Tuesday, October 20, 2015

MLS Post-Season Handicapping. And a Little Mockery

Forgot the watermelon, motherfucker...
"....every team in @MLS has at least 10 losses. Never happened before."
- The Armchair Analyst, tweet, 10/19/2015
I'm fairly certain that I've argued IRL that 2015 has been one of Major League Soccer's weirder, more mediocre seasons; for all I know, I said the same somewhere in this site's archive. Whatever, it points to a deeper reality about MLS – i.e. that this league only rarely produces great teams. With allowances for argument, here's the short list: DC United's original (and slow-starting) team, or the Chicago Fire's first, Eastern-European-kissed outfit; the Houston Dynamo put together a consistent team, if not a great one, for a couple years' domination in the mid-aughts; a couple New England Revolution teams graced the same era by playing "Beautiful Losers"; one could also throw in the Columbus Crew's "Touch o' Argentina" '08 outfit (bit of a stretch; good team, though), or the exquisitely-balanced Real Salt Lake team that roared straight outta Sandy, Utah to become one of the league's steadiest sides until, oh, this weird 2015. There's probably a great Los Angeles Galaxy team in there, but fuck those guys. (OK, yes, goddammit; they're the pace-setters for MLS till further notice.)

A closer look at each of those clubs, and what they accomplished in the relevant seasons, would probably wipe some kind of smudge over their shine, but let's enjoy their memories even if we have to embellish a little.

This season, though. 2015? It's worse than a crap-shoot. It's just plain crap, albeit with a good collection of highlights in person and game-form. Overall, the quality presents less a spectacle of sporting excellence than asking fans to watch 20 teams try to haul an oiled-up watermelon to the top of a mud-pile. And that mud-pile is pretty fucking oiled up, too. Matt Doyle's tweet, quoted above forwards the spirit of the argument: whichever club wins MLS Cup at the end of this hillbilly wrasslin' fest won't brag too long, nor answer too loudly when asked about the latest, or even new, star that hangs over his club's crest...then again, me being me, I'd cherish the Portland Timbers winning MLS Cup this weird year that little bit more. I love all my chilluns', and the challenging ones a little more...

Speaking of the Timbers, here's something worth pointing out: the fan-base is restless (or it could be that my personal, most direct sample is demanding and fidgety?). Even if they can't agree on what changes to make, it/they generally want changes made to a team that's widely viewed as a couple steps behind good enough. To be clear, I am not casting aspersions here; go back through the archives of this thing and you will know petulance (see the time I had "nothing but contempt" for the club; yep, hissy fit; and yet it came in the most parental thing I've ever posted about the Timbers). Besides, what's so wrong about wanting the club that you ask Jesus to look after when you're signing off at night to be all of what they can be?

Fair enough, but that’s not the question that no one asked. Here's that question: what's so terrible about the Timbers meeting the norm? Hell, they're even the high side of the norm at time of writing (in a three-way tie for 5th in the league), so what's with the bunched undies? The Timbers have ridden to the playoffs on the back of a very sound defense. Sure, the attack stits and farts (eh?), but they've got one hell of a support group (I mean the defense; the Timbers Army is nice, but I credit the defense a little more). So, yeah! Who's with me?! Besides, maybe this is one of those seasons where structural problems – say, influx of slightly better talent there, a wave of middling/homesick talent there, a handful of guys phoning it during a big pay-out somewhere else – bite every team on the butt. Say what you like, but at least Portland's fitting in with the other kids.

You buy that? No, me neither. I only put it out there to wonder a little if all fan bases feel the sense of urgency and panic, especially given the many weird ways MLS works. Regardless, I’ll be back at midweek to pass out more open-ended questions and some patented Conifers & Citrus brand hypochondria, only just about the Portland Timbers that time. Had to do some research, see?

Anyway, the rest of the post will try to work around the chief theme(s) mentioned above – e.g. a general side-stepping of excellence and pervasive inconsistency within and among the league. The reality is that we have data, people. Just scads of it! I know the Armchair Analyst (swear I read other stuff; honest) lead this weekend's wrap/analysis by arguing against the idea that "peaking" at the right time means all that much – and it's worthwhile – but that doesn't mean he's right (NOTE: He's probably right.) That just means we need more data!

OK, here's the thing, or a thing, one that amends and supersedes all previous statements as to What Counts Most When It Comes to Winning MLS Cup: winning the Cup is about having a team capable of getting putting together a good, maybe even very good, but not perfect, stretch of games. There's a further addendum in there, games against the better teams (e.g. the more consistent) in MLS count a little bit more. Yes, yes, that's a tricky metric, defining "better" and "more consistent," at least within MLS. As readers will see below, there's a big difference between a win against Sporting Kansas City at this point in the season than, say, against...can't believe I'm typing this, Orlando City SC, who have just torn up ass over the past five weeks. For the purposes of this data set, I'm going to define "better" and "more consistent" as a club that has compiled a minimum of 48 points. My apologies to San Jose, New England and Orlando.

OK, that's the data set. Let's start by listing the past 10 results (used my favorite thing in the world, the Results Map, as a source) for each MLS club in, or around the final playoff picture for 2015. Each club’s overall record comes next, followed by the number of games said club has played against a 48+ point team. Here goes:

New York Red Bulls:  L-W-W-L-W-L-W-W-L-W (6-4-0)       (4-1-0 v. 48+)
DC United:                 W-W-L-L-L-D-L-L-W-W (4-5-1)         (1-3-0 v. 48+)
Columbus Crew SC:  W-D-W-W-L-W-W-L-L-W (6-3-1)       (3-3-0 v. 48+)
Toronto FC:                W-W-L-L-L-W-W-W-W-L (6-4-0)       (2-2-0 v. 48+)
Montreal Impact:      W-D-D-W-W-W-L-L-W-W (6-2-2)      (1-1-1 v. 48+)
New England Revs:   W-W-W-W-W-W-L-D-L-L (6-3-1)        (2-2-0 v. 48+)
Orlando City SC:       D-L-L-D-L-W-W-W-W-W (5-3-2)        (3-2-0 v. 48+)

FC Dallas:                     L-W-W-W-L-L-W-D-W-W (6-3-1)       (2-3-1 v 48+)
Los Angeles Galaxy:    W-W-W-W-L-D-L-W-D-L (5-3-2)        (3-1-2 v. 48+)
Vancouver Whitecaps: W-L-W-L-W-L-L-D-D-L (3-5-2)         (1-3-1 v. 48+)
Portland Timbers:       W-W-D-L-D-L-W-L-W-W (5-3-2)       (2-3-1 v. 48+)
Seattle Sounders:         L-W-L-W-W-D-W-D-D-D (4-2-4)       (3-1-2 v. 48+)
Sporting Kansas City: L-L-L-D-L-W-L-D-W-L (2-6-2)          (2-1-2 v. 48+)
San Jose Earthquakes: W-W-W-L-D-D-L-W-D-W (5-2-3)      (4-0-3 v. 48+)

I'll start by apologizing for the layout. Looked even worse in Word, trust me...

OK, to start with the simple stuff, a couple of the overall, late-season records jump out right away – e.g. KC's dismal 2-6-2 over the last 10 games, or even Vancouver's 3-5-2 or Seattle's middling 4-2-4. The rest of the teams (once DC's yanked from the sample), have either 5 wins or 6 over the past 10 games (4 of the 14 teams, and 6 of the 14, respectively). In other words, a strong, or at least decent late season correlates pretty strongly with making the playoffs...

...and yet, looks can deceive. How different does New England's 6-3-1 look when (literally) all the shitty results happened over the last four games? Hell even KC looks better in that light – and they look better still with more data throw in (see below). The relevant team for the Revs, however, is Orlando (sorry for the aside; he's doing it again). Their respective match-ups – Orlando has the Philadelphia Union, while the Revs face NYCFC – look a lot, lot different when one reviews the last five games (e.g. a perfect 5-0-0 for Orlando). Then again, how does Orlando cover the goal-differential conundrum? Tying New England on points won't take much, and they'll match them on the second tie-breaker, games won, but to cover an eight-point gap on goal differential, too? (NOTE: Anyone else think there needs to be some sort of sub-category between actual and mathematical elimination?)

I had to tweak the definition of what makes a "good" team in order to get data that excites me (hey, at least I'm copping to fiddling with the numbers). Dropping the definition of "good" to 48+ points instead of the original 50+ not only tightened the script more than I expected, it also threw a little shade on a couple late-season runs. 6 of the 14 teams played at least six games against MLS’s better clubs; 3 clubs played five of those games and one, San Jose, played a whopping seven – so the way they stuck in it should give fairly serious pause to both Seattle (who ends with RSL) and Sporting KC (who still have Colorado and LA). I'm just sayin' the 'Quakes have brought the year-end business. (Still, Dallas left to beat – yikes!) (And, NOTE: here's the remaining schedule; how very remiss of me.)

That left four clubs who ended the year with soft schedules – DC, Montreal, New England, and Toronto. While none of those clubs lit it up against the better clubs, some did better with knocking off the little guys. In other words, it's not completely necessary to beat the best clubs when you beat the ones you have to – Montreal stands out here, in that they layered a 6-2-2 on top of that middling 1-1-1 against MLS's better clubs. Along the same lines, Toronto's 6-4-0 looks way better than their .500 against the better teams...though that could spell trouble.

At any rate, I'm going to leave the data set there and invite people to stare at it as much as they like, draw their own conclusions, etc. As I parse the data, I think bad stretches are what you look for – e.g. an awkward collection of losses or draws that suggest a habit for a string of off-nights at this point in the season. Two consecutive losses would be fatal in a post-season set up, but it'd take more thought and digging to figure out the "how" of those losses (as well as trying to wrap one's head around enough small, hard-to-trace variables as to put the entire worth of that project into question). So, yeah, per the parenthetical, I'd stick to looking for long squishy passages.

As for me, I reached my own conclusions after arranging the data above, playing with it a little. So, which clubs hit the playoffs not so much looking "strong" as "steady"?

I think, again, the Red Bulls and Dallas have the best long-term patterns; the biggest concern for New York follows from that blow-out loss to Toronto a few weeks back, because one loss like that in conference playoff and it's over. Columbus boasts a pretty good pattern as well, and so does (yay!) Portland, especially recently (formation change? maybe!). As for the worst long term patterns, I'd award those to Vancouver, DC, and even LA; the latter's past six games look only marginally better than New England's last six. As for DC, their two recent wins are swell and all, but do consider the competition (NYCFC and Philly), and check back to the depressing shit-storm that preceded it. Things being what they are – e.g. tangled up in malaise and mediocrity – I wouldn’t write off any but a few of the remaining clubs right away – e.g. DC and Vancouver, for sure, maybe LA...but that's like the third rail of MLS punditry, right there.

OK, enough soft parsing. Time to lay down some cards. I predict the following clubs will put in a good challenge during the MLS post-season: Columbus, Dallas, Montreal, New York, Portland and, maybe, Toronto. San Jose will be a nightmare if they make it, and so would Orlando – a far longer shot, to be sure. I wouldn't put it even sort of past LA or Seattle to claw out enough ugly wins to go deep (same for Montreal, in fact; it's just that no one expects them). KC could surprise people, too – their latest trends aren't awful – but that's deeper dig.

And, all right. Your turn, people.


  1. "Here's that question: what's so terrible about the Timbers meeting the norm? Hell, they're even the high side of the norm at time of writing (in a three-way tie for 5th in the league), so what's with the bunched undies?"

    You think that Timbers fans would be the first to point out that Valeri has only started in 60% of the matches this season and Johnson has started in just over 33% of the matches. I'd say meeting the norm after knowing that you're going to be getting your MVP just over half of the matches and your captain for about 33% would be something to cheer about. Unfortunately, some Timbers fans think they're entitled to something greater. While it would have been nice to see our offense be a little more productive, I applaud the team for the success they had compared to the challenges they faces.

  2. Favorite!

    As confessed shortly after the text above, I am....probably one of those fans. All the same, I like to think that I kvetch constructively. At least somewhat.

    Good to hear from you, sir!