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An Early Look at the Western Conference Playoff Race

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It’s time to take an early look at the landscape of the Western Conference playoff race.

Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS Western Conference playoff race is only starting to kick into gear, but at the moment it’s best described as an utter mess. Case in point: The Timbers are currently in third place in the West and are only one point out of second. That seems great until you realize the Timbers are also only three points out of seventh.

The Vancouver Whitecaps have momentarily separated themselves from the pack by four points, but such a margin can disappear in a hurry. Just ask the Seattle Sounders.

Every team in the West has played between 16 (Sporting Kansas City and San Jose Earthquakes) and 20 (LA Galaxy) games. So, with the Western Conference season more or less at its halfway point, let’s take a look at the strength of each each team’s schedule the rest of the way.

At this stage of the season the mechanism for measuring strength of schedule is simple: average points per game to date of each team’s remaining opponents. With half the regular season in the books, we now have a big enough sample size to get a decent gauge on each team’s actual quality. That isn’t as to say the final standings will mirror the midway standings, but it is fair to say that we now have a large enough sample size that it’s unlikely a team’s standing is unduly affected by flukes.

Team Remaining Opponents’ PPG Games Remaining Home Games Remaining Remaining Home Opponents’ PPG Remaining Away Opponents’ PPG
Portland Timbers 1.371 (1) 16 8 1.394 (4) 1.348 (1)
Houston Dynamo 1.385 (2) 17 8 1.384 (3) 1.387 (5)
Vancouver Whitecaps 1.388 (3) 16 9 1.355 (1) 1.430 (8)
Sporting Kansas City 1.403 (4) 18 8 1.425 (7) 1.386 (4)
Seattle Sounders 1.408 (5) 16 8 1.434 (8) 1.381 (T-2)
LA Galaxy 1.411 (6) 14 7 1.440 (9) 1.381 (T-2)
San Jose Earthquakes 1.417 (7) 18 10 1.361 (2) 1.486 (10)
FC Dallas 1.417 (8) 17 9 1.412 (5) 1.424 (7)
Real Salt Lake 1.441 (9) 16 8 1.485 (10) 1.396 (6)
Colorado Rapids 1.448 (10) 17 9 1.419 (6) 1.480 (9)

The good news for the Timbers is that Portland has what looks at this point of the season to be the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the West. Moreover, with the Timbers now having discovered good form at home (the Timbers have 13 points from their last five games at Providence Park), the relatively modest home schedule doesn’t look like as much of a challenge as a pretty cupcake away slate. Thus, the Timbers’ current fifth-place standing in the West on points per game (Portland is thousandths of a point behind San Jose) is a pretty solid number, a conclusion that is only bolstered by the fact that the Timbers managed the first half of the season largely without Diego Valeri.

Outside Portland we can draw a few conclusions as well. First, the Whitecaps appear to be for real and at this point have to be considered the team to beat in the West. Their overall remaining schedule is on the easier side, while their current home form (the one blemish on Vancouver’s resume thus far) seems largely explainable by the fact that their home slate to date has been brutal. With 9 home fixtures in their final 16 games and the easiest home schedule in the West, it’s safe to say Vancouver controls its own fate in the conference.

Second, Sporting Kansas City looks like they may be overrated. At first blush this is counterintuitive, as SKC have a more or less average-looking schedule ahead of them. But having played nine home games in their first 16 (with 10, therefore, of their last 18 remaining on the road), and having a difficult home schedule ahead of them, it becomes clear that SKC to date has largely feasted on poor opponents in the friendly confines of Sporting Park. They may have built themselves enough of a cushion on 1.69 points per game at this point, but if they drop one or two more results at home in the second half than they did in the first, that cushion could evaporate quickly.

Third, Real Salt Lake can’t be considered playoff contenders right now. At 1.22 points per game, the Claret-and-Cobalt are well off the Western Conference playoff pace that, despite adding a sixth playoff spot to the mix, still appears to be settling in the 1.5 points-per-game range. RSL’s 3-1-5 home record right now isn’t impressing anybody, but that number is actually worse than it looks when you consider that they’ve had largely easy pickings at Rio Tinto thus far this year. And that’s about to stop; RSL faces the most difficult home schedule to close the year by some distance. It’s too early to say RSL can’t turn it around, but, at this point, it will take a remarkable second half for Real Salt Lake to earn a playoff spot.

Finally, the San Jose Earthquakes are very legitimate playoff contenders. At 1.56 points per game, the Quakes are fourth in the West on points per game, and will play an easy slate of 10 of their final 18 games at home. The downside for the Quakes, however, is that their road schedule is brutal. Still, if San Jose can take care of business at home (where they are 4-1-2 to date), then they’ll be able to afford to drop some points away from Avaya Stadium and still comfortably make the playoffs.

Strength of schedule numbers, of course, aren’t everything. Not even close, in fact. When it comes down to it, teams need to earn their results.

But, with 16 games remaining for the Timbers in the 2015 regular season, Portland looks as well poised as anybody to make a second-half run. Whether the Timbers will do so, however, will ultimately be up to them.