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Lineup changes show flexibility aids success over MLS, but at what cost?

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Spor

There's been some talk from sides across MLS -- including Real Salt Lake, certainly -- that the impact of having to switch personnel is a an undoubtedly negative one. On one hand, it's easy to find some logic to that -- it's never easier when your best players leave the lineup, at least in the short term. But the correlation between points and average changes is low -- as you can see in the chart below the table.

This data shows each team's lineup changes across the season, including in the playoffs.

Team Matches Avg. Std Dev Reg. Season Points
Chicago Fire .123411121121.34.12113231113222211 1.7 1.015 49
Chivas USA .443222345753313311423333..212331 2.69 1.4906 26
Colorado Rapids .11251.3322323124211211234.31243313 2.12 1.2001 51
Columbus Crew .1.1...2112131411241312.234.4...13 1.48 1.3491 41
D.C. United .2223.32153543542333536621441a65.3 3.39 2.1351 16
FC Dallas .22211...3324312332233332232124342 2.21 1.0828 44
Houston Dynamo ..3321.2211122211321211124332..221..2 1.56 1.0266 51
LA Galaxy .122334313232252.1..2142.145222212. 2.03 1.3593 53
Montreal Impact .1111134222324112321233..2.1325324 2.03 1.2371 49
New England Revolution .324322232341.133.464225..132.1.231. 2.11 1.5487 51
New York Red Bulls .31321212213432244.1.11121331142422 2.03 1.1674 59
Philadelphia Union .2.1311..2311.2.11221112.12.121332 1.3 0.9515 46
Portland Timbers ..21221..32.23333413223.23514.11111.. 1.72 1.344 57
Real Salt Lake ..1661322214512.26634455156212x831221 3.19 2.3643 56
San Jose Earthquakes ..122213112421133352333.3123321225 2.18 1.2107 51
Seattle Sounders FC .4344244323423123432.441411324615124 2.86 1.375 52
Sporting Kansas City ..223....44421243121213.2434514224232 2.19 1.4505 58
Toronto FC .1.12321221121124223.2.23144331242 1.94 1.144 29
Vancouver Whitecaps .2113134325522. 2.09 1.4001 48

Key: .-- no players changed; x--ten changes; a--all players changed

What this means for Real Salt Lake, then, is not that it's wrong to be upset about some of the absences through the season that impacted our play. But it's worth considering that lineup changes impacted every team in different ways, and that each team responds differently to it. Of course, this raw look at lineup changes doesn't speak to whether those changes were forced or entirely voluntarily, but quantifying that is a difficult task at any rate.

You do see that, of the teams to have made the playoffs, Real Salt Lake averaged the most lineup changes through the season (3.19), and Houston Dynamo averaged the least (1.56). The Dynamo are nearly within a single standard deviation (0.55) of the average (2.15), while Real Salt Lake are just within two standard deviations of the mean. In fact, the only outlier is D.C. United, outside two standard deviations at 3.39 average lineup changes over the season.

We might suppose that Portland Timbers can owe some of their recent success (I say smirking, but only a little) to a low number of changes late in the season. But by the same token, some of Real Salt Lake's most successful matches came with more changes than that. Further investigation is certainly necessary.

These numbers don't mean everything, but they certainly mean something. At the very least, it grounds some concerns and raises others. An examination of a less parity-driven league would be elucidative.

From Real Salt Lake's perspective, we can even use these numbers as illustrations of the fact that we've been growing a deeper squad over the season, and that this has enabled us to be successful in spite of our numerous changes. Is it a measure of coping mechanisms? It's difficult to say definitively, but there's hardly any point denying that we have a deep squad, with which we've been successful in the long run.