Decoding the MLS Playoff Push & That Tiebreaker Thing

Will Chivas shake off the Galaxy drubbing and muscle their way to the playoffs?

Steve Fenn with his second piece for The Shin Guardian

Sunday’s Superclasico between Chivas USA and LA Galaxy was one of the few matches we have left in this MLS season with major playoff implications. It was also a matchup between the two clubs most directly affected by MLS’ new playoff tiebreakers, announced last Wednesday. With the season over 70% gone for some clubs, it was announced that teams level on points will be ranked by:

1) Most total goals scored

2) Greatest goal differential

3) Fewest disciplinary points

4) Most road goals scored

5) Greatest road goal differential

6) Most home goals scored

7) Greatest home goal differential

8) Coin toss (for 2 teams) or drawing of lots (3 or more teams)

For those wondering what disciplinary points are, check this page which has both the current rankings and the calulation guidelines.

There are reasons to criticize this new standard, but Bruce Arena and others have covered those pretty well already. My main focus today is examining the standings, and the impact of this rule change on the already-underwhelming 2012 playoff race.

As we discussed a couple weeks ago, per game figures are much more telling than totals when clubs have played uneven numbers of matches. So, here’s the current league table with points, goals for, goal differential, and disciplinary points all broken down to per game figures:

Clearly, Chivas USA is the biggest loser in this new tiebreaker format (and did themselves no favors on Sunday). If they rally to tie LA on points, they would need to outscore them by 29 goals in the process. The Columbus Crew can’t be terribly pleased with the change either, but at least one of the teams they are trying to catch is the also-low-scoring Chicago Fire. If they do make up enough points to draw even with the Fire, it is at least possible that the Crew with 3 games in hand could outscore Chicago by 8 goals in the process.

The tough news for Chivas USA, the Crew, and all other playoff hopefuls is that one of top 5 in their conference would need to suffer a pronounced dip in form to give them a chance at the postseason.

Based on the new tiebreakers, I adjusting points needed from the last column based on goals scored, using Sports Club Stats<hyperlink > to level-set. I color-coded four tiers of goals scored which dictate that club’s point total needed: High-scorers in green, average clubs in yellow, low-scorers are red, and the profoundly anemic Chivas USA in purple. I also added a projected point total, which might be easier to follow than PPG:

The soft underbelly of 2012 MLS (everyone below the Crew and Chivas USA in the standings) can probably start planning for 2013 at this point. Everyone in that group has to average at least 2 PPG along with one of the top 5 clubs in their conference suffering a horrible dip in form. Does anyone anticipate Montreal, Philadelphia, Colorado, Dallas, New England, Portland, or Toronto suddenly getting better results than San Jose has thusfar? Stranger things have happened in sports, but it certainly doesn’t seem likely.

As you can see, the playoff race is surprisingly close to being over already. Which brings us back to Chivas and Columbus, easily the most likely clubs to shake up the playoff picture. Chivas took body blows this week from the new tiebreakers and then from the Galaxy. They have pretty tough schedule ahead with only one match against a team they have a prayer of overtaking (Vancouver), and will lose any tiebreaker they find themselves in.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ schedule is promising, with plenty of matches against the worst teams in MLS, and 1 match each against the 3 clubs they have the best chance to pass (though all 3 are on the road), and have a slight chance of overcoming the new tiebreakers as well. The Crew is easily the most likely to crash the playoff party this year. If you are a neutral that craves late-season drama, root for Columbus for a little while. If neither they nor Chivas makes a run, we may have little to track in the last month of the season besides seeding amongst the haves of 2012 MLS while the have-nots jockey for draft and allocation position.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent work! Thanks.


  2. Though I stayed away from criticizing the new tiebreaking rules in the column, I think the comment section could be a good place to do so. My thoughts in regard to the change:
    – anytime a league changes their rules midseason they risk the appearance of favoritism. This could/should have been decided and announced long ago.
    – given home/away imbalance in most matchups, lessening import of head-to-head made sense, but eliminating it entirely from the tiebreakers did not.
    – Goal differential is a much better indicator of strength than goals scored (or even points for that matter). G over GD is akin to entertainment over quality.


  3. Don’t know how you calculated the disciplinary points per game, but your calculations are way off. Just taking 4 examples in the West, you should have SJ with 404 pts in 23 games (17.6 ppg), RSL with 437 pts in 24 games ( 18.2 ppg) and Seattle with 404 pts in 22 games (18.4 ppg ) and Vancouver with 416 pts in 23 games (18.1 ppg). Something’s wrong with your method.


    • Weird. Thanks for letting me know. I paid a lot of attention to points and goals, but should have double-checked everything.
      I’m pretty busy tonight, but will get it fixed in the morning.


    • I can’t tell exactly were I went wrong, but I did identify a point of confusion on disciplinary points. The MLS page for them doesn’t update immediately (presumably waiting for the findings of the disciplinary committee). Currently the page is only updated through 8/5 matches. I copied the figures, then backed out one game in the calculation for every club that played last weekend.
      I just tweeted the table with corrected disciplinary points per game (DPPG). When you see that the DPPG column in the standings is blue, you’ll know that it has been updated here as well.


  4. Apparently MLS was told that defence wins championships and they had this to say…
    “f*** championships we need butts in seats”


  5. Posted by Damon on 2012/08/15 at 4:30 AM

    eh- reward the behavior that you want to encourage I guess.

    I can’t tell if MLS would love or hate it if the last day of the season came down to a couple teams needing to score a ton of goals to catch them and going ALL OUT to get them. It could lead to some truly absurd moments like letting the other team score in order to get the ball back but hopefully coaches wouldn’t actually take it that far.


  6. […] Shin Guardian: Decoding the MLS Playoff Push & That Tiebreaker Thing […]


  7. Posted by Hal on 2012/08/19 at 10:11 PM

    playoffs are a horrible way to decide a regular season soccer champion.


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