Which MLS teams have made the least, most subs in 2020? Breaking down the data

After their 0-0 home draw against Real Salt Lake last weekend, Minnesota United FC head coach Adrian Health was asked about not using more substitutes. 

The Loons only brought on Marlon Hairston for Jacori Hayes in the 77th minute, hence the question, as they closed their seventh game of September. Standouts like center back Ike Opara, defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and forward Luis Amarilla remain injured, so there were fewer options of a certain caliber.

The situation arises as teams can now use five substitutes at three windows (not including halftime), a modification from the previously-allotted three. It's designed to reduce wear and tear on players during a compressed schedule after a four-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Either way, Heath isn’t so convinced that the maximum number of substitutes are required.

“There’s a fascination with substitutes in America,” Heath said after the match. “I don’t understand it at times. When you’re creating the chances that we have in the second half, and are completely dominant, why would we upset the rhythm of the team? I could understand it if we hadn’t created chances, we don’t look as though we’re on the front foot (or) when something’s not right. But the way we were playing in the second half, I didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm of the game and maybe upset what we were doing. There was nothing wrong with the way we were playing. There was nothing wrong with the shape that we had. We just couldn’t get the breakthrough.”

His point got us thinking: How have teams utilized the five-substitute rule in 2020? Before breaking down the data, it should be noted that only three subs were allowed during the early-season games in late February and early March (pre-pandemic).

The New York Red Bulls and San Jose Earthquakes have consistently brought on the most substitutes in MLS. That comes as no surprise given their high-octane, pressing-based systems — even if results have wavered at times. Right behind them are the Seattle Sounders and Orlando City, two teams that are challenging for the Supporters’ Shield this season. A few other Shield contenders like the Portland Timbers and Toronto FC are also in the mix, leaning on reserves to accumulate points.

Here’s a look at the top five, with five teams tied for fourth place:

Team Games Played Substitute On Substitute On/Games Played
New York Red Bulls 12 59 4.92
San Jose Earthquakes 12 57 4.75
Seattle Sounders FC 11 51 4.64
Orlando City SC 12 55 4.58
D.C. United 12 55 4.58
Portland Timbers 12 55 4.58
LAFC 12 55 4.58
Toronto FC 12 55 4.58

As for the bottom five, you start to see teams that suffered dry spells. FC Cincinnati and LA Galaxy, who both are currently outside the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs picture, have used fewer than four substitutes per match. 

It’s a similar story for Minnesota and Sporting Kansas City, two hot-and-cold Western Conference sides since regular-season play returned in August. They both enjoyed strong starts to the year, but have fizzled out in recent weeks. As for last place? That belongs to the Montreal Impact, who have lost six of eight (four straight, too) and dealt with a deluge of red cards. It's also Thierry Henry's first year as head coach, giving a sense of how he utilizes the roster.

Here’s a full look at the bottom five:

Team Games Played Substitute On Substitute On/Games Played
FC Cincinnati 12 44 3.67
LA Galaxy 11 39 3.55
Minnesota United FC 12 42 3.5
Sporting Kansas City 11 38 3.45
Montreal Impact 12 33 2.75

So what's the big takeaway here? While not always a direct correlation, those challenging for the Shield have relied on depth and quality throughout their entire roster. Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese, for example, trotted out wholly different starting XIs at times. Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer has rotated his squad to great effect, even if the defending MLS Cup champions' core is established.

On the flip side, teams that labored during the condensed summer stretch were less apt to use their bench. Injuries to key players certainly factored in, though one has to wonder if injecting fresh legs would've translated into earning more points.

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