The idea for this investigation came about last fall in one of those Saturday evenings filled with despair to which Chicago Fire supporters have become all too accustomed. Another one goal loss after the next with the occasional draw mixed in became the norm for the 2015 Men in Red. My thought was, we are having a historically poor season for the club but it didn’t feel like we were historically bad. For example, just a few years earlier in 2013, DC United set the all time low for wins in a season with three. The Fire definitely weren’t that bad. In fact, it seemed like they were never blown out in bad losses and a quick look at the team’s goal differential seemed to back that up. As an exercise in trying to find some positive from the season, I looked up the record of every "Worst Team in the League" since the league stopped settling draws with overtime shootouts. What I found was that the 2015 Chicago Fire were the best "Worst Team in the League" in MLS history, no matter how bad the season felt.
History of the Bottom Feeders
For this exercise, I chose to judge the worst team in the league as the team that finished at the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield standings. The merits of this judgement can surely be questioned with the current unbalanced schedule and other variables, but points in the table are what matter for a team and that is always used as the final judgement. I built a table that recorded each team’s points, wins, losses, goal differential and then calculated a win/loss differential and a goal differential compared to that win/loss differential. This, in essence, demonstrates how badly each team lost their games and how well they did in their victories. This would equally judge a team who wins games by a lot and wins games by a lot. The same can be said for a team in the 2015 Fire’s case; a team who wins by few goals and loses by few goals. Most of the time, the team at the bottom of the standings wins by very few goals and loses games by a lot. Here are the results:
The 2015 team earned 30 points, 8 wins, 20 losses, and only had a goal differential of -15. Considering each win would have to be by at least one goal and each loss would have to be by at least one goal, the best a team could do with this record is a -12 goal differential (exhibited by the example "Win by 1/Lose by 1" in the table). Keep in mind, draws are excluded from this exercise because they have a 0 goal differential by nature. To get an idea of how the team would have performed with this win loss record but different goal differentials, I included a total of 4 examples that show what it would look like with more or less goals in the wins and losses.
Using goal differential to judge these last place teams, the 2015 Chicago Fire were the best of any in history. The worst were the 2003 Dallas Burn who amassed a -29 goal differential with a -12 win/loss differential. The are an example of a team that won their games by few goals and lost them by a lot.
How are the 2016 Chicago Fire Shaping Up?
The 2016 team has demonstrated that a strong defense alone cannot buoy a team in the table. However, they are almost as good as last year’s "Worst Team in the League" pace.
Since they have not completed an entire season, some of the stats have to be evaluated on a per game basis. First, it is clear that they just barely trail the 2015 team in the GD/WLD stat and would place between the 2015 team and the 2008 Los Angeles Galaxy if the form held for the rest of the season. The 2016 team is slightly ahead in points per game and slightly behind in wins per game. They are better off in losses per game, goal differential per game, and win/loss differential per game. Let us hope that they continue the stingy defense and start bagging some goals and this analysis will end here. It would be fun to start comparing the team to the best in league history but, until then, I’ll keep looking for small improvements.
Note: The per game stats that are in bold are better than average for the "Worst Teams in the League" in MLS history.
Goal differential can be a polarizing stat to many. Personally, I’m not sure it is a terribly good statistic to judge the strength of a team. The best example of this is the 2013 DC United team with 3 wins. They are mid table in this ranking but are clearly one of the worst teams in history. They had an atrocious 16 points, 3 wins, 24 losses, and a -37 goal differential. The only reason they appear to be good on this list is that they had a win/loss differential of -21. For this reason, maybe I’m oversimplifying things by saying that this evaluation tells us that the 2015 Chicago Fire were the best of the last place teams. Using a more subjective measure of the team, they really were a few breaks going their way from finishing quite a bit higher in the table. Of their 20 losses, only 5 were by more than one goal. That is what made the season so gut wrenching. If we were losing every game by multiple goals, the supporters would have resigned themselves to watching an epically poor team. It just didn’t feel that they were that poor, and in the end, I do think they were the best "Worst Team in the League" in MLS history.