We all realize that the Republic took somewhat of a step back from 2014 to 2015. Not only was there a disappointing exit in the first round of playoffs to Los Dos — something not entirely unexpected seeing as the home team has won only three matchups all time between the two teams — but they also dropped nine points overall in points gained, allowed 3 more goals and scored 6 fewer goals.
Looking beyond those first numbers, there are three other patterns that help to explain the drop-off. This piece is the first of a three-part series covering each of those patterns, starting now with the simplest one: the increased strength of the Republic's USL opponents from 2014 to 2015.
The teams that returned to the USL Western Conference from 2014 made the following improvements or regressions in total points in 2015: Orange County Blue gained 19 points, Oklahoma City Energy gained 15, Arizona United dropped 1 point, Los Angeles Galaxy II dropped 6 and Sacramento Republic dropped 9. Excluding Sacramento, the returning teams averaged 6.75 points more than the 2014 season.
These four opponents made up ten games in Sacramento’s season. If you spread the 6.75 points over the 28 game regular season, Sacramento would gain 0.22 points per match less against those sides. Over 10 games, that accounts for 2.2 points. Those points make up the difference from Sacramento's 4th place finish last season to what would have been 1st. In a tight race, even improvements that add up to only a few results can be the difference between a first round bye and a first round loss.
The overall difficulty of the West increased as well, although the change was not massive. In 2015 the average USL opponent Sacramento faced averaged just short of 39 points. In 2014, the average Sacramento opponent averaged barely 38 points. If the average opponent was one point better, again if you spread that change in opponent strength over the season, it would account for a drop of one point from Sacramento at the end of the season.
All of these stats combine to form the final measuring stick to show how much the competition for Sacramento improved from 2014 to 2015. In 2014, the average team that Sacramento played averaged 1.35 points gained per match. In 2015 this number increased to 1.37 points gained per match. The difference in points gained per match is again nearly one full point at the end of the season.
Even though that may only account for one point, examination of playoff teams shows that Sacramento also played a more top heavy schedule in 2015 as compared to 2014. In 2014 Sacramento played 11 matches against teams that qualified for the playoffs in the 26 games — the 2 matches against Colorado Rapids Reserves and Chivas USA Reserves are being ignored because they could not qualify for the playoffs. In 2015 that number increased to 13 games against playoff teams in 28 matches. That makes for a total increase from 42.3% of matches against playoff teams in 2014 to 46.4% matches against playoff teams in 2015. The total matches played against strong teams went up, which you would expect to account for a drop in total points from Sacramento.
The league as a whole improved, and when the rest of the league improves, it's fair to expect the teams at the top of the table to take a step back. Only one team who recorded at least 40 points in 2014 improved in the 2015 season (Charleston Battery) and five of the 2014 playoff teams had fewer points in 2015.
This is the first part of a three part series taking a look at some of the numbers that help explain some of the regression that Sacramento saw between the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Next time we will concentrate on the difference between the two years of games that were decided by only one goal.