Archive for October, 2013

MLS Playoff Ball: Who Are the Belles?

"Hey, go lock this thing in the cabinet!"

“Hey, go lock this thing in the cabinet!”

(by) Steve Fenn, numerically speaking…

The New York Red Bulls earned their precious Supporters Shield (Editor’s Note: Writer is a Pittsburgh-based … FC Dallas fan!), but they only have a ten-point edge on the Montreal Impact, whose 49 points are the least of any 2013 playoff team.

In an average MLS year, that gap is 17.7 points, and almost all of those seasons featured 8 playoff teams, not ten. The only year with a point difference of ten or less was 2009 with Columbus in pole position on 49 from 30 matches and Real Salt Lake sneaking into 8th with 40 points.

With all playoff teams jammed into a narrow point range, can we be certain that any one of them is superior to the rest?

Theoretically that’s what the playoffs are for, but let’s take a deeper look at some telling numbers to get a better feeling for playoff clubs’ relative strength heading into the second season.

As we discussed in August, expected goals differential (xGD) driven by shot locations has been a much better predictor of results than were points, raw goal differential, or shooting stats in MLS this season. Revisiting this study using the full season’s results, here are the R² of stats from the first 17 matches versus points and goal differential of the last 17 for each club.


[ Once again all shot location data was generously mined and shared by the good folks at American Soccer Analysis ]

Just as it was in the earlier study, xGD is far more predictive than the other options from the first half of the season. Goals are just too scarce to be reliably distributed, and so it makes sense to take a step back and find a larger-sample stat that is the most-significant factor leading to goals on both sides of the field. I have yet to find a better stat than xGD toward that end, though it would very likely be improved by adjusting for set pieces, which part of the body was striking the ball, etc. Having established the importance of xGD, let’s look at league-wide trends in shot locations and outcomes, as well as data at the club level.


[Caption: This visualization defaults to the LA Galaxy, the league leaders in xGD, but in the interactive version you can switch to other clubs ]

As you can see, across the league teams are quite inefficient in all zones but 1 & 2, scoring on less than 7.14% in zone 3 all the way down to 2.33% in zone 5. For a clearer comparison of the playoff clubs, the below graph is sorted by total xGD (blue bar), with a red bar displaying actual goal differential.

xGD ranking

The Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City are clearly way ahead of everyone else here.

The difference between LA’s expected and actual goal difference is driven mainly by their defensive performance (as I said in August, The Cudicini Effect), while SKC underperformed mainly on offense. These seem consistent with an eye test.

Overall, these xGD scores are the best guide to offer for team strength.

Take note, however, of the proximity of these scores.

Divide any of the figures by 34 games and the gap between the best (LA with +0.57 per game) and worst (Montreal’s -0.16) playoff teams is only 0.73 expected goals per game.

In fact, take out LA and SKC and you’ll see that the other 8 are all within 0.32 xG/game. You could certainly project a winners of match-ups based on such tiny margins, but no MLS Cup predictions this year should be made with a great deal of certainty.

Tonight, xGD and home field advantage make Houston a significant favorite over Montreal, but the Impact are absolutely capable of overcoming the odds. That match’s winner will join the top 3 seeds and Seattle in the conference semifinals where home field advantage is effectively balanced. Everyone left is so close in quality that it would be folly to say any one club is more than 20% to win the 2013 MLS Cup. That may be frustrating for anyone who wants to identify a true frontrunner, but for the rest of us it should be exciting to see who will scrap their way to the top of the heap.

If I had to bet my life on the outcome of these playoffs, I’d say LA will visit Kansas City for the MLS Cup Final and SKC will take the trophy, but I’d immediately review my last will and testament. The best teams don’t always win, and this year even those that seem to have an edge don’t have an overwhelming advantage over all the other good teams in these playoffs.

USWNT versus New Zealand

I’m no Matt Mathai, but here are a few pics of the recent friendly between the USWNT and New Zealand in beautiful, warm, state of the art Candlestick Park. Much thanks to the US Soccer Federation for allowing me to shoot on the pitch and being helpful at every turn of the way.


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MLS Playoffs Set-Up: Light Fuse, Run Away

Even the littlest guy has a chance to make the playoffs this year....

Even the littlest guy has a chance to make the playoffs this year….

Steve Fenn provides this week’s playoff implications Cliff Notes.

Those who make the MLS schedules are probably used to being questioned.

Why are clubs so often uneven in number of games played? Why doesn’t the league put a high-profile match or two on the day after baseball’s All-Star game, the slowest sports day of the year? Why aren’t the regular season finales synchronized?

All valid on certain levels, but the schedulers do deserve a little praise for getting the whole league even on 32 matches played right now, making the march into the playoffs pretty cleancut. (Editor’s note: You say schedulers; I hear single entity).

New York, Portland, Kansas City, Salt Lake, Seattle and LA are within two points of each other in the Supporter Shield race. Montreal, Chicago, and Philadelphia are tied for 4th in the East, with Houston only two points ahead and New England just a single point behind.

Colorado, San Jose, and Vancouver are also within just one result of each other.

I haven’t found a precedent for a playoff race in any sport being this close across an entire league with 2 games left. Portland has the best Supporters Shield odds (by a hair), but hasn’t clinch a playoff spot yet. Even in a league that highly values parity, we may never see a race like this ever again.

Every MLS fixture this week will have a significant influence on playoff seeding.

To get a feel for the implications, here are some graphs of each club’s current playoff odds, and where those odds will be if they win, lose, or draw this weekend. Odds taken from Sports Club Stats, who run Monte Carlo simulations weighted by each team’s goal differential.


You can clearly see that the 3rd through 7th seeds in this conference are fluid. All of them are at significant risk if they lose, and they make huge strides with a win. Columbus are the walking dead, and can only get in if they sweep New England in their season-closing home-&-home while 2 other clubs fall by the wayside.


Not as many contenders as the East, but at least more of they are all playing each other. If Colorado beats Vancouver and LA beats San Jose, the conference’s top five will be set, with order relative to each other the only Western issue to be sorted out next week.


Clearly, none of these clubs can really afford a loss, and draws are generally pretty bad, too. While Portland narrowly has the highest odds currently, the biggest takeaway is that no one’s Shield chances are in any way stable.

Of note for all three of the races we’ve discussed, every result has trickle-down effects on third parties. Probability is zero sum, meaning that when one club loses odds that percentage is split between everyone else. For example, here are the probability swings for Shield contenders if RSL and the Timbers tie:


While Portland would obviously the most effected by this outcome, Sporting Kansas City’s odds would increase more than Salt Lake’s would be hurt, and New York is about even. Meanwhile this is clearly one of the results that the longshot Galaxy and Sounders should be rooting for. Look at pretty much any other fixture this weekend and you’ll see that it’s outcome will impact the postseason chances of multiple non-participants, too.

We may be heading into the most exciting weekend of regular season MLS matches ever. Every manager should know just how important a win would be, and none should view a draw as an acceptable result.

USA v. Panama: Live Commentary



The marbles are already in the bag.

Which “B” teamer shows their wares tonight? Starting line-ups shortly.

USA 2 – Jamaica 0: Selected Images

From the wonderful eye of Matt Mathai….

D3S_1379 D3S_1310
D3S_3558 jj_haha D3S_3428-1 D3S_3428 D3S_3388 D3S_3383 D3S_3267 D3S_3211 D3S_3247 D3S_3026 D3S_2850 D3S_2771 D3S_2731 D3S_2596 D3S_2549 D3S_2428 D3S_1930 D3S_1885 D3S_1750 D3S_1701 D3S_1346

USA v. Jamaica: Live Commentary

Get up man! We got another one against Jamaica! (Brad Evans rides tonight!)

Get up man! We got another one against Jamaica! (Brad Evans rides tonight!)

Nothing on the line except “BBQ joints,” unless your name is Sacha or Aron.

TSG will be back with a preview next week for Panama. Starting line-ups shortly.


MLS Odds: Decrypting The Playoff Code

Will he be a seeding difference-maker?

Will he be a seeding difference-maker?

Author Steve Fenn seeks clarity on the MLS playoff mixture.

With mere weeks left, MLS clubs’ regular aims are gaining a clearer focus.

Right now the New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and Real Salt Lake all have a realistic shot at the Supporters Shield. They are so close with so little time left that whenever one of them loses they will essentially leave the race.

Meanwhile the San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouvers Whitecaps, New England Revolution, and Chicago Fire would be content sneaking into the play-in game between the 4th and 5th seeds. In between, the LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Montreal Impact, Houston Dynamo, and Philadelphia Union are interesting in their own way. They certainly want to hold off the would-be playoff usurpers, and an immaculate run to the Shield is the ultimate goal, but mostly they should be jokeying to earn byes through top-3 seeding in their conference.

How the West (is to be) won...

How the West (is to be) won…

Seattle, Salt Lake, LA, Portland, and Colorado are all capable of landing with a bye or tumbling into the play-in game. Seattle still has pole position for the top spot, but Portland could take a commanding lead this weekend. RSL looks well-positioned for a bye, but overall these five clubs are way too close to call right now.

East of playoff Eden.

East of playoff Eden.

In the East, New York, Sporting KC, and Montreal are in good position for byes, but things can shift quickly, and Houston may well swoop in if one of them slips. This conference gets much more interesting with a focus on the bubble:

Planet Cling-On!

Planet Cling-On!

Philadelphia looks to be in solid position, but the Dynamo, Fire, and Revolution are locked in a dogfight for the fifth seed, and one or two of them could overtake the Union, too. Outside of the Supporters Shield, this is probably the most exciting race right now.

Avoiding golf season...

Avoiding golf season…

The Rapids’ loss in San Jose and the Whitecaps’ upset blowout in Seattle on Wednesday night reopened a Western playoff race that looked all but over. The main concern is still where RSL/PDX/LA/CO will finish relative to each other, but San Jose is now a legitimate threat and Colorado, and if the Whitecaps (tiny spec in the upper right of the graph) could crash the party if they win their last 2 fixtures.

Keep in mind that while each club’s position here is important, none of them are terribly stable for such a late date in the season. Looking over projections from Zach Slaton, Josh Y on Sounder at Heart and Sports Club Stats, it is striking that in the final month no one is locked into a particular playoff seed. Here is a visualization of Zach’s odds for each club to land in every possible table position:

So simple a toddler colored this...

So simple a toddler colored this…


The challenging part here is to resist the natural urge to seek out certainty in this graph.

While it certainly shows that some clubs are more likely to end up in a certain range of seeding, what’s most interesting is that no club is greater than 50% likely to land on a specific playoff seed. New York (still the only club to mathematically clinch a playoff spot!) and Kansas City will very likely be the top 2 in the East, but which will get the top spot is quite uncertain, and both could potentially tumble all the way to the play-in match. Every club with playoff possibility has a spread of at least 4 possible table positions in their conference. The lack of seeding certainty is driven by two factors:

1) Soccer results at any level are highly subject to randomness over 2-3 matches.

2) 1st through 5th place league-wide are only 0.05 PPG apart, while a still-tiny 0.11 PPG separates the 7th and 13th-best records in MLS.

One more illustration of just how difficult it is to predict this race. All 19 MLS teams have had more than 1 skid of 3-matches with 2 points or less. Oh, and the new US Open Cup champions, DC United, are the only side who hasn’t had a single 3-match stretch with 7-plus points. The table is closely pacsed and every team is capable of moving in either direction. Even the slightest upticks or slides driven by skill and luck, but mostly the later over 2-3 matches, will have major ramifications. Watching all these bubble teams sort things out should serve as a nicely dramatic preamble to the MLS Cup playoffs.

Per Slaton, there’s a 53.25% chance that at least 1 pair of Eastern clubs will finished tied on points for a playoff seed, while it’s 67.43% in the West. Keep the below tiebreakers in mind as the end of the season approaches quickly: