Commentary: Handicapping the Eastern Conference playoff race with three months to go
With the AT&T MLS All-Star game squarely in the past, it’s time to focus on the important stuff: Which 10 clubs will make up the 2014 playoff field?
I've crunched the numbers and come up with a method for predicting the playoff field in each conference. Today I'll take a look at the East, where only D.C. United and Sporting KC seem to control their own destiny. On Friday, the ultra-competitive West will find itself under the microscope.
The methodology behind this handicapping exercise is based on MLS history and each club's remaining schedule this season. Specifically, I studied the fates of the teams who've either successfully or unsuccesfull navigated the current playoff format since the 2011 season, the strength of each team's remaining opponents and their current league form. The playoff odds for each team are simply my approximation of all the factors considered – with the odds adding up to 500 percent, or 100 percent for the five teams who will eventually earn a postseason place.
The strength of schedule metric provides the cumulative points-per-game average (provided in parentheses) of the remaining opponents for each team. The worse the rank, the easier the schedule the rest of the way. Clubs are ordered by current table position, from worst to first.
Let me know what you think of my odds in the comment section below, and head here if you're interested in a more scientific approach.
3W-13L-5T; 14 points from 21 games
13 games remaining: 6 Home/7 Road; Strength of Schedule: 15th (1.27 ppg)
No Eastern Conference team over the past three seasons has made the playoffs with fewer than 24 points through 21 games. The Impact currently have 14 points and are on a six-game losing streak in league play. Stringing four or five wins in a row - what's likely needed to even sniff the playoff chase - seem out of reach at this point. But at least Impact fans have the CONCACAF Champions League and Ignacio Piatti to look forward to...
3W-5L-13T; 22 points from 21 games
13 games remaining: 6 Home/7 Road; Strength of Schedule: 14th (1.28 ppg)
Will the Fire reach 20 draws this season? That may be the more pressing question heading into the stretch run of their season. But a couple of wins can put a team right back in the hunt for a playoff spot in the East, and the Fire have an opportunity in the next two games (at home against New York and on the road against struggling Montreal) to make up some ground. Also worth noting, 12 of their last 13 games are against Eastern Conference opponents.
6W-11L-4T; 22 points from 21 games
13 games remaining: 6 Home/7 Road; Strength of Schedule: 13th (1.29 ppg)
After the acquisitions of World Cup veterans DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido, the Dynamo captured their first win since May 17 on Sunday against D.C. That's a good result, but three of their next four games are on the road, including trips to Seattle and Kansas City. If Houston want to continue their customary late march to the playoffs, road results are going to be a must.
5W-8L-9T; 24 points in 22 games
12 games remaining: 8 Home/4 Road; Strength of Schedule: 16th (1.27 ppg)
The additions of Carlos Valdes and Rais Mbolhi could not have come at a better time for the Union, who were already on an upswing. They have just one loss in their last eight, and eight of their final 12 games will be played at PPL Park, including three of the last four. All things considered, there's no reason to think the Union can't jump into fourth place (or perhaps even higher) in the East.
8W-12L-2T; 26 points from 22 games
12 games remaining: 7 Home/5 Road; Strength of Schedule: 17th (1.22 ppg)
After two home games against non-playoff Western Conference opponents (Portland and Chivas USA), the Revolution’s final 10 games are all against the East. The bigger issue now, however, is that they've lost nine of their past 10 games. If New England can somehow find their form from April and May, the playoffs are well within reach. At this point, that remains a big if.
6W-7L-9T; 27 points from 22 games
12 games remaining: 7 Home/5 Road; Strength of Schedule: 19th (1.13 ppg)
Things are starting to look up in Ohio. The Crew are unbeaten in their last three, including a crucial win against the Revolution on July 26. Columbus now sit in fifth place and have the easiest schedule in MLS over their final 12 games. After visits from Toronto and LA, they face just one other team currently in playoff position (at New York on Oct. 19). Ball's in your court, Gregg Berhalter.
6W-6L-10T; 28 points from 22 games
12 games remaining: 7 Home/5 Road; Strength of Schedule: 5th (1.44 ppg)
Even though they currently sit in fourth place, Red Bulls fans would be ill-advised to assume a playoff berth is in the bag. New York are the only team in the Eastern Conference in the top 10 in terms of strength of schedule, largely because of a brutal stretch between Aug. 31 and Sept. 28 that sees them play D.C. United twice, Sporting Kansas City, Seattle and LA. If Thierry Henry is going to deliver the Red Bulls their first MLS Cup, he'll have to help them navigate a minefield first.
8W-7L-5T; 29 points from 20 games
14 games remaining: 7 Home/7 Road; Strength of Schedule: 18th (1.19 ppg)
They sit comfortably in third place, have the second-easiest schedule in the league, and Michael Bradley is just starting to get his rhythm back after the World Cup. Toss in Gilberto’s improving form and it’s hard to imagine Toronto not making the playoffs for the first time. The only major concern - and it's a big one - is the health of Jermain Defoe, who could be out another three weeks.
11W-6L-4T; 37 points from 21 games
13 games remaining: 5 Home/8 Road; Strength of Schedule: 11th (1.32 ppg)
Yes, almost two-thirds of their remaining matches are on the road, but D.C. are 11 points up on sixth place with a game in hand. Even if they only win one more game, there's a very good chance they'd still make the playoffs.
11W-5L-6T; 39 points from 22 games
12 games remaining: 6 Home/6 Road; Strength of Schedule: 12th (1.30 ppg)
They have the CCL to contend with, but Sporting have shown how strong their depth is this season, with 28 players earning at least one start. Forget playoffs. Peter Vermes' squad should be in Supporters' Shield race the rest of the way.