In the last few weeks a few of us here have been playing with different ways to project the season. I don't pretend that mine is the most accurate, but I do think my "trend line projections" do give us a solid look at how teams are playing recently.
A quick recap: What I do is take all the matches each team has played since returning from the World Cup break (that's what I consider a trend) and multiply the points per match (PPM) by the number of games remaining. What I end up with is a projected standings if each team were to close out the season on the trend they're on now.
This is obviously not a statistically sound way of projecting standings, but I do think it serves the purpose of putting into focus how well or poorly a team has been playing recently.
The other thing I've done is figure out how each team must finish the season based on the assumption that 44 points will get you into the playoffs. We recognize that 44 points is probably not the minimum required to finish in the top 8, but it serves the purpose of setting a bar that is almost guaranteed to put you there.
That the Sounders are looking very good in these scenarios should come as little surprise. Since returning from the break, the Sounders have the third best PPM (1.86), and that actually underplays how good they've been in their last five. During their five-match MLS unbeaten streak, the Sounders have claimed 13 of a possible 15 points (2.6 PPM). If the Sounders were to carry that 1.86 PPM through their final 10 matches, they'd end up with approximately 47 points. That total would likely be good enough for the fifth highest point total in MLS.
For what it's worth, I'm not so sure that's an unrealistic projection. Three teams (the Galaxy, Crew and RSL) have essentially played the entire season at that level up to this point, and it's hard to argue that any of them are more talented than the Sounders.
The really good news is that the Sounders' recent hot streak has made their path to 44 points much more reasonable. The Sounders would need 16 points in their final 10 matches (1.6 PPM). Translated into wins-ties-losses, that's 6-0-4, 5-1-4 or 4-4-2. Put another way, the Sounders can actually win fewer than half their matches from here on out and still have a decent shot at making the playoffs. Six of their final 10 matches will be on the road, but five of their final 10 will be against sub-1.20 sides. The only two matches that really seem happy-with-a-pointers are at Chicago and at Columbus.
Editor's note: If you want to read about how the rest of the teams look, read the jump. But be warned, it's kinda long so if you'd rather skip to the comments, I won't be offended.
As for how the trend lines look for other teams around the league, the most interesting one to me is the Galaxy. While their playoff spot is almost guaranteed (they already have 40 points), their trend line shows a team that is showing some serious flaws. They're 2-2-2 since the break and that doesn't even include a home loss to Division 2 side Puerto Rico. If they continue on this trend, they will almost certainly fall short of the Supporter's Shield and stand a very real chance of tumbling all the way to third in the West.
The team that looks to have the best shot at the Supporter's Shield based on current form is Columbus. They've gone 5-1-2 since the break and are really looking like the team to beat. Even based on actual points won, they only trail the Galaxy by three points.
It should be pointed out that Columbus just got through one of the easiest portions of their schedule and face much stiffer competition in the coming weeks and months. Chicago and New York are the only teams the Crew have played since the break with plus-1.20 PPMs. Five of their next six opponents will have PPMs of at least 1.40, only three of their final 11 matches will be played against sub-1.30 teams and six of their final 11 will be on the road where they are 3-4-2 this season.
That the Crew could pass the Galaxy should come as little surprise. That FC Dallas, at its current pace, would also overtake the Galaxy was more unexpected. Maybe it was their slow start (their first win came in their sixth match) or the fact that the team seems surrounded by negative press (did you see the crowd at their last game?), but they have quietly been the hottest team in MLS since the break (2.13 PPM). They are unbeaten since then (5-2-0) and have not lost in nine matches (5-4-0). Their opponents have been much more balanced, too, with six posting PPMs of 1.30 or better.
The final 12 matches on their schedule won't be easy, though. They have just four sub-1.20 PPM teams left on their schedule and will play six matches away from Pizza Hut Park (although maybe it's a good thing if they aren't constantly reminded of how horribly their front office has failed to market them).
Real Salt Lake, for all the positive feelings around them, have not been playing all that great since the break. Their post-break PPM of 1.43 is definitely good (fourth best), but it's significantly closer to Toronto (whose 1.29 is eighth best since break) than it is to Seattle's third-best post-break form (1.86). Although they are just five points behind the Galaxy and two behind Columbus, their current form would likely leave them in third or fourth overall.
RSL has gone 3-3-1 since the break while playing four teams with sub-1.20 PPMs. They close out with what is probably their toughest stretch of the season. After playing their next match at Philadelphia (.88 PPM), nine of their final 10 matches are against teams currently in the playoff race, eight of which have PPMs of 1.40 or better. Six of their last 11 will also be on the road, including their match with Seattle on Sept. 9.
Going off current form, it would appear as if five or six teams will be fighting for the final three playoff spots. Just six points separates projected No. 6 finisher New York (42) and projected No. 11 finisher San Jose (36). Of those teams, Chicago and, believe it or not, New England are the teams currently on the best form (1.40 PPM since the break). The Rapids and Earthquakes are tied for having the worst current form (1.00 PPM).
The Quakes have the easiest schedule of that group, with seven of their 13 games being played at home and seven against sub.1.20 PPM sides. Only three games (at New York, at Columbus and at Toronto) would be of the play-for-a-draw variety. They'll need to post a PPM of 1.62 (about equal to the Sounders) in their final 14 to get to 44.
It's hard for me to include New England in the group still fighting for a playoff spot because they have been so erratic. Their -10 goal differential is worse than all but two other teams in all of MLS and their PPM is based on a pretty small sample size (five matches). But they are riding a three-match unbeaten streak and they beat the Galaxy. They are at least worth keeping on eye on. The Revolution need to average 2.00 PPM to get to 44, which is a level they have yet to sustain for more than three matches this year.
That leaves Chicago (trend projection of 41 points), Colorado (39) and Toronto (41) that still need to be accounted for.
The Fire have just added a pair of designated players (Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo) and have games in hand against every team in this group. They definitely have the most upside, but still have to play eight games against super-1.40 sides. Their next two matches are vs. New England and at Houston before visiting Seattle. Anything less than six points in those matches will leave them with a significant hill to climb. As it is, they need to play at 1.64 PPM to get to 44, a rate they've kept just once over a five-game stretch this year.
The Rapids just won their first match since June 5 -- and they needed an own goal to beat San Jose on Saturday -- continuing what seems to be their annual trend of starting fast before fading. Three of their next four matches (at Philadelphia, vs. Chivas USA and vs. Houston) are against teams they really need to beat to have any reasonable chance of turning it around. Of all the teams fighting for those final spots, they need the lowest PPM to get to 44 points (1.42).
Toronto, too, has been in a bit of a slide. They at least have a pair of desirable results in CCL play to feel good about as well as a victory over Chivas USA on Saturday. Five of their final 11 are at home where they have yet to lose this season (6-4-0). Unfortunately, they have eight matches remaining against teams in contention, including their next five. Eight points in those games (at New York, vs. New York, vs. RSL, at FCD, at Chicago) is a significant goal, but would leave them in good position for the stretch run. To get to 44, they'll need to pick up their season-long pace (currently 1.44), but only slightly (to 1.50).
The only other team remotely worth mentioning is Kansas City. They are currently just six points out of the playoffs, but would need to play at 2.00 PPM for the rest of the season to get to 44. Even to get to 40, they'd have to play a 1.67 PPM, which is a modest pace they've failed to meet in any five-game stretch this season.
There's a lot of information in here, maybe too much, but I do think we can start to see the playoff picture come into focus. If I were a betting man (and I am, but not in this instance), I'd say Columbus will repeat as winner of the Supporter's Shield, followed by the Galaxy, RSL and FCD. New York and Seattle will probably finish a bit behind them, but easily in playoff position. Based purely on the information I presented here, I'd say Chicago and San Jose will take the final two playoff spots. That changes if Toronto can get through that five-match gantlet with at least eight points. Based on their talent and remaining home-field advantage, they will probably be able to hold off one of those two teams. I have zero faith in Colorado. Something is wrong there and I don't know what it is.
In case you're curious, here's my complete table with points won, current PPM, post-break trend, trend projection, and PPM to get to 44.
|Team||Points||PPM||Trend||Trend-proj||PPM to 44|
|Real Salt Lake||35||1.84||1.43||51||0.82|