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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Handicapping the Union's drive for a playoff berth

Ten games remain in the Philadelphia Union’s quest for a playoff berth. That’s just under a third of the season. While the Union have put themselves in a solid position to make just their second playoff appearance in franchise history and first since 2011, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“A lot can happen,” was how Union manager John Hackworth put it Wednesday. “I personally, once I start looking at that in depth, it drives me crazy.”

The standings only say so much; it’s not a small coincidence that the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, the Union included, have played 24 games while the rest of the conference lags behind. The four teams in the hottest pursuit of the Union all have not one, but two games in hand. What the Union can say at the moment is that if each of those teams won out from their games in hand (a statistical unlikelihood given the number of six-point games involved), they’d still be in the playoffs, level on points with Chicago and ahead of them on head-to-head.

So with the deviation in games played, it’s best to look at points per game, which paints a fairly solid picture for the Union.

Kansas City24391.62555/25
New York24381.58333353.83333
New England22301.36363646.36364

Should the pace continue, only Montreal would overtake them in the standings (that’s the same Montreal team that has one win in its last eight games and has seen its points per game average plummet precipitously in that time). The race is so close, so wide open, that there’s also this stat to consider: If you take the points per game averages and extend them out over a 34-game schedule, the five teams with the highest points totals would be separated by just over four points. The Union’s projection of 52.4 points this season is closer to the team at the summit (Kansas City with 55.3) than to the sixth-place team (Chicago at 47.9).

One other thing to look at, like in the case of the NCAA Tournament, is the performance in the last 10 matches. That also looks favorable for the Union. Of their last 30 available points in MLS, they've collected 18, albeit mostly against Western Conference foes. That's 1.8 points per game. The only team with more has been Chicago (20 from their last 30 available). The Union's take has doubled that of the Impact and Crew (nine each). It's even ahead of Sporting Kansas City (17) and well ahead of the Red Bulls (14), Dynamo (13) and suddenly cooling Revolution (11). 

Looking Back ...

So what about historically: In MLS history, would the Union’s points per game average of 1.542 make the playoffs on a regular basis?

Over the last 10 seasons, there is only one such campaign in which it wouldn’t make the playoffs. Interestingly enough, it was last year.

In 2012, the final team into the playoffs, Houston, collected 53 points in 34 matches for an average of 1.559. Sixth-place Columbus had 52 points, an average of 1.529. Should the Union continue on their current average this season, they would fall somewhere between 52 and 53 points.

Can Patrick Nyarko, left,
and the Fire overtake the Union?
Only if they turn it up down the stretch.
(Associated Press)
That 2012 season may seem statistically odd in some regards. But this 2013 season is shaping up in a similar vein. The only difference a season ago was a 10-point drop off between teams six and seven in the Eastern Conference standings. The drop this season appears to be between teams eight and nine. The evidence of increased parity also bears out in the leaders. Sporting Kansas City won the East last year with 63 points; they’re in the lead again this year, but only on pace for 55 (1.853 PPG vs. 1.625). That average would’ve been good for fourth in the league this season.

But the historical perspective only goes so far. For instance, the Union’s PPG average would’ve won the Eastern Conference back in 2011 when Sporting KC won the league with a mere 51 points. That year, the Union’s point total would’ve even gotten into the postseason as the third-best in the Western Conference. The Union are only one win shy of the franchise record for wins in a season set in 2011 through just about 70 percent of the schedule.

If there’s a bit of karma or solace for the Union to search for in the past, perhaps it’s this: Beside 2012, as the league has fluctuated over the last decade from 34 to 30 to 32 back to 30 games in its schedule, no team with the Union’s PPG average has missed the playoffs. That includes a long history of wild cards in which playoff berths were determined by taking the best eight teams, regardless of league. In fact, the only other time it’s been close was in 2010, when San Jose and Colorado got into the playoffs averaging 1.533 points per game, the only time the margin has been within one-tenth of a point per game to the Union’s current average. (That seems like a small margin, but it works out to three points or so over a season.) The history may have no bearing on the current playoff structure, but it is a bit of mathematical consolation.

.. And moving forward The numbers, the history, are fine to manipulate on paper. But games are rarely played there, so let’s put this into real terms.

For the Union to maintain their points per game average, they would need to collect right around 15 points in their next 10 matches. Given the pattern of their season results, let’s call it 4-3-3. So how does that fit into the narrative of their remaining schedule?

Let’s cut out the top and the bottom. The Union must get results at home against Toronto and at D.C. United Oct. 5 and 12. They probably aren’t going to get results in the games book-ending those contests, trips to Kansas City and Montreal.

With those reasonable assumptions, that means in their remaining games, they have to go something like 2-1-3, which isn’t unreasonable. That means they would have to get a result in two of their three upcoming road games against New York (Aug. 17), New England (Aug. 25) and San Jose (Sept. 8), the first two obviously being prioritized for taking points from teams directly in competition with the Union.

Say they get those results, maybe go 0-1-2 there. That would mean they’d have to go 2-0-1 in home contests against Montreal (Aug. 31), Houston (Sept. 14), and Kansas City (the Oct. 26 season finale).

That, you would have to say, is a tall order.

There are other ways to get there, perhaps a simpler method being five wins. Assuming the D.C. and Toronto games (which come with sizeable caveats, given the difficult of sweeping a team this season and the Union’s struggles with Toronto) and maybe a steal of a win on the road to New York, New England or San Jose (a big leap), then it’s the same equation: Two wins against those last three teams at home, Montreal and Houston being the bigger matches, if we assume SKC is going to start to run away with the conference as has long been expected.

I’d hope it wouldn’t shock anyone to say that in the MLS Eastern Conference this season, nothing has come easy. The Union’s playoff outlook merely reinforces that.

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