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Warshaw: Handicapping the 2018 MLS Western Conference playoff race

Six weeks left in the regular season. The playoff push is fully initiated. Andrew Wiebe covered the biggest race in the East on Thursday. Let’s take a look at the odds over in the West.

The playoff line in the Western Conference currently resides at 41 points, one point above seventh-place Vancouver.

You know how you’ve looked at your team’s upcoming schedule to calculate probably points? Well, players do it, too. They know what’s ahead and the mountain - or relative mole hill - they have to climb.


If I put my player hat on and look at the schedule, here’s how I would view each game, independent on what team I’m playing for:

Consider it an L

Marked in red below

  • at Atlanta
  • at LAFC
  • at Red Bulls
  • at Dallas
  • at Sporting KC
  • at Seattle
  • at Portland
  • at NYCFC

Not easy, but should go for the points

Marked in blue below

  • at New England
  • at Colorado
  • at Minnesota
  • Home vs RSL
  • Home vs LA Galaxy
  • Home vs Philadelphia
  • Home vs Vancouver
  • Home vs D.C. United

Tough but doable

Marked in yellow below

  • at Columbus
  • at Montreal
  • at LA Galaxy
  • at Philadelphia
  • at D.C. United
  • at Toronto FC
  • at Vancouver
  • at RSL
  • Home vs Portland
  • Home vs Seattle
  • Home vs Sporting KC
  • Home vs LAFC
  • Home vs Columbus
  • Home vs FC Dallas
  • Home vs NY Red Bulls
  • Home vs NYCFC
  • Home vs Toronto FC
  • Home vs Atlanta

Gotta get ‘em

Marked in green below

  • at San Jose
  • at Chicago
  • at Orlando
  • at Houston
  • Home vs Chicago
  • Home vs Orlando
  • Home vs San Jose
  • Home vs New England
  • Home vs Minnesota
  • Home vs Montreal
  • Home vs Houston
  • Home vs Colorado

Using those, we can build a general probability of each team making the playoffs. I’ve also included the FiveThirtyEight projections.

My "BW Probabilities" are based on four factors:

  • Difficulty of remaining schedule
  • Form
  • Injuries, suspensions, any bubbling issues
  • Overall team quality

NOTE: My percentages don't add up to 600% (100% x 6 playoff spots) as pointed out by Steve Fenn. There is no good reason for it except I'm bad at math.


FC Dallas

Dallas aren’t really on the bubble. I just personally don’t like saying teams are a lock if they aren’t actually a lock. If NYCFC can go on a 1-win-in-8-match run, it can happen to anyone. (I’m trying not to bring up Dallas’s 2017 collapse, which fully implanted the “Well, anything actually can happen” seed flowering here.) That said, Dallas are as close to clinched as a team can be.

  • Current points: 49, eight above the line
  • BW probability: 95%*
  • 538 probability: 99%
  • Remaining schedule: Columbus, @Vancouver, @Portland, Orlando, @D.C. United, Sporting KC, @Colorado
  • Recent form: L-W-D-L-W

*NOTE: I’m not 99% confident in anything in life


Sporting KC

Same as Dallas: Sporting KC are clinched as clinched can be ... without being clinched.

  • Current points: 48, seven above the line
  • BW probability: 95%
  • 538 probability: 99%
  • Remaining schedule: @San Jose, @Philadelphia, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, @Vancouver, @FC Dallas, LAFC
  • Recent form: W-W-W-L-W



LAFC have a major question to answer with how they replace Laurent Ciman: aggressive, athletic, technical center backs don’t grow on trees, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team regress slightly. But they also have the easiest remaining schedule. They could -- probably should -- win the next six games. If you’re in a pool to pick the top seed in the West, I’d go with LAFC right now.

  • Current points: 46, five above the line
  • BW probability: 95% **
  • 538 probability: 98%
  • Remaining schedule: New England, San Jose, @Chicago, @Colorado, Houston, Vancouver, @Sporting KC
  • Recent form: L-W-W-D-W


Real Salt Lake

RSL haven’t lost more than two in a row all year and haven’t gone more than three in a row without winning this season. And they look better now than they have all year; they’ve been great to watch lately. But I’d be lying/wimping out if I said I fully trust them. We could try to break down RSL’s level, but the numbers tell the clearest story: They win at home (10-1-3) and lose on the road (3-9-2). RSL finish with three of five away from home, plus Portland at Rio Tinto wedged in there, so they could conceivably lose four of those final five games. If I had more faith in Vancouver or the Galaxy I would put RSL’s percentage lower. RSL will probably get in ... but I wouldn’t take it for granted yet just yet.

  • Current points: 44, three above the line
  • BW probability: 65%
  • 538 probability: 85%
  • Remaining schedule: Minnesota, @Atlanta, @Sporting KC, Portland, New England, @Portland
  • Recent form: D-L-W-W-W



Portland have a game in hand on RSL, thus the higher percentage. I realize Portland haven’t exactly been rock solid lately, losing four in a row last month. But I trust Portland in a do-or-die game if it were to come to that, given Portland have the best trump card if they ever really need points -- fully commit to the sit-and-counter philosophy nobody could beat over their 15-game unbeaten run.

  • Current points: 44, three above the line
  • BW probability: 70%
  • 538 probability: 87%
  • Remaining schedule: @Houston, Columbus, @Minnesota, FC Dallas, @Real Salt Lake, Real Salt Lake, @Vancouver
  • Recent form: L-L-W-D-W



The game against Vancouver on Saturday (10pm ET | TSN -- Full TV & streaming info) is big - for everything Seattle have accomplished, their Cascadia neighbor could knock them below the playoff line again. But that final run is just so cushy. It’s tough to imagine the Sounders don’t take nine points in there, and nine points would likely get the job done.

  • Current points: 41, just above the line
  • BW probability: 88%
  • 538 probability: 91%
  • Remaining schedule: @Vancouver, Philadelphia, @LA Galaxy, Colorado, Houston, @Orlando, @Houston, San Jose
  • Recent form: W-W-W-W-W etc. etc. … If you haven’t heard, Seattle are on the longest win streak since shootouts were a thing.



Most have already written Vancouver off, but the Whitecaps refuse to go quietly. They deserve a ton of credit for it. But look at that schedule ...

I would like to see Alphonso Davies make a playoff run before he departs for Bayern, but it would take a ridiculous run for the ‘Caps to get there.

  • Current points: 40, one below the line
  • BW probability: 15%
  • 538 probability: 29%
  • Remaining schedule: Seattle, FC Dallas, @LA Galaxy, @Toronto FC, Sporting KC, @LAFC, Portland
  • Recent form: D-W-D-W-W


LA Galaxy

I’m giving the Galaxy the inverse of RSL’s probability. I see one slot coming down to either of those two clubs (since Vancouver has such a tough schedule). With RSL sitting on 44 points, the Galaxy need to make up six points + the six we're assuming Mike Petke’s group will add (win vs. Minnesota + win vs. NE or multiple draws) from their remaining games, for a total of at least 12 points. Do the Galaxy have four wins in them?

If you say no, I think you’re crazy. If Zlatan, Gio, Jona et al. decide their careers/legacies are on the line, they could kick into a gear that any team would struggle to handle. Yet there's this: 

I’m somewhat surprised to hear the Galaxy may try to defend deep to solidify the defense, but I can’t blame them for it. Can the Galaxy make up the points? For sure. Will they? I’m keeping my money in my pocket.

  • Current points: 38, three points below the line
  • BW probability: 35%
  • 538 probability: 11%
  • Remaining schedule: @Toronto FC, Seattle, Vancouver, @Sporting KC, @Minnesota, Houston
  • Recent form: D-D-L-D-L



  • Current points: 29, 12 points below the line
  • BW probability: If the computer model says you’re projection is below 1% ...
  • 538 probability: <1%



  • Current points: 28,13 points below the line
  • 538 probability: <1%
  • BONUS: Hosting Philadelphia in the U.S. Open Cup Final on September 26 (8pm ET | ESPN2, UDN - Full TV & streaming info).



  • Current points: 24, 17 points below the line
  • 538 probability: <1%


San Jose

San Jose were mathematically eliminated from playoff competition on September 2.