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Substitution patterns: How RSL compares to the rest of MLS

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When you put numbers behind RSL’s substitution pattern, is the lack of subs as bad as RSL fans think it is? Spoiler alert: Pretty much, yeah.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It happens every match. At around the 65 minute mark I send out a tweet that goes something like, “Hey RSL Coaching Staff, a sub right now would be really great #scheduledtweet”. Now it isn’t really a scheduled tweet, that is just me trying to be funny. But the lack of subs is something that seems to be a growing frustration in the RSL fan base.

I started wondering if this was really a thing. Does the team use less subs than other teams? Or does it just feel that way looking through RSL colored glasses? Is the emotion of the game affecting our perception of what is really happening? That is why I like looking at the stats. While they don’t tell the whole story, stats are emotionless. They are what they are.

With that in mind, I started digging into the numbers. I looked at every MLS match that has happened to this point and recorded every substitute that had taken place. With this information in hand, I compiled two pieces of data.

First I looked at, on average, how many substitute minutes were being used by each team. The other thing I was curious about was what time period in the game the first substitute was used. I felt that with these two pieces of data I could get a sense if RSL really used fewer subs then other teams.

Before diving into the numbers let me point out one thing. We are still early in the season. The sample size is small. Because of this, outliers can have a greater effect on the numbers than they will later on in the season. But with that being said, I was still interested and felt that five games worth of data for RSL was enough to move forward with the exercise.

The first thing that I looked at was how many substitute minutes were being used each game. After five games RSL has used 249 total substitute minutes or 49.8 substitute minutes per game (SMpG). This ranks dead last in the league for SMpG. The next highest team is Colorado using 52.3 SMpG. The league wide average for SMpG is 79.5. For those interested the leader is Toronto with 118.3 SMpG.

The other piece of data that I looked at was when the first sub was being used. It just felt to me that the opponent is always making subs before RSL does. Again the numbers prove this to be true. RSL averages making their first sub at the 66.8 minute mark. This ranks 25th in the league. The league wide average for the first sub to be used is at the 59.4 minute mark. The New York Red Bulls are the team that, on average, makes the earliest sub at the 48 minute mark.

The numbers show that RSL subs come on later than other teams and in total aren’t on the field as long as other teams. But these numbers really could be even more drastic than they already are. RSL does have an outlier. In the game against Kansas City, Aaron Herrera had to come out in the first half due to injury. He actually came out in the 30th minute of the match. That number drives down both stats being looked at. Without that sub, both numbers would be much higher.

The question has to be asked is the lack of substitutes something new or historically has this always been the case? Thankfully we have some answers for that as well. I was provided the substitution data for the 2020 season from my friend Brady Ulloa (@bradyulloa on Twitter, give him a follow) so I was able to compare this season to last.

In 2020, the team used 65.78 SMpG. That is 16 more SMpG compared to this season. While that is still on the lower half of the league average, it would move the team up to 19th in SMpG if they were using subs at last year’s rate. The team averaged using it’s first sub at the 62 minute mark which is also earlier than what is occurring this season.

The next question that will be asked is why? Is there a reason that the team is reluctant to use substitutes? Is there a philosophical reason behind the decision? Or perhaps a lack of faith for the bench players? Those are answers that I do not have. But one thing for sure is that there is something going on here. It is not just our emotions seeing an issue that isn’t really there.

Perhaps I should schedule that Tweet for Saturday after all…