The Full 90

September 16, 2013

While Sporting KC watches, the MLS playoff race tightens up

With Sporting Kansas City at home watching during its bye week, Major League Soccer's playoff picture was supposed to start clearing up this weekend. It really didn't. It stayed just about as confusing as it's always been.

The Full 90

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With Sporting Kansas City at home watching during its bye week, Major League Soccer's playoff picture was supposed to start clearing up this weekend. It really didn't. It stayed just about as confusing as it's always been.

The New York Red Bulls took over control of the Eastern Conference (for now), Seattle nudged aside Real Salt Lake in the Supporter's Shield tussle (for now), and Chicago and Houston snuck into playoff position (for now).

Montreal, Los Angeles and Portland (all fighting for the Supporter's Shield) dropped points on the weekend. Columbus kept its faint hopes alive.

Sporting Kansas City remains right in the thick of things and, for the most part, controls its own destiny.

There's still a lot of soccer to play, but here's where we stand with a month and a half of soccer to play.

Is Sporting KC still in the Supporter's Shield race?

Literally? Yes. Kansas City is just four points behind the Seattle Sounders.

Realistically? Probably not. Seattle has two games in hand. So does Montreal. Those two teams (plus New York and Salt Lake) will have to stumble to open the door.

Until then, a third-straight Eastern Conference crown is the best-case scenario. And we'll focus primarily on that in this blog post.

How does the Eastern Conference look now?

If you sort the table by points-per-game (the best metric to judge teams with an imbalanced number of games played), you can see how the top three have separated themselves from the pack. Montreal has the edge on New York (with two games in hand, they can make up the most ground), while Kansas City is one good week (and a bad one for New York Montreal) from being back on top.

It's pretty tight.

1. Montreal: 1.67 PPG, 27 Games Played

2. New York: 1.66, 29
3. Kansas City: 1.61, 28
4. Houston: 1.43, 28
5. Chicago: 1.39, 28
6. Philadelphia: 1.34, 29
7. New England: 1.32, 28
8. Columbus: 1.21, 29

The top five teams will qualify for the playoffs.

Does Kansas City have a magic number for the playoffs?

It's a little bit early for this sort of number (with anywhere from 5 to 7 games to play depending on the team), but Kansas City will qualify for the playoffs if they reach 58 points.* (So, 12 out of the next 18 will do it.)

*This is found by calculating the maximum points for every Eastern Conference team. Right now, Houston's max number is 58 and Chicago's is 57. If KC can do better than those teams, they've got a spot in the playoffs clinched. Does Kansas City have an easy road to finish the year?

Statistically they do. Of the eight teams in the East fighting for a playoff spot, Sporting Kansas City has the easiest strength of schedule.

KC's last six games: @ Toronto (Saturday), Philadelphia (9/27), @ Columbus (10/05), @ Houston (10/09), D.C. United (10/18) and @ Philadelphia (10/26).*

*While KC will be on the road for four out of six matches, Sporting has been really good on the road so far. They are the only Eastern Conference team without a losing record on the road (5-3-5) and one of two teams in the league without a negative road goal differential (Salt Lake is the other).

If you average the points per game of those six teams, Kansas City has (by far) the easiest road of the playoff teams. Here are the contenders ranked by Opponent's PPG (from easiest to hardest).

1. Kansas City: 1.11

2. Chicago: 1.22
3. Philadelphia: 1.24
4. Houston: 1.28
5. New England: 1.29
6. Montreal: 1.31
7. Columbus: 1.41

8. New York: 1.48

It certainly bodes well for KC that New York finishes with two Western Conference challengers (including a trip to table-topping Seattle next weekend) and playoff challengers New England, Houston and Chicago.

Is Sporting KC at a disadvantage playing in the CONCACAF Champions League?

Not really. While KC will have two extra games (including Tuesday against Real Esteli at Sporting Park), so do fellow playoff contenders Montreal and Houston. Both have road games still on their slate.

What tiebreakers matter in MLS?

That's a great question. Major League Soccer has a few "interesting" tiebreakers in place. Here's what you absolutely need to know (and how KC ranks at the moment).

The first tiebreaker is most wins. KC has 13, one behind New York and tied with Montreal.

The second tiebreaker is Goals For. KC trails New York/Montreal (46) by five goals.

The third tiebreaker is Goal Differential. Kansas City (+14) has the second-best differential in the league, behind only Real Salt Lake (+15).

The fourth tiebreaker is Fewest Disciplinary Points*. Kansas City fans will have to hope it doesn't get to this point; KC have the second-most disciplinary points in the league.

*I have no idea what this means, so, don't ask me.

The fifth tiebreaker is combined team shoe size.*

*No it isn't. But there are six more tiebreakers of increasing minutiae that I'm not going to list for you. Is there a tentative playoff schedule yet?

Not yet. But we know the regular season ends on Sunday, Oct. 27 and that the MLS Cup will be played on Dec. 7 at the venue of the Supporter's Shield winner (or the best-finishing team that qualifies for the Cup).

There's also a FIFA international break Nov. 15-19.

So, the play-in game (the fourth- and fifth-place teams in each conference play a single knockout game to start the playoffs), the Conference Semifinals (a two-game aggregate series) and Conference Championship (also a two-game aggregate series) will take place somewhere between Oct. 29th and Nov. 24th. (I'm assuming MLS will break for Thanksgiving and have a two-week break between the Conference finals and the Cup.)

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