There’s the overall table.
Then there is each individual team’s table. They are not the same.
As the season progresses, every team develops its own goals. The teams that get off to a hot start might set their goals at a Supporters’ Shield. The teams that struggle early on generally hope to climb back into the playoff picture. The table you look at within your locker room starts to narrow to cover your specific goal.
Fans naturally look toward the top of the table – we all like winners – but right now the most interesting table in Major League Soccer is taking place a little farther down in the Eastern Conference.
We are only a little over a third of the way through the season, but the race for a playoff spot in the East is already getting stressful for a few teams. A divide is starting to develop between the top four teams and the rest of the pack. Atlanta United, NYCFC, Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls have each put up a points-per-game pace that would have won the Supporters’ Shield in three of the last five years (I’m using PPG because teams have played an uneven number of games, so the absolute points value doesn’t tell a fair story).
For reference, the Red Bulls and FC Dallas tied at the top of the Supporters’ Shield race in 2015 with 1.76 points per game. Columbus, who have the lowest ppg of the top four in the East, currently have a pace of 1.79 points per game.
To keep it short: The top four teams in the East appear to be very good.
Now, regression to the mean is certainly a thing and should be expected. It’s hard to believe that all four teams will finish as well as they have started. I expect the Red Bulls and Crew SC, at least, to each hit a skid at some point – their styles require near immaculate focus and teams tend to drift some time in midseason. But it’s tough to imagine either team will struggle badly enough or long enough to fall out of the playoff spots.
Consequently, it’s likely to be just two playoff spots up for grabs in the East. Seven teams left, two spots to go around. Ain’t nobody wanna be in that game of musical chairs.
Orlando City and New England hold the spots right now, but Philadelphia and Chicago are all within touching distance. But there’s also an added kicker … behind them in 9th place sit Toronto FC, still just a couple months removed from firmly showing they are one of the best couple teams on the continent.
Toronto have struggled so far in MLS action in 2018, but it’s largely explainable. Their minds were occupied by their Concacaf Champions League quest, plus they’ve been decimated by injuries. These are not excuses; they are explanations.
The Reds have played multiple games with up to seven likely starters unavailable, including all of their preferred forwards and center backs. In the next week or so, that should change. They will start to have lineups resembling the ones they used to put together the best single season in MLS history.
The Union's David Accam is fouled by the Fire's Johan Kappelhof | USA Today Sports Images
It takes about 50 points to make the playoffs in MLS. It’s generally less, but a team should plan to get 50 points to feel safe about it. To get to 51 points, TFC need to average 1.78 points per game over their next/last 23 games. As I said early, that’s a difficult mark; only three teams in the last five years have match or exceeded 1.78 points per game. One of them, however, was 2017 TFC.
I’m not saying Toronto will definitely make the playoffs – I find the CCL hangover factor to be very real – but I’d also say it’s more than a 50/50 chance that they will get in. The 1.78 mark is somewhat pedestrian given their 2017 success.
From that, it’s possible that there is only one playoff spot remaining in the East. Orlando, New England, Philly, Chicago, D.C. United and Montreal have all seen their 11-team table squeezed to six. Instead of half a dozen playoff spots, it’s just one.
I can’t say whether the East teams have started to focus their perspective yet, but most of the teams that I played on narrowed the way we discussed the table at some point in the season. If you’re lower in the table, it’s daunting to think about the top teams; it feels like an impossible task to catch them and can be deflating.
But the good thing is, you don’t need to, so there’s no reason to worry about it. You only need to do better than a certain number of teams. And if you’re at the top of the table, looking at scores from lower in the table can make you complacent – oh, they lost, so we are still safe. No! You’re gunning for the Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta don’t care about New England right now, they have their eyes on NYCFC.
The Shield, though, is a bit of a luxury concern. The real element of stress comes for the teams closer to the playoff line. Right now, that stress comes for good reason in the East.
There are a lot of fans – and teams – east of the Mississippi that need to start playing close attention to rivals around them.