MLS: Predicting the Western Conference Playoffs

CARSON, CA - AUGUST 14: Zlatan Ibrahimovic #9 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates first goal during the Los Angeles Galaxy's MLS match against FC Dallas at the Dignity Health Sports Park on August 14, 2019 in Carson, California. Los Angeles Galaxy defeated FC Dallas 2-0. (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - AUGUST 14: Zlatan Ibrahimovic #9 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates first goal during the Los Angeles Galaxy's MLS match against FC Dallas at the Dignity Health Sports Park on August 14, 2019 in Carson, California. Los Angeles Galaxy defeated FC Dallas 2-0. (Photo by Shaun Clark/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 Western Conference? Here, we delve into the numbers to have a look.

Major League Soccer’s  Western Conference has nine clubs currently vying for the last six spots in the playoffs. In fact, Los Angeles FC is the only team in the Western Conference guaranteed a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs. As of August 27th, there are only three points separating second place, Real Salt Lake, from seventh place, FC Dallas. 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 difficult to outright determine. The battle for the last few MLS Western Conference 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 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).

Real Salt Lake

Current Position: 2nd

Remaining MLS Schedule: Portland Timbers (A), San Jose Earthquakes (H), Minnesota United (A), New England Revolution (A), LA Galaxy (H), Houston Dynamo (H), Vancouver Whitecaps (A)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 3

Projected Results: L W L L W W D

Most Important Match: Portland Timbers (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 53

Real Salt Lake currently find themselves second in the MLS Western Conference with the second-highest rating of the nine clubs assessed in this article. RSL have won four of their five last matches including victories over the Seattle Sounders and New York City FC. Salt Lake’s upcoming clash with the Portland Timbers is the most important game on their remaining fixture list. It may seem obvious that the next game is always of paramount importance, but in this instance, the Timbers could build considerable momentum as they look to get back into the MLS Cup Playoff discussion with six consecutive home matches. A victory is crucial for Real Salt Lake to help ensure not only home-field advantage in the first round but also just to keep a spot in the playoffs.

Seattle Sounders FC

Current Position: 3rd

Remaining MLS Schedule: LA Galaxy (H), Colorado Rapids (A), New York Red Bulls (H), FC Dallas (H), D.C. United (A), San Jose Earthquakes (A), Minnesota United (H)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): T-4

Projected Results: W L W W L L W

Most Important Match: LA Galaxy (H)

Final Projected Total Points: 55

Following their loss to Borussia Dortmund in a club-friendly back in July, the Seattle Sounders have experienced an inconsistent seven-match stretch. During this time, the Sounders dropped points to the Portland Timbers, Sporting KC, and Real Salt Lake. Seattle did manage an away draw to 10 men side LA Galaxy as well as an away win over the Portland Timbers last weekend. They will need to buckle down for another round with the LA Galaxy this Sunday at home, which could build a cushion over the Galaxy. Most if not all of their remaining matches are winnable and Seattle could comfortably find themselves with home advantage in the first round of the Western Conference MLS Cup Playoffs.

LA Galaxy

Current Position: 4th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Seattle Sounders FC (A), Colorado Rapids (A), Sporting KC (H), Montreal Impact (H), Real Salt Lake (A), Vancouver Whitecaps (H), Houston Dynamo (A)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 2

Projected Results: L L W W L W L

Most Important Match: Real Salt Lake (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 51

The current situation surrounding the LA Galaxy is perplexing. On one hand, the Galaxy hold one of the most potent attacks in MLS. The recent addition of Cristian Pavón will undoubtedly aid LA for the remainder of the season, and let us not forget Zlatan Ibrahimovic. On the other hand, when the Galaxy go cold it is tough to shake. May was a horrendous month with four consecutive losses following a seven-match undefeated run. The Galaxy later went on to lose three consecutive away matches at the end of July and into August all to clubs in playoff positions. Sunday night’s draw against Los Angeles FC was one of the most entertaining matches all season, but their inability to hold onto the lead, even though Los Angeles FC is the best team in the MLS, will leave Guillermo Barros Schelotto pondering what could have been. This inconsistency just might put their Western Conference playoff position in jeopardy.

Minnesota United

Current Position: 5th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Los Angeles FC (A), Houston Dynamo (A), Real Salt Lake (H), Portland Timbers (A), Sporting KC (H), Los Angeles FC (H), Seattle Sounders FC (A)

Match Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 9

Projected Results: L L W L W L L

Most Important Match: Portland Timbers (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 48

Adrian Heath may finally be on the verge of leading his club into the MLS Cup Playoffs. The executives at Minnesota United have exercised patience as Heath constructed and implemented his strategy over the past few seasons, and as a result, Minnesota United find themselves fifth in the Western Conference standings. Unfortunately for Minnesota, their remaining schedule is the most difficult of all playoff contenders. Not only do Minnesota United travel to Los Angeles for a Sunday night matchup, they first have an important US Open Cup Final against Atlanta United on Tuesday night. Heath’s men, however, can find some solace knowing their destiny is in their own hands. Should they come away with victories over the Portland Timbers and Sporting KC, United will likely hold on to one of the last couple playoff seeds. A first playoff appearance in conjunction with an Open Cup upset over Atlanta would make for a memorable 2019 campaign.

San Jose Earthquakes

Current Position: 6th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Orlando City SC (H), Real Salt Lake (A), New York City FC (A), Atlanta United (A), Philadelphia Union (H), Seattle Sounders FC (H), Portland Timbers (A)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 8

Projected Results: W L L L W W L

Most Important Match: New York City FC (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 50

The San Jose Earthquakes have the second most challenging schedule behind Minnesota United, according to the average opponent rating. The Earthquakes got back to winning ways at home last weekend against the Vancouver Whitecaps. It was an important victory following a three-match losing streak that provided a four-point cushion over the Portland Timbers, who have one game in hand. San Jose also have to contend with fatigue as they make their way east for a brutal three-game stretch. They must travel to Utah then on to New York followed by a trip to Atlanta before returning home to play the Philadelphia Union all within fourteen days. If the Earthquakes can steal at least one win on that road trip as well as winning their remaining home matches, they can hold on to a Western Conference playoff spot.

FC Dallas

Current Position: 7th

Remaining MLS Schedule: FC Cincinnati (H). Chicago Fire (A). Seattle Sounders FC (A), New York City FC (H), Colorado Rapids (A), Sporting KC (H)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 1

Projected Results: W L L W L W

Most Important Match: Colorado Rapids (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 49

FC Dallas may find themselves holding onto the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, but with 28 games played there is little room for error moving forward. Dallas’s rout of the Houston Dynamo last weekend will surely boost the player’s confidence when they host FC Cincinnati on Saturday. FC Dallas also have the opportunity to get away wins against the Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids. Yet, Dallas will need some help to keep hold of the final playoff spot since the Portland Timbers have a leg up with two games in hand. Even with four wins out of their last six, it will be improbable to keep a Western Conference playoff spot if the Timbers get the job done.

Portland Timbers

Current Position: 8th

Remaining MLS Schedule: Real Salt Lake (H), Sporting KC (H), D.C. United (H), New York Red Bulls (H), Minnesota United (H), New England Revolution (H), Sporting KC (A), San Jose Earthquakes (H)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 6

Projected Results: W W W W W W L W

Most Important Match: New York Red Bulls (H)

Final Projected Points Total: 58

The Portland Timbers have six, yes, six consecutive games in Portland over the next month. This long stretch of home games comes as a result of the remodeling of Providence Park, which forced the Timbers to play twelve away games to open the season. They are, however, looking to get back on track after two consecutive losses to Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders FC, both of which at home. The fact that the Portland Timbers have kept themselves in the playoff picture considering all that has occurred is an impressive feat, and are certainly more talented than their current standing suggests. The Portland Timbers could easily find themselves hosting a playoff round if they can take advantage of this home stretch, but will be a force to be reckoned with no matter the seed.

Sporting Kansas City

Current Position: 9th

MLS Remaining Schedule: Houston Dynamo (H), Portland Timbers (A), LA Galaxy (A), Colorado Rapids (H), Minnesota United (A), Portland Timbers (H), FC Dallas (A)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating):  T-4

Projected Results: W L L W L W L

Most Important Match: Portland Timbers (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 43

Sporting Kansas City are in an interesting position in the MLS Western Conference. They trail the Portland Timbers by three points and are six points back from a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They may not be favorites to make the postseason, but if any of the teams above them experience a dip in form, they just might find a way to sneak in. One major concern for Sporting KC is their disappointing home record. Kansas City have only amassed half of all the available points at Children’s Mercy Park. On the bright side, Sporting KC’s last two wins came courtesy of goals in the last twenty minutes. It would be foolish to write of Kansas City especially if they can take down the Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy away from home.

Houston Dynamo

Current Position: 10th

MLS Remaining Schedule: Sporting KC (A), Minnesota United (H), Vancouver Whitecaps (A), Orlando City SC (H), Los Angeles FC (A), Real Salt Lake (A), LA Galaxy (H)

MLS Schedule Ranking (Average Rating): 7

Projected Results: L W L W L L W

Most Important Match: Real Salt Lake (A)

Final Projected Points Total: 40

The Houston Dynamo mathematically remain in contention for the MLS Cup Playoffs, but they are nine points back from the seventh seed with both Sporting KC and the Portland Timbers above them. On top of their deficit, the Dynamo are reeling from a six-match winless streak in MLS, during which time manager Wilmer Cabrera was fired. Most recently they suffered an embarrassing 5-1 defeat to FC Dallas that all but reaffirmed the idea that the Dynamo are not playoff-bound. The remaining schedule poses some difficult matches since five of their final seven games feature teams still looking to lock in a playoff spot. That does not include an away trip to Los Angeles FC towards the end of September. The Houston Dynamo may not have the toughest remaining schedule, but considering their poor form the Dynamo will likely be on the outside looking in for the second season in a row.

Next. MLS: Predicting the Eastern Conference Playoffs. dark

What are your thoughts about the current playoff picture in the Western Conference? Do you think that some clubs will outperform or fall short of their projections?

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