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Jeremy Foote

I'm a PhD candidate, studying Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University

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I'm a big fan of the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake. The team's season just ended in a pretty pathetic fashion, without even making it into the playoffs.

At the end of a poor season, fans look look for lots of reasons for the failure - was it the manager? Injuries? Players not playing as well as they should?

One often overlooked aspect is the role of luck in results. Soccer is a low-scoring game, where each team works hard to have just a few good opportunities per game to score a goal.

In this situation, luck seems like it could play a big part in results. To look into this, I built this super simple simulation of a soccer season.

It simulates N games between 2 teams. Obviously, in a real season the opponents would change, but this simplified simulation still proves the point. Each team has a given number of opportunities to score, with a given probability of scoring in each opportunity.

Even if both teams are evenly matched, there is a huge variation in how a season will end. In my default scenario, teams have 4 chances to score with a 50% chance of scoring each time. As you can see in the graph below, in 500 simulated seasons, the result of luck can be huge, with huge point differences between the best and worst seasons.

You can adjust the settings below, and see how they change the results.