Author Steve Fenn seeks clarity on the MLS playoff mixture.
With mere weeks left, MLS clubs’ regular aims are gaining a clearer focus.
Right now the New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and Real Salt Lake all have a realistic shot at the Supporters Shield. They are so close with so little time left that whenever one of them loses they will essentially leave the race.
Meanwhile the San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouvers Whitecaps, New England Revolution, and Chicago Fire would be content sneaking into the play-in game between the 4th and 5th seeds. In between, the LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Montreal Impact, Houston Dynamo, and Philadelphia Union are interesting in their own way. They certainly want to hold off the would-be playoff usurpers, and an immaculate run to the Shield is the ultimate goal, but mostly they should be jokeying to earn byes through top-3 seeding in their conference.
Seattle, Salt Lake, LA, Portland, and Colorado are all capable of landing with a bye or tumbling into the play-in game. Seattle still has pole position for the top spot, but Portland could take a commanding lead this weekend. RSL looks well-positioned for a bye, but overall these five clubs are way too close to call right now.
In the East, New York, Sporting KC, and Montreal are in good position for byes, but things can shift quickly, and Houston may well swoop in if one of them slips. This conference gets much more interesting with a focus on the bubble:
Philadelphia looks to be in solid position, but the Dynamo, Fire, and Revolution are locked in a dogfight for the fifth seed, and one or two of them could overtake the Union, too. Outside of the Supporters Shield, this is probably the most exciting race right now.
The Rapids’ loss in San Jose and the Whitecaps’ upset blowout in Seattle on Wednesday night reopened a Western playoff race that looked all but over. The main concern is still where RSL/PDX/LA/CO will finish relative to each other, but San Jose is now a legitimate threat and Colorado, and if the Whitecaps (tiny spec in the upper right of the graph) could crash the party if they win their last 2 fixtures.
Keep in mind that while each club’s position here is important, none of them are terribly stable for such a late date in the season. Looking over projections from Zach Slaton, Josh Y on Sounder at Heart and Sports Club Stats, it is striking that in the final month no one is locked into a particular playoff seed. Here is a visualization of Zach’s odds for each club to land in every possible table position:
The challenging part here is to resist the natural urge to seek out certainty in this graph.
While it certainly shows that some clubs are more likely to end up in a certain range of seeding, what’s most interesting is that no club is greater than 50% likely to land on a specific playoff seed. New York (still the only club to mathematically clinch a playoff spot!) and Kansas City will very likely be the top 2 in the East, but which will get the top spot is quite uncertain, and both could potentially tumble all the way to the play-in match. Every club with playoff possibility has a spread of at least 4 possible table positions in their conference. The lack of seeding certainty is driven by two factors:
1) Soccer results at any level are highly subject to randomness over 2-3 matches.
2) 1st through 5th place league-wide are only 0.05 PPG apart, while a still-tiny 0.11 PPG separates the 7th and 13th-best records in MLS.
One more illustration of just how difficult it is to predict this race. All 19 MLS teams have had more than 1 skid of 3-matches with 2 points or less. Oh, and the new US Open Cup champions, DC United, are the only side who hasn’t had a single 3-match stretch with 7-plus points. The table is closely pacsed and every team is capable of moving in either direction. Even the slightest upticks or slides driven by skill and luck, but mostly the later over 2-3 matches, will have major ramifications. Watching all these bubble teams sort things out should serve as a nicely dramatic preamble to the MLS Cup playoffs.
Per Slaton, there’s a 53.25% chance that at least 1 pair of Eastern clubs will finished tied on points for a playoff seed, while it’s 67.43% in the West. Keep the below tiebreakers in mind as the end of the season approaches quickly: