Thursday, October 1, 2009

MLS - Analysis and Playoff Predictions (Oct 1)

While the European leagues are just getting going, the MLS is heading into the tense weeks at the end of the season.

The Format

The MLS uses a kind of hybrid between typical league and cup formats to decide its champion. There is a regular season in which every team plays every other twice plus two additional matches, one at home and one away. That is where we are now, teams have played 25-27 matches so there are 3 to 5 left. When the regular season is done, the top 8 teams make the playoffs, with the caveat that at least two teams from each conference must be the in the playoffs. Like other sports in the US, the playoffs are split by conference as much as possible. I say as much as possible because a team, or even two though that's very unlikely, from, for example, the West could play in the Eastern Conference playoff.

The format in the playoffs is similar to that of cup competitions, like the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League. They play two matches, one in each team's stadium. After the two matches the scores are added. If teams are tied in aggregate goals, then they go to extra time and penalties if necessary. This is different than UEFA competitions where the away-goals rule is used.

For now, the thing you need to know is that the top 8 make the playoffs assuming two from each conference are in that top 8.


Here are the rankings:

The right-most column, which is what they're ranked by, is what the average goal differential would be for each team if the teams played a million balanced seasons at the level indicated by the results thus far. I say balanced seasons because I'm assuming each team would only play each other team twice, not play the additional two matches. O rank is their scoring rank, D rank is their defensive ranking.

Compared to the rankings for other leagues, the most striking thing about this is how much more parity there is in the MLS compared to other leagues. The obvious reason for this is the salary cap, which keeps some teams from spending drastically more than others. Probably for this reason, the best team in the MLS is, at least according to my model, not the best offensively or defensively. For comparison, Manchester United rates best at both, and both Inter and Real Madrid rate as the best teams in their leagues at scoring and second best defensively.

Let's look at the second column. That's the difference between my rankings and the team's current spot in the standings. For example, I rate Colorado 3rd but the Rapids are 5th in the table right now. Some of these difference are simply because teams have played a different number of games so far. Another difference is the schedule - teams don't play a balanced schedule. I think that part is minimal. The biggest difference in my view is that some teams have, if you'll excuse the gambling term, "run good" in terms of how many points they've picked up given their goal differential. My rankings are based on goal differential, obviously the table uses points. As I argued in a previous article, how many points a team gets for a given goal differential is apparently all luck. In my view, New England and Los Angeles are not as good as their records suggest while Real Salt Lake and Dallas are significantly better than their records.

The Playoff Race

To come up with playoff predictions, I simulated the league playing out 10,000 times using the Poisson-Logit Model, which I believe to be very accurate at predicting match outcomes this far into the season.

For a more in-depth description of the playoff race, see Ives's soccernet article which goes over the schedules and recent results for each team still in the playoff race. I don't like his odds, they underrate every contender, probably because when you convert his odds to percentages they add up to just over 5 spots instead of 8. Otherwise the article is solid.

Here is the breakdown:

Already in:
Columbus Crew

Almost certain:
Houston Dynamo - 99.99% (they missed the playoffs in exactly 1 out of the 10,000 simulations)
Chicago Fire - 99.88%
Los Angeles Galaxy - 98.95%
Chivas USA - 94.5%

Probably in, but with some work to do:
Colorado Rapids - 80.9%
Seattle Sounders - 75.6%
New England Revolution - 63.6%

Uphill climb:
Real Salt Lake - 39.0%
Toronto FC - 25.4%

Not looking good:
DC United - 13.9%
FC Dallas - 7.3%
Kansas City Wizards - 0.9%
San Jose Earthquakes - 0.02% (2 out of 10,000 simulations)

New York Red Bulls

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