Wednesday, October 28, 2009

MLS Playoff Predictions

In case you are unfamiliar, here is the format. The first round is the semifinals for each conference. Each pair of teams plays two games, one in each team's stadium. At the end of the two matches they add the scores up and the team with the most total goals wins and advances to the next round. If the scores remain tied (note that away goals don't matter as they do in some other competitions) then they play two 15-minute periods of extra time and penalties if necessary. That's the format for the conference semifinals. For the conference finals, it is only one match played at the higher seed's (smaller number) stadium. The MLS Cup final is a one-off that will take place November 22nd at Qwest Field in Seattle.

Personally, I like the one-game final at a site decided before the playoffs. I think the conference finals should follow the same format as the semifinals. Especially with the unbalanced schedules during the regular season, I think it gives too much of an advantage to the higher-seeded teams. If it's due to scheduling I think they should flip it so that the first round is just one match and the conference finals have the two-leg format.

Here are the matchups:

Real Salt Lake (4 seed) - Columbus Crew (1)
New England Revolution (3) - Chicago Fire (2)

Chivas USA (4) - Los Angeles Galaxy (1)
Seattle Sounders FC (3) - Houston Dynamo (2)

The first team listed plays at home the first leg. This gives an advantage to the higher seed because it's better to play at home the second leg since extra time could happen in the second leg.


I'm actually unhappy with the version of the Poisson-Logit Model that predicts scorelines. The problem is that it doesn't seem to be sensitive enough to the attacking and defending qualities of the two teams. Therefore, I'm reverting back to the Poisson Model. Though it has problems as well, I think it will even out somewhat since each team plays at home making the predictions reasonably close. If it's tied after two legs, I'm giving the team that plays at home last a 55% chance of winning.

Here are the predictions:

Real Salt Lake - Columbus Crew

Columbus got a tough draw in my opinion. Despite finishing best in the league, their reward is the best scoring team in the playoffs. Real Salt Lake were unlucky to get just 40 points and sneak into the playoffs and I have them fourth overall. In addition, Utah is never an easy place to play due to the altitude. I think this tie will be closer than most people think. The first leg should be huge. If Columbus can hold Salt Lake scoreless, they will be in great shape heading home for the second leg. It will be tough sledding if they are down at that point.

Poisson predictions:
Columbus to advance: 52.4% (42.1% outright, 10.2% in extra time or shootout)
Salt Lake to advance: 47.6% (39.2%, 8.4%)

New England Revolution - Chicago Fire

As unlucky as Columbus were in the matchup, Chicago were just as lucky. New England are by far the worst team in the playoffs. They only got in due to above-expectation results in close matches which, again, is mostly, if not fully, due to luck. The Revs are the worst team in the playoffs at both scoring and conceding. Despite all that, there is a lot of variance in this format and since the MLS has so much parity, it won't necessarily be as lopsided as I'm implying. Chicago should win but New England certainly have a chance.

Poisson Prediction:
Chicago to advance: 57.3% (46.7% outright, 10.3% in extra time or penalties)
New England to advance: 42.7% (34.3%, 8.4%)

Chivas USA - L.A. Galaxy

Both these teams were near the bottom at scoring but pretty good at keeping opponents from scoring. I wouldn't expect a high-scoring affair. I'm sure others think the Galaxy have a big edge, but I have these two teams as very even. I think this will be very tight tie.

Poisson Prediction:
Galaxy to advance: 51.9% (40.2%, 11.7%)
Chivas to advance: 48.1% (38.5%, 9.6%)

Seattle Sounders FC - Houston Dynamo

This is a great matchup that should be better than the conference final will be no matter which of these teams advance. In my rankings these teams are right in the middle offensively and the two stingiest teams in the league. Houston edge out Seattle by one spot in each category. I expect a good, hard-fought tie that will still be up in the air in the second half of the second leg.

Poisson Prediction:
Dynamo to advance: 52.1% (40.5%, 11.6%)
Sounders to advance: 47.9% (38.3, 9.5%)

Championship Predictions

As I mention above, there is a lot of parity in the league. While I think New England is the worst team in the playoffs, the gap between the Revs and the top teams isn't nearly as large as you would see in cup competitions in Europe or South America even in later rounds. That combined with the format, which features a single match in the conference finals and the final, mean things are wide open. Here are the title percentages according to the Poisson model:

Columbus - 17.4%
Seattle - 15.8%
Houston - 15.1%
Galaxy - 14.5%
Chicago - 12.2%
Salt Lake - 9.9%
Chivas - 8.5%
New England - 6.6%

Needless to say, there is no clear favorite.

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