At least it isn’t 2011, the year of the plague of scoreless draws in MLS. A small comfort to fans of LA Galaxy, the 5-time MLS Cup winners, who were treated to a bad news comes in threes rule yesterday (link to article/podcast) capping off a calamitous month. For a team with a league high tie of 13 draws, when it comes to the scoreless draw, or a tie in general, has there been a psychological element to the streaks of them? Depends who you ask.
This past weekend, LA Galaxy extended their unbeaten home record to 6-0-7 with a 0-0 tie against Vancouver. The last time LA pulled 3 points at home was July 15th against Houston Dynamo. Coincidentally, they also rallied for beautiful a 4-1 away win in Houston in mid-June. But the downtrodden and injury-plagued 5-time champions who gathered up wins against rivals Seattle, Portland, Vancouver in league play plus a decent U.S. Open Cup run in July are a distant memory. Even the usually unflappable Bruce Arena conceded after last Saturday’s fourth scoreless draw of the season (third at home), “So we’ve got to be a bit sharper and the final product has to be a little bit better. The crossing is not good, the timing of our runs. And when you’ve got a shot, you’ve got to take it. We don’t shoot enough, but we’ve got to get a little bit better there.”
This is not the late summer that fans anticipated after the international season that not only broke up the building dynamic between key goal-scorers Gyasi Zardes and Giovani dos Santos, but also took their goal-king Robbie Keane away for a Euro he hardly took part in. As of now, in MLS, only Orlando joins LA with 13 draws this season. Compared to 2011 when 41% of all games played (across all teams) were draws and 11.6% of games were scoreless draws, the four scoreless draws by the Galaxy this season seems inconsequential. Yet, the math is indisputable, with 4 of the 7 draws dropping crucial home points as goal-scoring matches, it could have made a difference at this junction where a doubtful runoff to the playoffs looms ahead.
There’s something comforting about the indecisive nature of a draw. The Galaxy have lost just one game in their last twelve. They are also winless in 6. Out of 9 possible points over an 8-day period, LA secured 3. There’s a way to make everything sound better (or conversely, worse) than it really is. When examining the implications a draw has on the outcome of the next match, it’s important to study it within its context. If the draw results as a well-fought comeback on the road, understandably there’s an element of celebration. If the draw results from a loss in a momentary lapse at home, either in the early minutes or final moments, it’s a loss. The 0-0 draw at home, against a relatively weak Vancouver defense, wasn’t a positive outcome for Alan Gordon, after dropping points in NYCFC and drawing against Chicago in a high goal-scoring match.
“It’s frustrating; we’re kind of stalled right now, can’t get anything going offensively. It’s a little bit frustrating; this feels like a loss, we need points. We’re at home and all you can do is look at some film and rally together; we can’t let this bring us down,” Gordon reflects. “At the end of the day it is a point, everything is going to be close at the end and we have to move forward and get ready for a tough game next weekend.”
Sport psychologists and others have spent decades examining both perceptions of psychological momentum and the impact it may play on outcome and performance of both teams and of individuals. Engineers, mathematicians, physicists and ethicists have also tried taking a stab using models to predict outcome versus expected outcomes. Yet, time and time again, they point to a problem when it comes to the scoreless draw – it confounds most models and it occurs, on average, across many leagues between 7 and 10%. It’s therefore hard to ignore. In one mathematical study of the Bundesliga, researchers chose to measure goal difference in a game (not as a cumulative score) averaged throughout a season in order to derive a real-time ‘fitness’ score that could predict the behavior in their next match. The greater the fitness, the more chances for goal scoring and winning. In this model, home advantage is considered a team-independent, season-dependent constant. What the researchers discovered was that the fitness level for a team was fairly constant in a given season. When applying this to LA Galaxy’s season to date, what one sees is a drop-off in team fitness corresponding to a sharp dropoff in the month of June, followed by a slow, steady incline in July (as expected) and then a negation of that in August. Essentially, putting the Galaxy at a low point today. Add to that, the effect of actual injuries and the trade of Nigel de Jong, this is almost a worst-case scenario when compared to the 2014 Cup winning season.
In the Bundesliga study the actual number of goals in a match fits as Poissonian processes, meaning the events occur randomly and, for the most part, independently of each other. But it’s also true the study has limitations when it comes to draws (all draws) and the Galaxy have a strikingly high number this season.
“The agreement with the actual data is perfect within statistical error if analyzing the goals per team,” lead author Heuer clarifies. “When analyzing the distribution of goal differences, one observes too many draws. This shows that the assumption of independent Poisson processes is not correct in cases where the goal difference is -1, 0, or 1. This points to interesting psychological effects, favoring a draw.”
As we can see, -1, 0 or 1 occurs with a high frequency with the Galaxy this season, 21 already, while there were 22 all regular season in 2014. If we are to assume we can discount the majority of those in detecting a predictable behavior, other factors must come into play.
One possibility to help explain this is the idea of psychological momentum, explored by many psychologists but not yet enough to come across a definitive answer. The notion leaves the field divided, many describing it as a cognitive illusion (Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 475-485 1997). The problem with objective approaches is that they don’t take into account the perceptions of the athlete. In the antecedents-consequences model, the extent of influence psychological momentum has on performance depends on factors like motivation, stress levels, environment (crowd behavior), the opponent factors and even the experience level of an athlete, with seasoned professionals being able to better interrupt and manipulate momentum sequences. In soccer, that can play out as changes in tactics like parking the bus and controlling the pace of the match.
An inability to cope with the psychological impact of a draw may impart difficulties in the following event. In 2016, LA Galaxy have had two somewhat continuous streaks of draws, the first in June, and the next beginning at the end of July. The first streak in May and June was interrupted with a loss on June 18 and scoreless ties (June 2 and June 22), and includes matches where LA’s opponent had to score the comeback goal for the tie. But, interestingly, the streak in the month of August has had one common thread, the LA comeback. On July 31st, August 7, August 13 and on August 24, LA was forced to dig deep to score the final goal.
Bottom line, when taking into consideration how the past predicts the future, the human element of how comeback draws and losses impact immediate future performances cannot be completely predicted nor can their relevancy be discounted yet. It could all just be coincidental but this season we see a downward trend in the Galaxy’s performance that correlates to the pressure of a comeback.
“I think ties are mostly the product of a low-scoring sport. The dominant team doesn’t always win in soccer, more so than in any other sport, and tactical considerations (especially playing on the road, and the nature of most soccer competitions, as tables as opposed to playoffs) play a huge role in this.” – Scott French, FourFourTwo USA
One reason draws may have confounded models of prediction and team fitness is because taking into account the nature of the draw and the past experiences of prior draws plays a role in the psychology of the player and of the team. When experiencing these potential streaks, addressing the issue at a team level must therefore include mental preparation, something that seasoned athletes learn over time.
*Please note this is only my attempt at trying to make some sense of the draws that have occurred this season, along with a comeback to draw phenomenon. It’s just one of many possible theories.