Climbing the Ladder: How busy schedules affect lineups

Juggling the lineup throughout the various competitions that professional soccer teams participate in can be a challenge for any manager. The number of games played by the top teams in Europe, for example, is so great that the same players simply can’t be used for all of them. It’s not uncommon for a team that does well in the UEFA Champions League and domestic cups to play around 60 competitive games.

Average lineup changes per game in 2011
Rank Team Changes
1 Real Salt Lake 3.42
2 LA Galaxy 3.12
3 Vancouver 3.00
4 Toronto 3.42
5 Seattle 2.61
6 Sporting KC 2.52
7 D.C. United 2.45
8 New England 2.24
9 Colorado 2.21
10 Philadelphia 2.18
10 Chivas USA 2.18
12 San Jose 2.09
13 New York 1.94
14 Houston 1.91
15 Chicago 1.88
16 FC Dallas 1.67
17 Columbus 1.55
18 Portland 1.48

No team in MLS history has played more than 48, a mark that was set in by Houston in 2008 and Seattle in 2011. It’s a little more manageable on this side of the Atlantic for now, although US national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann has continued to speak out in favor of a longer season.

However, it’s not just the Sir Alex Fergusons of the soccer world who have to deal with squad rotation. It’s increasingly becoming a challenge for MLS managers to tackle as well, adding another twist to the normal red card and injury hazards. Last year, eight teams in the league played at least 40 games in all competitions. Before 2011, no season had seen more than four teams hit that mark.

How many changes do MLS teams normally make on a weekly basis? For 2011, there was an average of 2.29 lineup changes per game from one regular-season game to the next. In instances where non-league games came between those regular season encounters, that increased to 2.58 per game.

There were a total of 69 instances of a team using the same full lineup in back-to-back games, while the most changes were made by Real Salt Lake (April 13) and the LA Galaxy (Oct. 23) in preparation for the CCL finals and MLS Cup Playoffs, respectively. Each used nine new starters.

Those two teams also ranked first and second in the list of who made the most changes. It ranges from a high of 3.42 per game by Real Salt Lake to a low of 1.48 by Portland. Most of the teams that participated in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage ranked near the top: LA were second, Toronto fourth and Seattle fifth, while Colorado lagged back a bit back in ninth.

The exception was FC Dallas in 16th, and they might’ve even finished at the bottom if not for the eight changes Schellas Hyndman made in their regular-season finale. Did that have anything to do with their fading form over September and October? It’s not like they were sending out B teams for their continental games, either.

Points per game and lineup changes in 2011
Changes Games Points PPG
0-1 199 245 1.23
2-3 273 377 1.38
4+ 122 163 1.34

Overall, there was only a very slight difference in the amount of changes for the location of the game – home (2.27) or away (2.31). In addition, the performance of the teams wasn’t affected by the changes in any significant pattern. In the games where the same starting XI was used in back-to-back games, the points per game ended up virtually unchanged from the league average of 1.33.

Why is that? Consistency in the lineup is usually considered to be ideal, but in modern soccer that’s not always possible. Nowadays, it seems like more and more the teams who make lots of changes may be the ones who are doing better, though they do run the risk of spreading themselves thin.

Which players made the most “spot starts” in 2011?

Not every player can hold down a place in the starting lineup, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be an important contributor. Somebody has to fill in whenever there’s an absence, and that’s where the spot starters come in. That’s when a player enters the starting lineup for a single game, then goes back to the sidelines for the next.

LA’s Michael Stephens and Real Salt Lake’s Collen Warner (now with Montreal) led the league in this category, each making seven one-game stints in their lineups. Chris Birchall and Mike Magee joined Stephens in the top 10, giving the Galaxy three players with five or more spot starts. With the Galaxy looking strong and also playing in the CCL once more, they’re a good bet to have a few players in next year’s top 10 as well.