We're now halfway through the 2011 MLS season, more or less, and the playoff picture has started to shake out. As the last few seasons have shown, championships aren't won by the best regular season team. The secret to winning an MLS championship is making the playoffs by hook or by crook and then managing your matchups (and a little luck) in the postseason. The MLS brass tweaked the formula a little this season to make a higher playoff seed slightly more valuable by forcing the last 4 playoff teams into a preliminary round, which gives a strong incentive to make the top 3 in each conference. All else being equal, avoiding that first playoff round effectively gives the top 6 twice the odds of winning it all as the wild cards.
Regular readers know we run a season simulation that takes into account goal-scoring and -preventing ability, home field advantage, and a recency bias to project out the remainder of the season. I've been running it since opening day, but now the results are baked in well enough that I think the results are starting to become interesting. The simulation has consistently shown from almost the first week that the point cutoff for the playoffs this season is somewhere around 43-45 points (currently 43.8). This is a big jump from the 40 points that would have got you in last season over the then Kansas City Wizards due to the increased number of games with 18 teams, but not as big a jump as it would have been due to opening up the playoff field to 10 teams.
We're also calculating the odds of winning the Supporters Shield this season. That's a race that collapses very quickly to just a few teams. Even now, just over halfway through, we calculate only two teams has having more than a 10% chance and five teams with more than a 5% chance to win it. The full table of projected results is after the jump:
|Team||Avg Pos||Avg Points||Playoff %||Shield %|
|Real Salt Lake||4.7965||53.4151||0.97||0.0942|
|Avg Pts for Playoffs||43.8378|
Note that despite the continued domination of the Western Conference, it's very unlikely that the top 10 won't include 3 Eastern Conference teams. Which means we'll likely avoid the nightmare scenario team of a West team missing the playoffs entirely despite having more points than an East team. However, it does mean that the wild card slots will again be dominated by the West. The current projection is for 3 of the 4 wild cards to be from the West, and if Sporting Kansas City slips or Chivas USA goes on a run it could be all 4.
The top 7 teams are all 90% assured of making the playoff at this point. The LA Galaxy already have 36 of the magical 45 points needed with 14 games left to play. They, FC Dallas, the Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake could average under a point per game in the remaining season and still get to 45. The Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, and Columbus Crew aren't far behind that pace.
And there are only 4 teams with less than a 10% chance to make the playoffs. That includes both expansion teams (despite an early season run that made the Portland Timbers look like serious playoff contenders) as well as Toronto FC — who look like they're hitting rock bottom on the pitch — and the New England Revolution — who look like they're hitting rock bottom off it. Portland can't be discounted completely. A 1.5 point per game average — which is a strong but not ridiculous pace — would put them exactly at 45 points and a shot at the playoffs.
So the jockeying for a playoff spot over the next couple of months will mostly take place among the remaining 7 teams. Kansas City is in the healthiest position among them. We were cautioning people not to underestimate the impact of Sporting's ridiculous road trip to start the season, and now that Livestrong Sporting Park has opened up and the team has a home venue, they're starting to rack up points and results and now project out at as a wild card team with a decent shot of taking a top 3 position in the East. Below them sit the two Eastern Conference Finalists (despite being from the Western Conference) from last season, including the defending MLS Cup champions. Both San Jose and Colorado are even money to make the playoffs. And below them Chivas, DC United, Chicago Fire, and the Houston Dynamo are longer shots.
The Supporters Shield race is mostly a two-team race at this point, with about a third of the simulations going to the Galaxy, a third to FC Dallas, and a third to the field. The best shot outside those two teams goes to Real Salt Lake at about 9%, and then the Sounders and New York around 7%.
Of course all of these projections are only based on past (mostly recent) performance and can't account for any significant changes to the teams. A big injury, a big return from injury (or suspension, as in the Brian Mullan case), big signings, or a big player exodus could all significantly impact a team's performance.