Steve Fenn (Twitter) does the spreadsheets … so that your MLS team may suffer. :>
Over the first couple months of any league season anywhere, reasonable supporters take a wait and see attitude.
Sometimes clubs charge out of the gates with abandon, but their luck comes crashing down to earth under larger sample size.
Only two months later the club has ill-translated press releases on the firing of their popular (though a bit odd) coach, denials of ownership chaos and indifference, the few remaing supporters are in revolt, and the league seems to be plotting the best time for Westeros-style takeover.
OK, Chivas USA is an extreme example and no one’s advocating that the DJ at the Vergara family’s next fiesta start spinning The Rains of Castamere and lock the doors (Editor’s note: Just found out this was a Game of Thrones reference, that’s your mulligan Steve), but the point is that the second citizen of the Home Depot Center and other early outliers have settled into more sustainable positions at this time.
MLS is in a somewhat familiar table arrangement, with a couple clubs ahead of a large, a hard-to-differentiate pack of playoff contenders nipping at each others’ heels, with also-rans and true stragglers after that.
Now is the time to start handicapping the race for clubs’ desired outcomes.
Today the focus is on the basics. How many points will it probably take to secure a playoff spot in either conference, or for the truly ambitious, to lift the Supporters Shield?
A recent collaboration between Zach Slaton (The Beautiful Numbers Game) and Martin Eastwood (Pena.lt/y blog) is very useful for goal-setting here. Martin’s EI model has performed well in predicting EPL results and Zach has been working with on and writing about the application of this model to MLS.
To help us find realistic point targets for MLS clubs, Zach looked through EI simulations for the rest of this season and found that the most likely point total for the Supporters Shield runner up is 61, meaning that a club will likely need at least 62 points to secure the title.
Similarly, EI simulations show the 6th place clubs in the East and West will probably finish with 44 and 46 points, respectively. So, the East playoff point target is set at 45 and the West at 47.
Click here for interactive version (Editor’s note: totally worth the click) … which allows you to adjust point targets, and filter down to teams from just 1 conference. Shot data in supplemental tabs provided by American Soccer Analysis.
Here we have a visualization of the minimum points per game each club would need from this point on to be in contention for a playoff spot or the Supporters Shield. Each crest is sized based on playoff PPG needed minus their current PPG.
Any other Shield hopefuls need to both earn great results themselves, and Montreal and Dallas to both cool down considerably. Based on a shared penchant for close matches and uninspiring defensive records FCD and L’Impact may do so to some extent, but there’s a very respectable chance that one of them will emerge with the Shield.
The pack of 12 clubs after that are all in pretty good positions near each, giving neutrals hope of interesting playoff races a few months from now.
On the other end of the spectrum, DC United, Toronto, Chicago, Chivas USA, and San Jose all need a quick and consistent change of their fortunes to re-enter the playoff hunt. Luckily, the US Open Cup is still a possibility for all but TFC (obviously) and the Earthquakes (who still have the CONCACAF Champions League). Going beyond their slim playoff odds, all five of these clubs sadly have little more chance of winning the 2013 MLS Cup than do the New York Cosmos.
The biggest problem facing clubs already lagging behind their season goals at this point of the season is that it would be very challenging for them to maintain the pace that their circumstances require at this point. In 2011 and 2012, only 3 times did a club average 2.0 PPG or more over their last 20 matches. Interestingly, the Galaxy were two of those three examples.
What’s more, 18 of the 20 eventual playoff teams in 2011 and 2012 held one of the top 5 spots in their conference after 14 games. Fall is coming, the clubs have all taken significant steps toward their fate, and now it is up to them to change or maintain that course as needed.