Steve Fenn seeking to normalizing club abilities as the campaign closes.
The 2012 MLS season has reached a point where every playoff-realist (save Supporter’s Shield favorite San Jose) is to some extent dependent on the clubs around them for their final seeding. Some matches mean decidedly less to one of the combatants than they do to those closest to their opponent in the table. This was the case in Sunday’s biggest results, where Colorado’s draw with Vancouver and Philadelphia’s win over Houston were enormous outcomes for Dallas and Columbus, respectively. This dynamic will be echoed whenever an essentially-eliminated club squares off with one in the conference top 6. Given the closeness of so many of the top 6 in both conferences, this interdependency will likely be a major variable going forward, and strength of schedule could be a huge determining factor in these races.
To gauge strength of schedule, we can look at the goal differential (GD) of everyone’s opponents, weighted for home field advantage. Doing so is relatively easy once you calculate the average home vs away score in MLS this season, and tack that goal differential onto every matchup. The average score this season has been Home 1.60 vs Away 1.07, so I adjusted every matchup plus or minus 0.53 goals based on location. Here is the current MLS table by points per game, with the first two tiebreakers (goals scored and GD) per game, and strength of schedule per game:
Keep in mind that strength of schedule is that club’s remaining opponents’ average GD, adjusted for location. The clubs with the lowest number have the easiest path. The differences here should partially shape numerous tight races for seeding within the top 6 of both conferences. Houston and Columbus will face two of the three easiest slates the rest of the way as they jockey for the last Eastern playoff spot. Out West, Vancouver has the easiest schedule and FC Dallas has a difficult stretch. If the red stripes and/or the Whitecaps don’t defy home field expectations, FCD’s solid recent run may only leave them as one of the best clubs to miss the postseason this year.
Is 4-6 matches too small of a sample for strength of schedule and home field advantage to accurately predict stretch run outcomes, though?
For comparables, I looked to leagues in Europe with respectable (if not MLS-level) parity, who are very early in their seasons. Ligue 1 has played 6 matches thus far and the English Championship have played 7. I calculated home and road goal differential per game for the 20 French clubs and 24 English clubs in those leagues. Of those 44 clubs, only four had GD away from home, with nine other clubs at zero or slightly above in their home advantage. It has to be noted that this does not take strength of schedule into account, and more exhaustive studies would have to be performed to reach any definitive conclusions on short-term home advantage.
However, all the surface facts point to LA Galaxy, DC United, and FC Dallas being at a significant disadvantage to their closest competitors based solely on their fixtures between now and the end of the season on October 28th. They will have to buck the odds in order to avoid disadvantageous 4th and 6th seeds in their conferences. Of course, the game isn’t played on paper and it’s certainly possible one or two of them will overcome, but the circumstances of their schedules can’t be overlooked when evaluating likely outcomes for the remainder of the season.