When the 2016 USL schedule dropped last week, one question that quickly came to my mind was whether or not it was a favorable one for Sacramento. There are a few things to think of when trying to answer that question: strength of schedule, the number of 2015 playoff teams on the Republic's schedule, and how good the new USL squads are going to be.
The easiest and most basic thing to look at is the number of playoff teams that the Republic will face this year. The team will match up against a 2015 playoff team 13 times this season, tied for the most in the Western Conference and the second highest in the USL as a whole. While this may seem like a high number of games (and it is on the high end), it is not much beyond what I had expected.
There are 14 teams not named Sacramento Republic in the USL West, and 5 of them made the playoffs in 2015. That is about 35% of all potential opponents, which if all teams were equally likely to be drawn would put Sacramento between 10 and 11 expected games against playoff teams. This is not due to bad luck, but simply bad geography. Being as close to Los Dos and Orange County as Sacramento is, they would be expected to play them more.
The opposite end of this spectrum is Oklahoma City Energy, who only have 7 matches against 2015 playoff teams. However, time will tell if that is a good or bad draw, due to them having 10 matches against new USL teams. If Swope Park Rangers, RGVFC Toros and San Antonio come into the league like Sacramento did in 2014 and Louisville did in 2015, OKC may be in for a long year. At least here in Sacramento we know what we are getting.
While looking at the number of playoff teams on the schedule is interesting, a better overall metric is comparing Sacramento's strength of schedule to the expected strength of schedule playing USL West teams at random.
As a quick side note, I am big believer in looking at points per game over total points over the course of a season. By doing that, it is easier to see how individual teams are progressing, even if they have played a different number of games as their competitors.
To take into account the addition of the three new teams to the USL, I gave them the same amount of points gained per match as the average USL West team in 2015, which meant essentially adding 3 more Tulsa Roughnecks to the equation. With that, we would expect the Republic to play a team with an average points gained per game of 1.385. Looking at the Republic's schedule, we can see that they are expected to play a team averaging 1.381 points per game. This is the third most on point schedule in the entire USL, behind expansion teams Cincinnati FC and Orlando City B in the East.
What this means is, Sacramento and their luck will largely depend on how much teams have improved or regressed from last year, and how much that impacts their strength of schedule. We cannot say that they should have a good year filled with easy teams or that they will have a more difficult season that is riddled with tough matchups.
The high number of 2015 playoff teams is counterbalanced by what should be easier matches. This is in stark contrast to teams with the most fortunate draws, such as the Richmond Kickers out in the East or Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in the West. It also shows that Sacramento is far luckier than teams who had bad draws, such as the Wilmington Hammerheads in the East, who are in the unenviable position as the most unfortunate team of the 2016 season, having to follow up a disappointing 2016 campaign with the hardest strength of schedule in the league.
It is worth noting that these numbers are all based on results from the 2015 season, making this all simply a baseline. As previously noted, great performances by expansion teams may torpedo OKC Energy before the season even starts. On the other side of the coin, if a team like Orange County reverts back to their 2014 form, those like Republic and Los Dos are going to be major beneficiaries in their strength of schedule.
I will continue to post updates on this periodically throughout the season, but for now, be happy. Or at least be content. Sacramento is not in an uphill battle before the season has started and are in control of their own destiny. If you want to call that good luck or bad luck you can, but I call it an opportunity to prove their own merits with no excuses.