Forget The Numbers: A View On The Conference Semifinals

Otto Greule Jr

Zach Slaton was invited to explain his controversial playoffs predictions post at his Forbes blog. Get ready to learn and love. It makes sense in the end.

Like many of Sounder at Heart's readers, I've attended each of the last three season's home playoff matches only to leave disappointed that the Sounders didn't do better.

In 2009 I could chock these feelings up to the unrealistic expectations set after one of the better expansion seasons in the history of the league. I walked away from the experience determined to not let our inaugural playoff series ruin what had been a phenomenal first year.

The 2010 playoff loss was completely different. After rallying from a horrible start that saw our chance of making the playoffs hover around 5% at mid-season, a phenomenal run of form saw us make our second straight conference semifinal to face the LA Galaxy. That rally set expectations reasonably high for a playoff breakthrough, but instead we were humbled at home via Edson Buddle's freak volley in the first match and LA's dominance at home in the second match. Another year, another playoff loss.

Last year we were all there on a rainy November night when it looked like the impossible might turn into reality. Struggling without Mauro Rosales, our Sounders looked shell shocked at Rio Tinto and fell behind 3-0 at the end of the first 90 minutes. The return leg proved to be an exciting affair, with the Sounders scoring two second half goals before falling 3-2 on aggregate in one of the starker contrasts in playing styles during that season's playoffs.

Three losses, each of which could be chalked up to special occurrences: the inexperience of our inaugural season, a random goal from Edson Buddle, and a 3-0 pasting in the absence of our soon-to-be-captain.

What if these three playoff losses weren't just part of a random bit of luck, but instead followed a statistically significant pattern of teams that played more extra-league competitive matches and who have fewer core XI minutes played together being far more likely to lose a playoff series? As I've been exploring at my Forbes blog for several weeks now, it turns out this just happens to be the case. The MLS playoffs penalize teams who play more matches than their playoff opposition, have lower median player minutes, and narrower interquartile ranges for player minutes. This penalty is far higher in two legged playoffs than single match playoffs, which means the league's use of the two legged playoff format means this penalty is larger than it needs to be. In reality, these statistical models of the playoffs suggest that in each of the last three years the Sounders have faced very long odds to make it out of the conference semifinals, let alone win an MLS Cup. The use of the two-legged format in the 2012 conference finals will only make matters worse.


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The Sounders now face an RSL team that has played six fewer matches than them. To put things more directly, RSL is better rested and their core group of players has spent more time playing together than equivalent players from the Sounders. As Jonah Freedman observed last week, this group of RSL players has spent so much time playing with each other the last few seasons that these playoffs are seen as their last hurrah. It remains to be seen if this accumulated playing time will serve them well in this playoff series or if it just means this RSL side is getting a bit long in the tooth.

I've received a lot of questions the last few days as to whether or not I really believe the Sounders have a 1-in-10,000 shot of appearing in MLS Cup 2012, as well as literally no shot of winning it. I would say I think the model is indicating they have very long odds of making it to the final. While the model may be severely discounting the Sounders odds given that they've played the most matches in the league for a third year running, I would not put their likelihood of making the final much higher than the low single digits. Combine that opinion with the reality that the team with the highest likelihood of winning the league title has appeared in eight of the last nine MLS Cups and the fact that this year's team with the highest likelihood of winning the title is San Jose and now you understand why I am skeptical of the team's chances of making the final match. Those are the sobering numbers, as painful as they may seem.

Those who regularly read my writing know that I don't write much about the Sounders, and I don't focus my writing on them for many reasons. Perhaps the most significant of which is that the din of Century Link Field and the players who wear the rave green form a bit of a sanctuary for me. This is the club who made me fall in love with the sport, and they forever hold a special place in my heart that numbers cannot ruin. Like any good sanctuary, it's made best by the congregants who pledge their faith to a club no matter how long the odds may be. It's a place where we all escape some of the more mundane parts of our life, one where don't have to deal with the high priced egos of other American sports figures and the money-fueled melodrama of Europe's top leagues. We're passionate, we're faithful, and we're boisterous. Those three attributes don't mix well with sober, cold, and calculating statistical analysis. I care to keep my passion for my club that can take on anyone in the world while I faithfully support them. Faith has a role in everyone's life, even if it's not in a god. It provides a balance, some emotion, and the sobering belief that everything in the world can't be quantified, categorized, or explained. Faith in ourselves, our friends, a team, or our version of god is what allows us to achieve the impossible in the face of the highly improbable. I prefer to keep my faith in the Sounders intact, no matter the odds.

We don't watch the Sounders because we expect trophies or have some infantile fascination with superstars. We watch the Sounders because they're our concept of how a Seattle professional sports franchise should operate within the world's game. The trophies are just a byproduct of that well run organization that consistently puts its supporters and players first. Like any good congregation, we're at our best when we see the long odds and simply don't care because we know we can do more as a family than a model can ever capture.

This Friday night we will know the hill our Sounders will need to climb to bring home an MLS Cup. We will arrive at the stadium knowing the player matchups, have an idea of the number of goals we need to score to win on the aggregate, and we will know the odds of our club finally winning its first playoff series. Then we will forget all of that analytical nonsense, and we will scream for, curse about, and cheer on our men in green. Perhaps it will be the final act in a season that will be our first trophyless one in our four years in the league. Maybe it will turn out well, and we will move on to the Western Conference finals after our first playoff series win. Either way, it will be an evening worthy of a season where we all learned how to pronounce the name "Gspurning" as he was our rock in goal, saw the rebirth of a great forward's career, broke another attendance record, and demonstrated to the rest of America how a club should be run by re-electing our general manager to another four year term.

The congregation meets perhaps for the last time this season on Friday night. Be loud, be Sounders, and above all forget the likelihood of us winning the series. Odds were meant to be beaten, or there would be no point to sport. No matter the result on Friday night, let's make sure that if this is the last time this current Real Salt Lake side sets foot onto Century Link Field they leave with their ears ringing from the screams of 38,000 passionate Sounders supporters.

Nos Audietis In Somniis...

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