The playoff picture: a look back at what it takes

The hunt is on for FC Dallas to punch their playoff spot. They are also well in the mix for hosting a home playoff match. Let’s dive into the data and do our best to gauge how many points it will take.

Points Per Match

This graph probably has no business being this busy… but so does a league not have any business changing playoff formats 3-4 times over the course of ten years.

Points Per Match in Western Conference standings.
Points Per Match in Western Conference standings.

Such is life in a young league like Major League Soccer, though, and I will do a quick breakdown of each format to help ground you in our current playoff picture.

Playoff Format: 2012 – 2014

This playoff format consisted of five playoff teams in each conference. The first match was a one-match knockout round between 4th and 5th place, hosted by the 4th place team. The Conference Semifinals and later matches were home-and-away aggregate-goal format. This led to the 1st-3rd teams earning byes into the Conference Semifinals.

New Playoff Format 1: 2013 – 2018

This playoff format consisted of six playoff teams in each conference. The first round of matches were knockout rounds between 3rd and 6th place and 4th and 5th place, hosted by the 3rd and 4th place teams. The Conference Semifinals and later matches were home-and-away aggregate-goal format. This led to the 1st and 2nd-place teams earning byes into the Conference Semifinals.

New Playoff Format 2: 2019 – Present

The current playoff format consists of seven playoff teams in each conference. The first round of matches are knockout rounds between 2nd and 7th place, 3rd and 6th place, and 4th and 5th place teams, with higher seeds hosting. The Conference Semifinals and later matches are also knockout rounds, with higher seeds hosting (and better record hosting MLS Cup final). This leads to the 1st-place teams earning a bye into the Conference Semifinals.

Temp Playoff Format: 2020 (COVID)

In 2020, MLS held a special playoff format due to the COVID pandemic causing some matches to be postponed and later canceled in favor of starting the playoffs at their scheduled time. This format consisted of eight playoff teams in the Western Conference. The entire playoffs were knockout rounds, beginning with the quarterfinals between 1st and 8th, 2nd and 7th, 3rd and 6th, and 4th and 5th, with higher seeds hosting throughout the playoffs.

Hopefully, when you take a look back at the above chart, it will help give you a sense of the number of teams qualifying for a bye, hosting a home match, and qualifying for playoffs over the last decade. You can also more closely examine what’s important to us – trends in the points/match played required to host a home playoff match.

A couple of major points stick out to me:

  • The spread between 1st and 8th has sharply narrowed over the last decade. This is intuitive, as there are now 14 teams in the Western Conference (vs. only 9 in 2012). More teams means 8th is now middle of the pack and will see higher point totals than before.
  • In years that a team runs away with the 1st place title, the points required to host a home match is generally less. This is best highlighted in 2012, where 4th place only required over 1.26 Pts/MP or in 2019, where 4th place only required over 1.5 Pts/MP when coincidentally LAFC also ran away with the title.
Points Per Game Boxplot by Rank
Points Per Game Boxplot by Rank

In the boxplot above, you can see the general points range for each rank in the table. Our focus is winning a playoff host spot (4th place or better), which has one of the wider ranges in the table, requiring anywhere from 1.4 – 1.7 Pts/MP over the last decade. The sweet spot and the most likely number is around our median of 1.56 Pts/MP.

So, what is the current outlook for Los Toros?

Below is a current season table based on Pts/MP. This helps compare across seasons of differing lengths, as well as accounts for those pesky games in hand, which can be devious when determining standings. 

For instance, Minnesota United is currently below Dallas in the table by a point, but their two games in hand means they are reasonably likely to pass FCD up if season-long averages hold.

The Race is On!
The Race is On!

There is a very tight race leading into the last stretch of the season, with 3rd-5th only separated by .12 Pts/MP.

Another thing to point out is LAFC is somewhat running away with the 1st place West title (though after last night’s match – potentially a late stretch challenge from Austin?). This influences the playoff host line lower (LAFC is winning lots of matches and keeping the whole conference’s point totals down).

So what is it going to take for FC Dallas to win one of the extremely valuable home playoff spots?

The past decade of seasons would tell us 1.56 Pts/MP or around 53 total points. FC Dallas currently sits at 42 points with 6 matches remaining, meaning they should pick up 11 more points or a whopping 1.83! Pts/MP in the last stretch to feel comfortable.

When we take a look at the schedule remaining, we get an even clearer picture of what it is going to take.

FCD remaining schedule.
FCD remaining schedule.

How much bigger can a pair of matches be than FCD’s next two? Your two biggest contenders for a home playoff spot, back-to-back. The potential swing of a win for either team in these matchups is enormous and very meaningful for the club’s end-of-season standings.

Yes, that makes this weekend’s home matchup with Real Salt Lake a must-win in terms of hosting a playoff match.

While FC Dallas also has to face off against LAFC the following match, they get to play them at home for this bout, increasing their chances against a squad who has at least shown themselves as vulnerable on the road.

The last three matchups of San Jose, Colorado, and Sporting KC are as favorable as it gets, with all three being in the bottom four of the West. It will be beyond important for FC Dallas to take care of business with these teams and finish the season strong.

My Prediction

If you asked me after the Philadelphia match, I would have told you we were almost certainly headed towards hosting a playoff match. The rout in Nashville knocked my confidence down a bit – but I still feel good about this squad’s chances of hosting their first playoff match since the 2018 defeat to Portland.

However, the margins are narrow.

The team should find their former self if Jesus Ferreira is ready to go vs RSL, but if the Nashville match has shaken their confidence or Jesus is not at 100% for the final stretch, it could make the difference.

We shall see over the next few weeks as Nico Estevez tries to prove his managerial ability in his first year as the FC Dallas headman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.