On Saturday, the Philadelphia Union beat the Montreal Impact 2-1 on a stoppage-time goal from Carlos Valdes. It was the 21st match of the season for Montreal, while Philadelphia were one of the three clubs to reach the midway point of 17 matches over the weekend.
Despite this disparity, if you go to any sports site in search of MLS standings (or table if you’re feeling Euro-snobbish), you’ll see all clubs ranked by total points.
At a glance this gives the mistaken impression that the Impact and their 21 points through 21 matches are having a better season than Union’s 20 out of 17.
When you look closer, it’s clear the Impact have had a far worse season so far, and face nearly impossible playoff prospects, while the Union have a fighter’s chance at the postseason.
To make this clearer, we should look at soccer leagues through a truer reflection of performance, points per game (PPG).
This is doubly true for a league like MLS with unbalanced schedules and an odd number of teams (and the resulting weekly byes).
Not only do PPG standings better illustrate clubs’ records thus far, but a simple secondary calculation can show you how much better they would have to be (or for the better half, how much dropoff they must avoid) to reach the playoffs.
PPG = points/games played
GDPG = goal differential/games played
I left the points only ranking so that you may see which clubs are ordered differently by ppg.
As you can see this metric corrects the order of every team outside of playoff positions, bar last-no-matter-how-you-slice-it Toronto FC.
Along with correcting the rank of clubs, this table also serves as a warning against holding onto the sometimes false hope of how many of points back your club stands.
To better convey the work still needed for clubs to reach the playoffs, the final column presents points per game needed over the rest of the season to have an honest chance at a postseason spot.
Remember that this season MLS simplified the format so that the top 5 in each conference make the playoffs.
n46 = ppg needed in remaining matches to reach 46 points total
n48 = ppg needed in remaining matches to reach 48 points total
Why list n46 for the West and n48 for the East?
The projections of Sports Club Stats put every Western clubs’ playoff odds above 50% if they reach 46 points, while Eastern clubs need 48 to reach that probability.
Sports Club Stats simulate the remaining matches millions of times, apply tiebreakers, and give an exhaustive report of probabilities for end-of-season standings given various outcomes.
The simulations are a bit crude, and don’t take injuries, acquisitions, suspensions, etc. into account.
In the large scale, though, these projections do a good enough job to set expectations. Obviously, if two of LA, Chivas, and Colorado do very well from this point on, the Western Conference playoff goal will be higher than 46.
But for now, 46 in the West and 48 in the East are reasonable standards.
For a final illustration, let’s bring this back to the Impact and the Union.
Ranked by points alone, Montreal are ahead, and “only” 7 points behind 5th place Houston, while Philadelphia are 8 points back.
The PPG standings adjust for games in hand and show that the Impact would need an Earthquake-ian pace of 2.08 for a shot at the playoffs, while the Union would put themselves in a good position with a much more manageable 1.65 ppg.
Here’s a google doc link to the PPG standings
(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to the MLS Table. ANTIQUATED! )