The New England Revolution have not only already made the playoffs but have already clinched first in the Eastern Conference, they currently sit 18 points ahead of the next nearest team in the east, Nashville and will almost certainly win the Supporter's Shield. Credit to Bruce Arena and the Revolution where credit is due, they've put together one hell of a season so far and are on track to rack up the most points in a single season for any team in MLS history, that doesn't come around by accident. Bruce Arena is one of the best MLS coaches precisely because he can coax these sorts of performances out of his teams; getting both young upstarts and veteran players motivated in the right way. However, there's more than one little caveat to this particular result, but the big one is the gap between east and west in terms of talent and ambition and the fact that (in part due to the pandemic) very little cross-conference play has occurred this year. Most MLS fans are probably aware that the Western Conference is typically the stronger of the two conferences in the last 10 years or so, ccasionally this isn't the case, but usually when east and west clash, it's the west that wins out. It's worth noting that it's not just the Western Conference teams tend to be better, they tend to be more competitive from top to bottom of the conference, even when it's a good team against bad teams a win in the west is never a given because the competition is just that much more fierce. As examples of this east/west dynamic this season the two most consistent teams in each conference,the Sounders and the Revolution both played one away game to teams in the opposing conference against teams that are fairly bad by the standards of the other conference; the Sounders went into Columbus and won 2-1 against the Crew who currently sit in 10th while the Revolution lost to FC Dallas who currently sit in 11th. There are just frankly more punching bags in the east than there in the west, there are 4 teams in the east currently with double digit negative goal differentials, with hapless FC Cincinnati have a -24 goal differential, only two teams in the west have that problem, Houston and Austin. To add some more evidence, the points difference between 7th and last in the east is 20 points, the difference in the west is 13 points. Assuming that the Revolution win the Supporter's Shield this year, that means 7 of the last 12 years since the Sounders joined the league an Eastern Conference team will have won the Supporter's Shield. The evidence, however you slice it is pretty clear right now: it's easier to win the Supporter's Shield in the east than it is in the west.
Now, one could say this is all sour grapes from a fan of a team that was in the running for the Supporter's Shield at one point this season, but I bring this up to talk about a looming issue, the fact that pretty soon who wins the Supporter's Shield is almost certainly going to be determined by luck a lot more than by skill. MLS has expressed interest in having a 32 team league, even if MLS expands to a 38 game season like the English Premier League, there's no way to play everyone in your conference twice and play everyone in the other conference once. There's really only two possible ways to organize the games for a 32 team MLS:
1. You make it so everyone plays everyone at least once, with cross-conference opponents being played semi-randomly either away or at home. You then play 7 inter-conference "rivals" away and at home.
2. Everyone plays everyone in their conference twice, home and away, then only plays half of the other conference, randomly away or home.
Either way you slice it, someone is getting lucky and someone is getting the short end of the stick in a 32 team conference. In option 1, who your rivals are might determine whether you drop important points within your conference, in option 2 which teams in the opposite conference you face could very well determine how difficult your path to the playoffs is. Either way, someone is probably getting lucky or unlucky based on who they get to face at home or who they have face away, increasingly meaning getting into the playoffs or winning the Supporter's Shield is a roll of the dice. There's always a bit of luck in soccer, "the ball is round", but the validity of the Supporter's Shield increasingly will come into question based on the schedule rather than on the merits of the team. Yes, you have to be a good team to win the Supporter's Shield, but is that team truly better than other candidates? Maybe not.
Typically I might give you some nice, neat way to fix the problems I point out...but I don't got one here. Even if we only go to 28 teams with 38 games, you still can't have a nice "fair" run for the Supporter's Shield. I can't help but feel that the Revolution got lucky to have such a soft conference this year, giving them a path to a potentially historic points haul while the Sounders and the rest of the west have been in a bruising brawl all season and yeah, I feel a little miffed by that. It only matters for the Sounders if they make MLS Cup and New England do too, but it feels like the table is tilted in favor of being a good team in a bad conference.
The Doom Seat
Two of the five men I had on my list last time are gone, who's up next?
- Tab Ramos:
- Bob Bradley: Missing the playoffs would surely be unacceptable to the ambitious LAFC ownership.
- Gerhard Struber: At the end of this season he will have had two years to turn this team around, if they miss the playoffs I think he'll see the door.
- Matias Almeyda: I think the fact that they fired their GM indicates Almeyda has at least one more season in charge (if he wants it) but it's not that crazy to think he sees the door if he misses the playoffs.
- Phil Neville: I think the power of nepotism keeps him in place, but Inter Miami have not looked any better under his watch than they did before.
The Doom Rankings
We've come to that part of the year where teams start to drop off of the rankings, either because they're out of playoff contention or because they've clinched a spot. The number in brackets indicates where the team was ranked when they dropped out of the rankings.
The Saved: New England Revolution (27)
The Doom Rankings are a sort of reverse power rankings, here #1 in the list is the most likely to miss the playoffs. When a team fails to qualify for the post season or is confirmed to be qualified for the post season, they come off of the list. In the Doom Rankings, being highly ranked is a bad thing!
- FC Cincinnati Up 2 Congrats on almost certainly winning your third straight wooden spoon FC Cincinnati. People said you couldn't possibly match up to the worst expansion teams in MLS history, but I always had faith.
- Houston Dynamo Up 1 The Dynamo are technically ahead of Austin in the points, but Austin has frankly looked better recently.
- Austin FC Up 1 If this team had played the way they're playing now all season, they could have made the playoffs, but the hole is just too deep now.
- Toronto FC Down 3 They're out of the basement but that doesn't mean they have escaped the house of horrors that has been this season.
- Chicago Fire Up 1 Wicky's time with the Fire has been extinguished, but the dumpster fire is still roaring.
- FC Dallas Up 2 Firing Luchi Gonzalez has not improved this team at all, I'm shocked.
- Inter Miami Up 2 One of the most expensive teams in MLS is one of the worst teams in MLS.
- San Jose Earthquakes Up 8 It turns out there's a reason why most teams haven't played a man-marking defensive system for the last 20 years.
- Columbus Crew Up 3 That the winners of the much respected Campeones Cup will miss the playoffs is shocking! Absolutely shocking!
- Vancouver Whitecaps Down 5 In the points total the Whitecaps aren't far from a playoff spot, but they face an absolute horror show in the next few weeks including games against the Sounders twice, SKC and Portland.
- LAFC Down 4 The math isn't necessarily in their favor, but LAFC have a fairly soft upcoming schedule including games against San Jose, FC Dallas and Vancouver. I still think they miss teh playoffs, but I give them a slightly better chance than Vancouver.
- New York Red Bulls Up 8 It turns out that famous Red Bulls high-press doesn't work so great without the talent to execute it. I'm shocked to learn this, this is my shocked face (you can't see it, but it's very not shocked).
- LA Galaxy Up
- Real Salt Lake Up
- DC United Up 2 The next 4 teams are all in the east, all at 40 or 39 points and have all played 28 games and all are teams I could easily see either missing or making the playoffs so I'm having to go by things like strength of schedule to figure out what I think their odds are. The loser in those calculations? DC United, who have to face off against the top two teams followed by a bunch of the teams near them with the small gift of Toronto to end the season.
- NYCFC Up 6 I rate both NYCFC and Montreal's remaining schedule to be about the same, but NYCFC have looked very vulnerable lately and Montreal have looked pretty good.
- CF Montreal Down 2 Basically what I just said above.
- Atlanta United Down 5 The remaining schedule for Atlanta is very, very kind. Home and away against Toronto, a home match against basically dead Inter Miami and they get to finish off with an away match to FC Cincinnati. It's gonna be tight but the road is paved for Atlanta to make the playoffs again.
- Minnesota United Down 1 Minnesota might be sitting in 7th, but they have a game in hand and frankly have looked more consistent than the Galaxy or RSL above them or LAFC or Vancouver below them.
- Orlando City SC Up 3 OCSC hasn't played great lately, but they should comfortably make the playoffs, particularly if they can keep Daryl Dike scoring goals.
- Portland Timbers Down 7 Portland is on a tear in the last month and have turned around what looked to be a season in which they miss the playoffs into getting comfortably. That defense still looks suspect, but as long as they can keep scoring they should make it.
- Philadelphia Union Down 1 The Union have a game in hand and have a pretty soft remaining schedule that includes home and away to FC Cincinatti, they should get in comfortably.
- Colorado Rapids Up 2 The Rapids have a game in hand (or more) on most of the teams in the west and they're 11 points clear of the playoff line, it would be shocking for them to miss the playoffs at this point.
- Nashville FC Down 5 I was wrong about Nashville. I doubted them all season, said they couldn't get it done on the road, but now making the playoffs is all but a formality.
- Sporting KC Down 1 The race for 1st in the west is pretty much a two team race now and one of those teams is SKC. Another win and some other results will clinch it for SKC.
- Seattle Sounders The Sounders merely need to win one more game to clinch their playoff spot, simple math.