Kickoff - 10.12.22
What you need to know

The playoffs are on the way

Round One of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs begins this Saturday at 12 pm ET with the New York Red Bulls hosting FC Cincinnati at Red Bull Arena. Check out the full schedule here. 

Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs bracket:

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Who's good enough to win MLS Cup?

Most of our discussions about the playoffs in this newsletter are rightfully going to center around the randomness of it all. Trying to predict anything in MLS is as imprecise as it gets. Especially throughout just a few games. 

However, the impreciseness of it all is what makes it fun to try and find patterns. Any patterns at all. Even if you have to reach a little bit. 

So let’s reach a little bit. I won’t bore you with too many details, but I’ve taken some of the underlying and standard numbers for each team this season and compared them to every conference champion and MLS Cup winner since 2013 to try and find out who the numbers think is good enough to actually make a run here. As random as one game is by itself, predicting who can survive over three or four games is a little more plausible. A little more, I stress. 

What I’ve done is taken the expected goal differential, points, expected points, goals added (via American Soccer Analysis), and goal differential for each team, weighted them how I see fit, and added them together to give me one number assessing the quality of each team. To be honest, it’s pretty crude. I have degrees in journalism. Not anything that’s actually useful. But I think it mostly gets the job done.

Anyway, I’ve taken that number for each team and compared it to teams that have made MLS Cup. Here’s what those numbers suggested. 

(If anyone cares, I can show you the spreadsheet later. I promise I didn’t just make this up.)

Teams “better” than the average MLS Cup winner
LAFC, Philadelphia, NYCFC and CF Montréal

Originally, I had this as “Teams better than the average MLS Cup winner excluding Seattle” because the 2016 and 2019 Sounders came out with hilariously low numbers. Sounders magic is very real. But even though their inclusion lowered the average by a significant amount, the four teams better than that average remained the same. This math suggests there’s a pretty large gap between Montréal and the next-best team, Nashville SC.

Of course, these numbers don’t take into account the changes teams have had midseason or injuries or trends or anything like that. We’re using numbers from the whole season here. But it’s pretty sound to think our MLS Cup winner is one of those four teams, right?

Teams at least “as good” as the “worst” non-Seattle MLS Cup winner
Philadelphia, NYCFC, CF Montréal, Nashville, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati

This particular formula pointed to 2015 Portland as the weakest MLS Cup winner. Obviously the formula knows nothing of how Metro things can get, but again, this group makes sense by my eye test. Nashville and LA feel like the most plausible teams to slow down LAFC in the West and all the listed teams in the East feel like they have a shot in the way Orlando and Inter Miami don’t.

The only major issue is Austin FC aren’t here and, well, I don’t know what to tell you other than the underlying numbers have considered Austin extremely lucky all season. We’ll see if that manifests in some way in the playoffs or not, but it wouldn’t be that surprising for Austin to ignore all of this and go on a run anyway. They’ve been doing it all year and the eye test tells a bit of a different story. This is a very good team.

Teams at least “as good” as the “worst” conference champion, which is still 2016 Seattle
LAFC, Philadelphia, NYCFC, CF Montréal, Nashville, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, FC Cincinnati, Atlanta United (LOL), Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and Columbus Crew (lol.)

*Not included: Orlando City, Inter Miami. Minnesota United, Austin FC

If we take the average total of each conference champion we just end up with the same four teams as the MLS Cup-winning group. If we just want to see who might be at least as good to make MLS Cup, we just need to see who’s as good as 2016 Seattle. Anyone lower would be breaking the mold. Although, 2021 Portland nearly pulled it off last year. Nearly.

That being said, it expands our list a little bit to include a couple of teams that didn’t even make the playoffs. The numbers can’t really see Atlanta racked up xG while taking bad shots and playing from behind for the majority of nearly every game, and Columbus got cursed by a currently unknown entity to never be allowed to hold onto any lead ever

All told though, everything tracks here except for Austin again. They came up just barely short of the 2016 Seattle threshold. Which kind of makes them feel destined to pull something off here. Just out of spite.

Anyway, I think we kind of learned most of what we already knew. LAFC, Philadelphia and CF Montréal are very good. NYCFC are still good enough, even without Taty Castellanos (though Talles Magno’s injury status looms large). And pretty much everyone else has a shot at making it to MLS Cup except for a few unsurprising and one very surprising name.

This isn’t gospel, but it’s a decent framework to work with. And it at least gives me one more opportunity to have people screenshot something I did and blast it all over the internet when it gets proven wrong. Isn’t that all you can really ask for?

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Good luck out there. Don’t let the ordinary be ordinary.