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Winners and Losers of the new USL League One Season Structure

A heavily imbalanced schedule could decide which teams get a chance at a championship

USL League One released info about how the 2020 season will be played on July 2nd. I recommend clicking that link for details, but the high level summary is as follows:

  • Starting July 18th, the league will play a 20-game, 15-week regular season that concludes in late October;
  • Each club is assigned a “regional rival” (in practice, not necessarily regional) with whom they will play four games in the regular season – two home and two away;
  • Each club is assigned an omitted opponent with whom they will not play in the regular season;
  • Of the nine remaining possible opponents, each club will play a home-and-home series against seven;
  • Each club will play the final two possible opponents on its schedule in the final two weeks of the season in one home game and one away game;
  • The top two sides from this abbreviated season will meet in a league final held in that big cage from those Nike commercials (or in the higher-seeded team’s home venue – the league didn’t specify).

Clear? Good. The biggest takeaway from a competitive perspective is that this is not a balanced schedule. Unlike in most soccer leagues (notably not MLS), each team in USL1 will not play everyone else an equal number of times. This means some teams will have easier schedules, and some harder, and yet points from easier matches count the same as points from harder matches in the final standings to make it to the league final. There are three places from which this imbalance arises: (1) the regional rival, (2) the omitted opponent, and (3) the two season-ending opponents with whom the club will only play one game in the regular season.

Per the release, we know (1) and (2) for each club, but we don’t know (3) yet, so let’s think about those first two in isolation. In practice, each club is “trading” two games against the omitted opponent for two games against the regional rival. If you’re trading hard games for easy games, your schedule will be easier, and vice versa.

This graphic is meant to show how those trades are laid out across the league. Two clubs connected by a green line are regional rivals and two clubs connected by a red line are omitted opponents. Note that “team quality” as referenced above to organize the clubs is purely the opinion of this writer, taking into account all the work I did looking into how team’s rosters have changed since last we saw USL1.

It’s rough, but generally speaking, a team “won the trade” if their red line connects to the top of the circle and their green line connects to the bottom. TFC II, The Fighting Beckhams of Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando City B did the best on that count, to my eye. North Texas SC is also a winner (to a lesser degree) by this same mechanism: FC Tucson is in the midst of a pivot to being a true second team for Phoenix Rising, while The Kickers are in win-now mode.

Alternatively, if the green line connects to the top but the red line connects to the bottom, your schedule is harder than average. Bummer for Forward Madison, Chattanooga, and Union Omaha (do I smell a conspiracy theory whereby the schedulers favored the second teams of bigger clubs over independents???? Do your work, internet).

As for the two season-ending opponents, we don’t know them yet, but the logic will be similar. Teams that avoid having to play Greenville, TFC II, Tormenta, and other good teams twice have an advantage. Teams that lose the opportunity to play Fort Lauderdale or Tucson or Orlando City B or other bad teams twice are at a disadvantage.