Climbing the Ladder: Strength of schedule down the stretch

With just over a quarter of the regular season left, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape. As teams begin to enter the final stretch, every result becomes magnified and the pressure continues to rise from one game to the next.

One factor that can have an impact on the playoff race is the strength of schedule. While each team plays a balanced schedule over the entire 34 games, when the season gets to this point the remaining opponents can have a big say on how things turn out.

Easiest Schedules

  TEAM OPP. PPG H/A
1 DAL 1.138 3-5
2 POR 1.188 4-5
3 SEA 1.215 5-3
4 COL 1.245 3-4
5 TOR 1.270 4-3
6 SJ 1.283 3-6
7 NE 1.297 4-4
8 PHI 1.299 5-5
9 DC 1.307 5-5

Toughest Schedules

  TEAM OPP. PPG H/A
1 VAN 1.495 6-3
2 SKC 1.452 6-3
3 CHV 1.359 5-4
4 NY 1.346 5-3
5 CHI 1.344 5-4
6 RSL 1.334 4-7
7 LA 1.333 4-4
8 CLB 1.320 4-5
9 HOU 1.312 3-5

Let’s start with normal strength of schedule rankings (at right), using the opponents’ overall performance based on points per game.

This year, clubs are averaging 1.31 points per game, which translates to 44 or 45 points over the entire season. That’s lower than usual due to the higher number of draws so far.

FC Dallas have the easiest schedule, with games against four of the bottom five and none against the top five. Portland, Seattle and Colorado come in behind them; all four have the last-place Whitecaps on the schedule.

As for Vancouver, unfortunately they don’t get to play themselves. However, they do still get to play five of the top six. Sporting Kansas City are streaking, but their remaining games are a clear second hardest in the ranking.

They still have to face seven of the top ten, including their next six in a row.

Next to PPG in the table, the Home/Away column refers to the home-away split for the remaining games. While Dallas may have the easiest stretch run, they do have to play two more games on the road. Likewise, Vancouver and SKC each have twice as many home games left, so their schedule may not be as hard as it seems.

It makes sense to consider the locations of the games, since home field advantage is a pretty big deal in MLS (it’s worth about 0.69 PPG per game all time, see March 16’s CTL column).

What if the opponents’ home and away form is taken into account, rather than just their overall records?

Easiest Schedules, Adjusted

  TEAM OPP. PPG
1 DAL 1.106
2 SEA 1.112
3 NY 1.212
4 SKC 1.234
5 POR 1.252
6 DC 1.267
7 PHI 1.279
8 TOR 1.284
9 COL 1.290

Toughest Schedules, Adjusted

  TEAM OPP. PPG
1 HOU 1.551
2 LA 1.444
3 SJ 1.407
4 VAN 1.370
5 NE 1.348
6 CLB 1.336
7 CHI 1.329
8 RSL 1.319
9 CHV 1.312

The adjusted rankings (at right) better take into account the number of home and away games left for each team. Kansas City’s extra home games (they have six of their last nine scheduled at Livestrong Sporting Park) do have an impact, as they jump from one the toughest to one of the easiest.

The same goes for the other three teams with at least two more home games left: New York, Seattle and Vancouver.

Two teams with more away games remaining, Houston and San Jose, fall towards the bottom as expected. The Dynamo, in fact, face the toughest schedule of any team, considering they'll play just three of their remaining eight games at home, and they face FC Dallas, Portland, Columbus and Sporting Kansas City all on the road.

Dallas, meanwhile, get to play Chicago, New England and San Jose away, the three teams with the worst home records. It's no wonder their adjusted mark isn't very different.

Unbeaten at home, winless on the road

Speaking of home/away form, the LA Galaxy are currently unbeaten at home this season, 8-0-5 at the Home Depot Center. They have four more games to go if they want to become the third team to complete the entire season without a loss, after Sand Jose in 2005 (9-0-7) and RSL in 2010 (11-0-4).

However, even if they win all four, they can’t end up with the best home record ever (at right). The best they can do is finish sixth, behind the top five home teams in league history.

All-Time Worst Away Records

  YEAR TEAM GP W L D Pts PPG
1 2005 RSL 16 0 14 2 2 0.125
2 2009 NY 15 0 13 2 2 0.133
3 1999 SKC 16 1 12 3 6 0.375
4 2003 DAL 15 1 11 3 6 0.400
5 2003 LA 15 0 9 6 6 0.400
??? 2011 VAN 14 0 10 4 4 0.286
??? 2011 TOR 14 0 8 6 6 0.429
??? 2011 HOU 12 0 4 8 8 0.667

All-Time Best Home Records

  YEAR TEAM GP W L D Pts PPG
1 2002 SJ 14 12 1 1 37 2.643
2 2000 CHI 16 13 2 1 40 2.500
3 2002 LA 14 11 1 2 35 2.500
4 2010 RSL 15 11 0 4 37 2.467
5 1998 CHI 16 13 3 0 39 2.438
??? 2011 LA 13 8 0 5 29 2.231

Unfortunately for the Earthquakes in 2002, they lost the most important home games that season: the US Open Cup quarterfinal, the regular season finale which cost them the Supporters’ Shield, then in playoff opener against Columbus.

Meanwhile, three teams have gone an entire season without an away win: LA in 2003, RSL in '05 and New York in '09. The table at right examines the worst all-time seasons on the road, with RSL's '05 expansion team at the top.

This year, Houston, Toronto and Vancouver could still join them. But again, all are assured of avoiding the top spot, as they’ve each gotten enough draws to avoid any talk of the worst away record.

As for Houston, their eight draws in 12 games gives them a better away record than New England or Portland.

For Kansas City in 1999, shootouts were counted as draws for comparison purposes.