MLS Playoffs: So Tied Up in Fits, Who Can Find Winning Ways?

Don’t be alarmed by the beeping sounds: that’s just the warning tone of nearly every Major League Soccer (MLS) team backing into the playoffs. And these don’t even forewarn of modest danger along the lines of having a big truck back over the unwary; no, these bells warn of jittery, low-scoring scraps on pitches across the league.

Well, it’s probably not as bad as all that, but I’ve got to ask a question I posed yesterday: does anybody want to win this thing? Judging by recent form among all the favorites, no. Even accounting for the teams who “stormed into” the post-season, picking playoff favorites looks like it will be more crap-shoot divination than statistical science.

Since September 20, the eight MLS playoff teams combined for an 11-10-21 record in league play; just to clarify, that’s arranged win-loss-tie. So, yeah, the combined number of ties overall matches the number of wins and losses. Some teams contributed more to this dubious cause, as the individual records show:

Chicago Fire: 2-0-4 (10 pts.)
Chivas USA: 2-1-3 (9 pts.)
DC United: 1-1-3 (6 pts.)
FC Dallas: 1-3-2 (5 pts.)
Houston Dynamo: 2-1-1 (7 pts.)
Kansas City Wizards: 1-1-3 (6 pts.)
New England Revolution: 1-2-2 (5 pts.)
Red Bull New York: 1-1-3 (6 pts.)

Credit Chicago with for being the only team to take points from every game, even if the 10 points of 18 available isn’t a run for the ages; and Houston’s 7 points from 12 isn’t so bad in context. But what about New England’s paltry 5 from 15 available, or, worse still, Dallas’ 5 from 18? Backing in doesn’t do justice to those circumstances: it’s more like going into the post-season falling over backwards.

The rot reaches even the presumed “contenders”: New England’s sputter wasn’t so surprising, but what about DC’s loss to Columbus? As much as I count the Crew the best team to miss the post-season, their playoffs hopes died the week before. The draw between Houston and Chivas looks less bad when stacked up against their relative form, but can either team score – something you’re, y’know, gonna wanna do at some point. With no one sincerely believing in KC or Red Bull (honorable exception: Dave Martinez from the Red Bull Offside), one almost has to dub Chicago the East’s “hot” team for this post-season – and they came in as the #7 seed (right?).

To put that reach a little more directly, I’m seeing a little more “umph” in the Western Conference’s top two at this point than I’m seeing in the East. There’s something to watch for, at least.

At some point during the season, all these teams looked to have things figured out; some even compiled impressive streaks – I’m thinking here of DC and Houston, especially, though Chivas obviously managed more consistency than the latter. But the recent records speak to a collective drop-off, whether from fatigue or some manner of calculation regarding personnel or trying to keep some reserve in the tank. Assuming the latter, especially, the question is how hard will it be to rediscover winning ways after a couple games off? This year, more than most, a championship rides on that one.

If you’re into unpredictability, this post-season should push your buttons.

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