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Who's good enough to win something?

Before we start, there’s a very important caveat: I’m not good at math. But I like to cosplay as someone who could be good with numbers one day. So I have a hobby in my spare time where I use the work of people who actually are good at math to create a “Power Rating” for each MLS team. Please note, that’s not a vibe-dependent “Power Ranking.” This is a rating based on multiple statistics.

Basically, I take numbers from the tables at American Soccer Analysis, weight them (roughly) based on their predictive power, and then mash them together to form one big number I can give to assess each team. It’s caveman math based on the work of rocket scientists. All you really need to know here is ASA’s all-encompassing Goals Added metric gets the most weight, then expected points/expected goal differential, then points and goal differential.

It works pretty well! The top five in 2023: FC Cincinnati, LAFC, Columbus, a hilariously unlucky Red Bulls side, and Seattle. I feel like having the Supporters’ Shield winner and the two MLS Cup participants front and center is a good sign.

To give you an idea of the range here, 2019 LAFC are by far the highest-rated team with a rating of 16.0, then it’s the 2014 LA Galaxy at 13.23 and then 2018 Atlanta United at 12.1. 2019 LAFC pretty much touched the sun here and we probably won’t see anything like it again. On the other end is… well currently it’s the 2024 New England Revolution, whose -3.75 rating is slightly worse than 2013 Chivas USA’s (lol) -3.41. I’d imagine the Revs will get at least a little better than that. Probably.

Anyway, I thought we’d take the time on an international break Wednesday to see if my ratings can tell us anything about this year’s contenders for a trophy. The average winner of a Supporters’ Shield or an MLS Cup had a rating of 9.25. But 2016 and 2019 Seattle (4.95 and 5.19 ratings respectively) drag things down a bit. As do 2020 Columbus (5.98) and 2013 Red Bulls (6). We take a decent jump though when we move up to the 2015 MLS Cup-winning Portland side (7.43) and the Shield-winning and points-record-holding 2021 Revs (8.33).

(If you’re wondering why that Revs side is so low despite holding the record, remember that Matt Turner was really, really, really good.)

I think we can pretty much meet in the middle there - caveman math! - and say in most cases you’re going to need a rating above 8 to have a shot at a trophy. If you’re above or at the average winner’s rating of 9.25, even better.

Folks, your current top five in 2024: LAFC (10.86), FC Cincinnati (9.64), Real Salt Lake (9.2), New York City FC (8.55) and Atlanta United (8.11).

Ok, first things first: What are Atlanta doing there? Well, along with D.C. United, they’re currently on pace to underperform their expected point total by more than any team in ASA’s database, which goes back to 2013. They’re currently second in Goals Added. Whoever takes over the head coaching job next doesn’t have that much to fix.

Second, where are Inter Miami (6.37) and Columbus (6.14)? Well, as far as Columbus go, the spreadsheet can’t see the fact they’ve been dealing with Concacaf Champions Cup. Let’s give them a few weeks to catch up. Miami…

Look, it’s worth repeating they’re currently on pace to outperform their expected point total by more than any team since the 2021 Revs. In the same way that the spreadsheet doesn’t know who Matt Turner is, the spreadsheet is painfully unaware of Lionel Messi. But, also, the Herons picking up one point against Atlanta and St. Louis last week is probably closer to reality than a flash in the pan. We might start to find out a lot about that reality with Messi gone for Copa América over the next few games. They may be the most model-breaking team ever when all is said and done, but there’s also a chance they come back to Earth a little bit. Whether that will stop them from winning a trophy remains to be seen.

As far as everyone else above an 8.0 rating goes, it seems to check out. And it probably confirms what you might have already started to realize. Along with our less highly-rated friends in Columbus and Miami, it’s LAFC, Cincinnati and RSL at the top of the pack in MLS right now. It matches the eye test for me. And it would be surprising to see them drop back below that 8.0 threshold anytime this season.

Meanwhile, it’s fun to see NYCFC competing again. I’m maybe not quite as sold on that one yet because no one else had the benefit of a five-game home stretch with a wholly unique home-field advantage this year, but there’s no denying they’re among the best in the league. They’re also the youngest team in the league. Those teams tend to fluctuate a bit more often. We’ll see if they can be above that line at the end of the year.

When we’re talking about the best bets for trophies, though, the numbers suggest LAFC are the most likely team to pick one up this season. They’re on 1.88 points per game and climbing with plenty of time to stake a claim to a Supporters’ Shield lead. Plus, the spreadsheets don’t know about Olivier Giroud either.

Based on my ratings, we don’t have an all-time great team in MLS right now. But maybe by the end of the season we’ll be talking about LAFC sitting in rare company.

The Reading Rainbow
Full Time

Good luck out there. Outrun the competition.