MLS: Predicting the Eastern Conference Playoffs

MONTREAL, QC - AUGUST 17: Montreal Impact midfielder Lassi Lappalainen (21) celebrates his goal during the FC Dallas versus the Montreal Impact game on August 17, 2019, at Stade Saputo in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - AUGUST 17: Montreal Impact midfielder Lassi Lappalainen (21) celebrates his goal during the FC Dallas versus the Montreal Impact game on August 17, 2019, at Stade Saputo in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

MLS is entering the final months of the regular season. While there is still plenty of time for clubs to make a run, who will rise to the occasion in the tightly congested Eastern Conference? Here, we delve into the numbers to have a look.

Major League Soccer is entering the final two months of the season. Five Eastern Conference clubs are currently vying for the last few playoff positions with only two points separating them. Even though there is still plenty of time for clubs to make a late-season push, assessing the current outlook for the playoff hopefuls provides insight into the challenges that remain.

This article utilizes Jeff Sagarin’s Major League Soccer Ratings Model to measure the teams most likely to reach the playoffs. In Sagarin’s statistical model, he combines three methods of measurement for the final rating: Predictor, Golden Mean, and Recent. As such, to attain the projected victory in each of the remaining club’s matches, this assessment follows Sagarin’s recommendation for predicting future outcomes:

[(team’s rating – opponent’s rating) +/- .58] = predictor outcome

(The .58 represents Sagarin’s prescribed goals for home-field advantage and is either added or subtracted to the rating based on whether the team being tested is home or away)

A team is given a win if the result from the equation above is positive and a loss if the result is negative. The complete statistics can be found in the charts below. It is more important, however, to assess the average rating for the club’s opponents as well as the average result from the tests to conclude the difficulty for the clubs striving for postseason play.

These projected scores are meant to provide a glimpse to the future for each team and do not necessarily imply that the match is a guaranteed win or loss. The application of wins and losses is more representative than informative since draws are not applied. The battle for the last few MLS playoff spots will be a matter of inches and one slip up could be the end of a club’s playoff pursuit.

Each MLS team’s schedule difficulty is ranked from easiest to hardest with 1 being the easiest remaining fixture list. If you are interested in taking a look at Jeff Sagarin’s detailed process for determining his ratings please check out his website, Jeff Sagarin’s Major League Soccer Ratings (MLS).

New England Revolution

Current Position: 6th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Chicago Fire (H), Toronto FC (H), NYC FC (A), Orlando City SC (A), Real Salt Lake (H), Portland (A), NYC FC (H), Atlanta United (H)

MLS Schedule difficulty (Average Rating): 5

Projected Results: W W L L W L W L

Most Important Match: Orlando City SC (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 47
Final Projected Points Total: 47 /

The New England Revolution have the most difficult remaining schedule of all the teams from the 6th to 10th position in the MLS Eastern Conference table. The Revolution must travel to Orlando City SC, New York City FC, and Atlanta United while hosting New York City FC, Real Salt Lake, and Toronto FC. Based on Jeff Sagarin’s model, New England are projected to win four of their remaining eight matches, which should see them edge out their competitors to hold on to the sixth spot in the playoffs. Bruce Arena will need Carles Gil and Cristian Penilla to keep the attack potent in the final eight matches of the season.

Montreal Impact

Current Position: 7th

Remaining MLS schedule: Toronto FC (A), Vancouver Whitecaps (H), D.C. United (H), FC Cincinnati (H), LA Galaxy (A), Atlanta United (H), New York Red Bulls (H)

MLS Schedule Difficulty (Average Rating): 2

Projected Results: L W W W L L W

Most Important Match: Toronto FC (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 46

Unlike the New England Revolution, the Montreal Impact have seven matches remaining with five of those games being played at home. The Impact should be expected to lose only one of their remaining home matches, which unsurprisingly comes at the hands of Atlanta United. The Montreal Impact, however, are also involved in the Canadian Championship which adds at least an additional two games to their season. These two matches against Toronto FC could result in fatigue even if their newly appointed manager, Wilmer Cabrera, rotates the side with an emphasis toward the MLS playoff push. Yet, if the Impact can manage to win four of their last seven matches, they just might be able to squeak into the playoffs with the last seed.

Orlando City SC

Current Position: 8th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Atlanta United (H), San Jose Earthquakes (A), Los Angeles FC (H), New England Revolution (H), Houston Dynamo (A), FC Cincinnati (A), Chicago Fire (H)

MLS Schedule Difficulty (Average Rating): 4

Projected Results: L L L W L W W

Most Important Match: Atlanta United (H)

Final Projected Points Total: 43
Final Projected Points Total: 43 /

Orlando City SC desperately needed to hold onto all three points last weekend in Minnesota. Although the Lions remain level on points with the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC, their current form remains inconsistent. Yes, taking a draw away against stiff competition is always a bonus, but each of their last three away matches resulting in a draw, Orlando City SC failed to hold onto their lead. James O’Connor’s side still have three remaining away matches and their home games include hosting Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC. As a result, Jeff Sagarin’s model would lead us to believe that Orlando City SC will again fall short of making the playoffs. Consequently, the Lions might even slip down to 9th in the MLS Eastern Conference come the end of the season.

Toronto FC

Current Position: 9th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Montreal Impact (H), New England Revolution (A), FC Cincinnati (A), New York City FC (A), Colorado Rapids (H), Los Angeles FC (A), Chicago Fire (A), Columbus Crew (H)

MLS Schedule Difficulty (Average Rating): 3

Projected Results: W L W L W L L W

Most Important Match: Montreal Impact (H)

Final Projected Points Total: 46
Final Projected Points Total: 46 /

Aside from the New England Revolution, Toronto FC are the only other team in this list with eight matches remaining. According to Jeff Sagarin’s model, this extra game in hand might just give Toronto FC the edge in making it into the playoffs. The Reds will have to face the Montreal Impact in the Canadian Championships, which could have an added impact on fatigue, in addition to their eight regular-season games. Toronto also face some difficult away matches against the New England Revolution, New York City FC, and Los Angeles FC. As a result, Toronto FC have the second-toughest remaining schedule behind the New England Revolution. Toronto’s Canadian rivals, the Montreal Impact, would have the advantage in a tiebreaker for playoff qualification with 14 projected wins compared to Toronto FC’s 13  projected wins. In any case, a win against New York City FC or Los Angeles FC could add further security for a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Toronto FC’s home match against the Montreal Impact is unquestionably a must-win to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Chicago Fire

Current Position: 10th

Remaining MLS Schedule: New England Revolution (A), Columbus Crew (A), FC Dallas (H), FC Cincinnati (A), Toronto FC (H), Orlando City SC (A)

MLS Schedule Difficulty (Average Rating): 1

Projected Results: L L W W W L

Most important match: Orlando City SC (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 42
Final Projected Points Total: 42 /

The Chicago Fire are currently at the bottom of this list heading into the final weeks of the MLS season. Although the Fire are only one point away from being tied for a playoff spot, they have two fewer victories compared to the Montreal Impact and only have six matches left to play. If any team listed here needs to win all of their remaining matches, it would be the Chicago Fire. Veljko Paunovic has done well to improve the Fire’s defensive performances from last season, which saw the side concede 61 goals in 2018. Making matters worse, the Chicago Fire must travel on the road for four of their last six matches. The one bright spot for the Fire is that they play three other MLS Eastern Conference playoff contenders: New England Revolution, Toronto FC, and Orlando City SC. If they can manage to pick up victories against the Revolution and Orlando City, then the Fire might have something to say when all is said and done.

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What are your thoughts about the current playoff picture in the Eastern Conference? Do you think that some clubs can outperform their projections?

Data Source Citation: Sagarin, Jeff. JEFF SAGARIN’S MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER RATINGS (MLS). 21 August 2019.