This article will focus on the official MLS Fantasy game strategy. I will teach you my proven tips for success in the game. In addition, I will reveal my method of predicting a player’s expected points, which was key to my accomplishments. For strategy specific to draft leagues, please see the Ultimate Guide to MLS Draft Fantasy Strategy.
About the Author
Jeff M. Jones (aka Field Projections) is one of the most successful MLS fantasy managers. He won the overall MLS fantasy league in 2021, 2nd place in 2020, as well as four other top 10 finishes. In addition, he has won several competitive MLS fantasy draft leagues over the years.
A Lesson in Probability
I like to think of MLS fantasy as a bunch of dice rolls. In your first 4 rolls, you would expect the total to add up to 14 (3.5 per roll). However, if you have bad luck the total could add up to only 4 or if you have amazing good luck it could add up to 24. Nevertheless the more times you roll the dice, the closer the average of your rolls will be 3.5. This is the law of large numbers.
Of course, the average points a fantasy player gets is not as consistant as the average value of a dice roll, but the analogy still applies. Some players are just better at scoring fantasy points than others so their expected points are higher. On a given week, a player with a 7.5 average can get a 2 and a player with a 4.0 average can get a 12. Inevitably, over the course of the season, both players will end up regressing to their means, despite the fact that soccer, especially MLS, is highly unpredictable week to week. If your player doesn’t do well it doesn’t necessarily mean you made the wrong pick. It could just be bad luck.
Over the course of the season, like the dice regress to the average, your luck in the fantasy game theoretically evens out. Throughout the MLS fantasy season, 319 of your player picks will be counted (11 starters x 29 weeks). Including substitutes, you will likely be picking over 400 players. One player scoring a hat trick is not going to make or break your season. However, averaging just one point per player more than other managers can add up to over 300 more points on the season.
Because of this large sample size games, it is not completely luck certain managers finish in the top 50 year after year. They have a system, whether mathematical or not to make good educated guesses about how many points a player could score. It is to your advantage to always put the players with the highest expected points in your team. It might not work out on a specific week, but over the course of a season it will pay dividends.
In the official MLS fantasy game, there are 7 true starters every week, because the other 4 can be switched out for high scoring players on the bench. One of these starters needs to be a defender, since the rules do not allow teams to have three defenders on the bench.
I go through the same rigorous process every week to pick my starters. First, I calculate the amount of expected points for each player. To do this, I make a list of the players with the highest averages at each position, while filtering out players that had fluke games. Then I subtract points from that average based on whether they are home or away. Finally, I look at their opponents and add or subtract points based on how favorable the matchup is likely to be. If two players have similar scores it is better to take midfielders and guys that take more set pieces, since they are more consistent. For the exact process and numbers, based on historical averages, please see the article about expected points projection.
Choosing bench / switcheroo options
Filling your bench spots with viable options to play a switcheroo is critical to MLS fantasy success. Soccer can be quite unpredictable on a week to week basis. Therefore, it’s important to give your team as many chances as possible, even if it means spreading your budget thinner. You never know when a player might only score a 2, get injured, or even get a red card.
Most of the season you will not have enough budget to roster all the top players. These 4 bench spots and 4 potential switcheroo options are a place to save money so you can afford higher priced starters. Selecting the most points efficient players that play regularly can help optimize your lineup. When making the efficiency calculation, remember that a 4.0 player actually costs 0 and a 5.0 player costs 1 point, since even a scrub costs 4.0.
Defenders and forwards are really good choices for switcheroos. Since forwards often get only 2 points, it is worth it to hedge your bets even on really good forwards. Defenders, especially fullbacks, are a good choice too. They have the biggest downside since they get carded more often and get penalized if they concede more than 2 goals.
So what bench score is good enough to keep? Typically a player with a score of 5 or more is worth keeping. However, if you want to take some more risk, you could even not keep a 5, only if you have the budget and a really good option to replace them with. In this case, consult the expected points tables to see if your replacement has higher expected points than a 5.
Setting the formation
Having a particular formation is not especially important. That being said, in most cases a 5 midfielder formation tends to be best. There are more midfielders with high averages than other positions, so it usually works out this way. Furthermore midfielders tend to have a high floor so there is not as much downside as a defender who could get a red card or a forward that only gets a two because they get few bonus points.
Picking a captain
Captain picks are not as important as they might seem. Even if you captain a player that most managers are not captaining, they are highly likely to be at least on their teams. Captaining a player that is not highly owned is a mistake. This might work out for you one week, but it is not a strategy to consistent success. In addition, not owning a player that many people are captaining is extremely risky. Even if that player does not play well, there is no guarantee your replacement player will fair any better.
Building the Budget
One strategy fantasy managers employ is to focus on building their budget in the beginning of the year, so that when player values rise, their budget is larger and they can afford better and more expensive players. If a player has a huge week the week before, their value continues to rise in later weeks. Many fantasy managers add these players to their team to gain these price rises.
Budget building is not something I have personally focused on. I normally just focus on putting players with the highest expected points in the lineup each week. Of course, budget building is important, but if you are making good selections, your budget is going to rise anyway. Don’t shy away from a player that had a bad previous week in fear of losing budget. However, if two players have a similar expected value of points, then picking a player that is more likely to gain value than to lose value is absolutely preferred.
Focusing exclusively on goals, assists, and clean sheets
The MLS fantasy game scoring is beautiful because it rewards players for not only goals, assists, and clean sheets, but also creating scoring chances, passing accurately, and making defensive actions. Points are points, whether they come in the form of scoring or other more subtle ways. Yes, forwards are often the most likely players to score, but they also tend not to get a lot of bonus points under this particular scoring system. A forward with a goal scores only one less point than a midfielder with a clean sheet, three chances created, three crosses, and six defensive recoveries.
Getting discouraged in the beginning by mediocre results
Many people quit playing after the first few weeks, when they are not one of the top scoring teams. This leads to only a thousand people being truly active by the end of the season. The fantasy game is a marathon, not a sprint. It rewards managers that consistently active throughout the season, even though all your moves may not work out. You do not need to be perfect to win the game, believe me. I made several embarrassing errors in the year I won the overall game.
Overreacting to one week’s results
Many times fantasy managers will get frustrated with a certain player based on a poor game they played. The sample size of one game is too low to know whether it is truly a significant dip in form or not. Sometimes players getting hot or cold is just a result of good matchups.
Not checking lineups before games
Many times players have unexpected injuries in practice or suspensions. MLS injury reports are a complete joke. The MLS can put the schedule of games on your phone and alert you before they start. You do not need to watch all the games, but you should consistently check all lineups. Usually they are out quickest on Twitter, within 45 minutes before game time. It is good to have an ordered list of players to add in if one of your starters is not playing, so you can remain calm and not need to scramble to do research before the game.
Playing differentials just to be different from other teams
Hoping to gain ranks quickly through adding lowly owned players can backfire. Like I said before, this game is a marathon, not a sprint. Run your own race. Put yourself in the best position to maximize the expected points you get each week. In most cases, differentials just make your team worse. It allows other managers own objectively better players. Let others make this mistake. It might not be the most fun way to play but it can be very effective.
Getting hung up on specific details of matchups
Sometimes managers will see a team has a defensively weak fullback and put in a specific player to take advantage of this good matchup. Soccer is highly unpredictable. Teams scout themselves and try to compensate for their weaknesses. I would focus on how good a team’s overall defense is rather than a specific player. I truly do not know much about soccer tactics, but I still managed to do well in fantasy without this knowledge.
Strategy for Double Game Weeks
Double game weeks are super important because you can make up or lose a lot of ground on them. Prioritize players that have a high chance of starting both games. Players with double home games are less likely to rotate. Double away teams often rotate. Pay attention to whether the manager typically does a lot of rotation or not. Some older players tend to get breaks during these weeks. If a player doesn’t start both games it is a huge disadvantage.