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A Mathematical Interlude: Projecting the Final MLS Standings

Remember at the beginning of the season when everyone across the internet made their foolproof predictions of where each team was going to end up in the table by the end of the season? Remember which team nearly everyone had in the top 3?

Thanks, LA Galaxy, for making MLS so vastly unpredictable.

Clearly all those beginning of the season predictions were a bunch of BS. But now we've reached that point in the MLS season where we've got something to go on. We can take a third of a season's worth of information and create a picture of the final standings. We can take the results of the first 14 or so matches of the season and predict the future - with math! What could possibly go wrong?

So today, Ryan, a science teacher, and I, a financial analyst, are going to use this space to geek out about our mathematical projection models. As the season progresses, we'll periodically share how our models have changed with the passage of time.

Ryan's Analysis

For my projections I use a simple calculation. First I separate home and away points and calculate the points per match for home and away games. Once I do that I then take how many home and away games they have left and times that by their points per match for home and away games. I then take those numbers and add them to the points a team currently has.

Eastern Analysis:

The biggest thing that jumps out when looking at the projected standings is the disproportionate amount of home games DC united has. This coupled with their lower away points per match puts them solidly third after Sporting KC and the Energy Drinks. I really doubt Toronto will only end up with 9 points but if could be possible given the abysmal streak they had at the beginning of the year. The other big mover is the Houston Dynamo based on the fact that they have had only 3 home games.

The 5 Playoff teams would be Sporting KC, DC United, New York Redbulls, Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo.

Western Analysis:

It doesn't look good for the Timbers. They just are not getting enough points at home to offset the lack of points once again on the road. According to the calculations the standings now will be the standings at the end of the year. The only good news is that the last time I ran these Portland was projected to get 31 points but now they are projected to get 34. If they continue the upward climb they can have a shot but slow and steady will not win this race it needs to be a sprint.

The five teams making the playoffs will be RSL, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver and Colorado.

Andy's Analysis

Mine's a more complicated model. I use a combination of (a) each team's goals scored and allowed and (b) home and away winning percentages to predict the winner of every game for the remainder of the season. In order to account for changes in team performances, I give a higher weight to more recent matches than those that took place at the start of the season.

Finally, in order to make sure the predictions don't get too far out of whack, I make sure that roughly the same number of overall draws are predicted going forward as have already happened. (I haven't quite figured out how to make sure that each team plays to a certain percentage of draws, though. That's a problem.)

The big advantage of the more complicated model is it weighs more recent results more heavily than older results. For example, the New York Red Bulls are 4-0-1 in their last five, with eight goals scored and four allowed. Each of those goals is fully weighted in the calculation for subsequent games. 10 games ago, the Red Bulls beat Montreal 5-2; those goals only count for half as much in predicting subsequent games. And so on.

The big disadvantage of the more complex calculation is that it pushes teams to the extremes of the table. While Ryan projects Toronto to manage six more points by the end of the season, having collected three points in the first third, my model cannot fathom a scenario in which Toronto could possibly win another game, based on their performance so far. Similarly, it predicts that six teams will finish with more than 70 points, a feat no MLS team has ever accomplished. Whatever.

The end results, though, are pretty similar to Ryan's, at least in terms of each team's final standing. By my calculations, the Eastern Conference playoff teams would be New York Red Bulls, D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew and New England Revolution.

The Western playoff teams project to be Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids and Vancouver Whitecaps.