Is the Central Division the Most Competitive in the USL?

Math is hard

If anyone tells you that lower division sports aren’t worth watching, you have our permission to grab the nearest heavy object and beat them over the head while screaming “USL! USL!”

Well, no, not really. Probably not a good idea. How about instead you invite them to a Legion game. Preferably on a day when the forecast has 0% chance of precipitation, though. That way you would be able to demonstrate that the second tier of the US soccer pyramid is both competitive and entertaining, not to mention great value for money.

I mean, think of yesterday. For as little as $15 you got about 5 hours of sports to watch, free food (kudos to the club for that, btw), a nice cleansing shower and a win for the home team. Can’t beat that. And you would have got home in time to see the end of the US-Mexico Nations League Final.

Which was the crazy conclusion to a very crazy week in US soccer. There was no MLS to watch this week, so all eyes were (or should have been) on the USL Championship. The Championship proceeded to mix everything up. In brief:

  1. On Wednesday, the usually pitiful OKC Energy managed a draw at Indy Eleven.
  2. On Friday, they fired their head coach John Pascarella anyway.
  3. Also on Wednesday, Sporting Kansas City II pummeled FC Tulsa 4-1.
  4. On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Rowdies saw their perfect start come to an end at Charlotte Independence.
  5. On Saturday, Hartford Athletic put a 7-0 beatdown on the New York Red Bulls II.
  6. In that game, Hartford’s Conor McGlynn scored from inside his own half.
  7. On Saturday, Memphis 901 added to Indy’s miserable home stand by winning 2-1.
  8. Continuing Saturday’s shockers, the then 0-5-0 Las Vegas Lights beat Tacoma Defiance 2-0.
  9. Next, the struggling San Diego Loyal were 2-1 up on Phoenix Rising before giving up the win on the very last play of the game.
  10. On Sunday, Atlanta United 2 and Louisville City kicked off 2.5 hours after Birmingham and Tulsa, but finished first, with Atlanta winning 1-0.
  11. Also on Sunday, The Miami FC’s Pierre da Silva decided he wasn’t going to be outdone by McGlynn and scored an Olimpico (that’s a goal straight from a corner, in case you don’t know).
  12. And finally, there was the marathon here at the Bank.

Yes, we are living in interesting times. For Indy and Tulsa that is clearly a curse, but for most of us it meant a ton of fun.

But what does all of this have to do with the title? Well, overall it was a topsy-turvy week for the USL with surprise results galore, which meant that each of the Championship’s four division tightened up a bit. That also implies that some teams in the league maybe aren’t as good as expected, and some aren’t as bad as expected. In at least one division, that is very clearly true based on recent results.

However, comparing divisional performance, and indeed individual team performance, is a bit tricky in a league with uneven scheduling and an unusual points system that awards triple the points for a win than for a draw (I’m old enough to remember when England first introduced that system. That was in 1981 if you were wondering). The normal way to do that is by comparing how many points a team has earned per game.

Here is the Atlantic Division. Sorting it by points per game changes the list a bit:

Team Games Points PPG
Tampa Bay Rowdies 6 15 2.50
Hartford Athletic 4 10 2.50
Charlotte Independence 5 9 1.80
The Miami FC 6 9 1.50
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 6 7 1.17
New York Red Bulls II 6 5 0.63
Loudoun United FC 4 3 0.75
Charleston Battery 3 2 0.67

And the Central, which we all care about much more:

Team Games Points PPG
Birmingham Legion 7 13 1.86
Atlanta United 2 7 11 1.57
Indy Eleven 6 10 1.67
FC Tulsa 6 9 1.50
Louisville City FC 5 7 1.40
Sporting KC II 7 6 0.86
Memphis 901 FC 4 5 1.25
OKC Energy FC 7 4 0.57

Over to the West, here’s the Mountain Division, which changes considerably despite having one team less than the other divisions:

Team Games Points PPG
Rio Grande Valley FC 6 13 2.17
New Mexico United 6 10 1.67
San Antonio FC 6 9 1.50
El Paso Locomotive FC 4 6 2.00
Austin Bold FC 5 7 1.40
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC 4 4 1.00
Real Monarchs SLC 5 2 0.40

And finally the Pacific, also pretty changeable:

Team Games Points PPG
Phoenix Rising FC 6 13 2.17
LA Galaxy II 7 11 1.57
Tacoma Defiance 4 7 1.75
Sacramento Republic FC 6 7 1.17
Orange County SC 4 6 1.50
Oakland Roots 3 4 1.33
San Diego Loyal 6 4 0.67
Las Vegas Lights FC 5 3 0.60

The good news of course is that the Three Sparks stay top of the division under both points and PPG scenarios. In the Eastern Conference overall they are 2nd on points, but 3rd on PPG. Both still very good. In the league as a whole the Legion is tied for 2nd on points with Rio Grande Valley and Phoenix Rising, but drops to 6th place on PPG.

So let’s take this a step further. Now that we have a (relatively) valid means of truly comparing teams (which will improve as the season progresses, of course), we can now also compare the various divisions. To do that we need to calculate the standard deviation for each division. That metric measures how much each member of a set varies from the average value of that set. The lower the number, the less deviation from the mean in the set. The widest deviation is in the Atlantic, which is affected by the excellent Rowdies and the weak Battery. That SD comes out to 0.77. Next is the Mountain at 0.60, then the Pacific at 0.53. Last, then, is the Central at just 0.43.

All the SDs are less than 1, which means that they are all fairly tightly distributed. Which in turn can be interpreted to suggest that they are all very competitive. But none is more so than the Central, which is the only division with a standard deviation less than 0.5, sometimes viewed as a benchmark value.

So, if the Central is competitive, that also means it is tough. So for the Legion to be standing at the top of the division is already an achievement. That Louisville is currently out of the playoff spots by both measures is conversely a huge surprise. But this also means that there will be few easy games this season. And that means that the games should be all the more entertaining.

Which means that invite you should be making is all the more valuable.

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