an opponent’s break and not even turning around to acknowledge the yellow card being shown.  I can’t recall him ever arguing a booking.  While he often was disciplined by the referee, he played the game with extraordinary discipline.  He knew that committing a tactical foul or earning a caution for time wasting was part of his job to keep the ball out of the Chicago Fire goal.

Since team discipline is difficult to quantify, one must look at it subjectively.  Vancouver had the most disciplinary points in the league last season (802) but finished third in the Supporters’ Shield standings.  Perhaps Carl Robinson was disciplined in the way he rotated the squad or perhaps the players were disciplined in the way they stopped an attack by fouling before they were forced to chase the play.  Regardless of the reason, it seems much more plausible to assume there is a relationship between a team’s success in the table and their discipline (controlled way of playing the game) rather than how often they are punished by the referee.  While it is difficult for data to prove the first, it clearly disproves the latter.