By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jul 4, 2018) US Soccer Players - With the Independence Day holiday upon us and the 2018 MLS season no longer in its “early” phase, it’s time for some game theory. Strike that. Forget game theory. It’s time for simple math.
This deep into the season, math is not the friend of several teams thought to be shoe-ins for the postseason when the campaign began. The math is dark for the reigning Western Conference champion and trending in that direction for the MLS champions and Supporters' Shield holders.
The Sounders are in Colorado on the Fourth of July, facing the Rapids in what is without question a must-win game. Saturday’s loss to the Timbers was the Sounders’ first-ever regular season home defeat to their hated rivals. Brian Schmetzer’s team has 12 points from 15 matches. That works out to a 0.8 points-per-game average, third worst in MLS.
Seattle has made something of a habit of starting slow and turning on the jets in order to squeeze into the playoffs. In 2016 a slow start and a coaching change preceded a run to an MLS Cup title. Last season, Seattle struggled through the first four months before collecting 23 points after July 4 and returning to the MLS Cup final. In neither of those years were the Sounders as bad as they’ve been in 2018. They had 19 points through 15 games in 2016 and 16 points through 15 games in 2017.
Summer additions helped in both seasons, with Nicolas Lodeiro famously yanking the Sounders up back in 2016. This season, Seattle awaits the addition of another signing for the attack, Peruvian Raul Ruidiaz, with hopes he’ll spark a similar renaissance. Ruidiaz will be available to Schmetzer when the secondary transfer window opens on July 10.
So what’s the math then? How good do the Sounders have to be the rest of the way to have a chance at the postseason?
A 46-point finish was good enough to make the postseason in 2017. Both San Jose and FC Dallas finished on that total, with San Jose pipping the Texans by virtue of the first tiebreaker. It was the same in 2016 when Real Salt Lake hit 46. With a strong new team added to the Western Conference in LAFC, there’s more competition for places, but the current pace indicates it will take at least 46 points to get a playoff spot.
With 12 points through 15 matches, the Sounders need 34 points to reach the 46-point threshold. In order to get there, they’ll need to average 1.78 points-per-game for the rest of the season.
The number isn’t impossible. In fact, Seattle did exactly that in 2017, collecting 34 points in their final 19 games (1.78 ppg) to climb into a tie with the Timbers for first place in the West. Portland held the tiebreaker, pushing the Sounders into the second seed in the postseason. Back in 2016, they managed 1.68 ppg for the final 19 matches, landing in fourth place on 48 points.
Can they do it again? The Sounders of 2018 are a year older and have a host of injuries limiting the flexibility of the roster. The next three games will be critical to the quest, with all of them on the road. After visiting the Rapids who have won their last two games and are unbeaten in three, Seattle travels to New England and Atlanta.
The second-half schedule doesn't help. It includes games against Sporting KC, FC Dallas, and NYCFC. On the plus side, all three of those games are at home. If Seattle can figure out their goal-scoring problems, there looks to be an opportunity. In addition to two games against the Rapids, the Sounders have three total games against the league’s two worst defenses, Orlando City (once) and San Jose (twice).
If it’s going to happen for the Sounders, if the two-time defending Western Conference champions are going to have a chance to defend that title and go for a second MLS Cup when the playoffs roll around, the time is now.
The situation for Toronto is potentially a little brighter, though not by much. The Reds sit on 15 points after 16 matches, just short of a point-per-game at .94 ppg. Staying on that number would mean finishing with 32 points, well off what’s typically required to make the playoffs.
A turnaround good enough to make the postseason probably means getting to 45 points. The Red Bulls finished sixth in the East in 2017 with a robust 50 point total, but the current pace in the conference could see someone get in a few points below that number.
A 30-point haul in 18 games is the challenge for the champions, or 1.67 ppg for the rest of the season. Not as tough as what the Sounders face, but still a hill to climb for a club that has looked nothing like their championship selves in MLS play this year. Whatever excuses flow from the distraction of the Concacaf Champions League have long since slipped down the drain of expectation. Injuries are a factor, but no more so than they are for a number of teams ahead of Toronto in the standings.
TFC plays in Minnesota on Independence Day. It's an excellent opportunity to score some points away from home and start the rise up the table. Toronto has just four points from a possible 21 on the road in 2018. That number that has to improve, in no small part because it means the club has one more road date than home dates in the second half of their season.
Toronto’s schedule has a sprinkling of weaker clubs ripe for the picking of points, but also includes two dates with Atlanta, a home game against NYCFC who have already beaten TFC once this season, a home game against LAFC, and visits to Kansas City, Portland, and New Jersey. All told, 11 of the Reds last 18 matches are against teams currently in playoffs positions.
Toronto needs to get Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Auro, and Jozy Altidore back from injury but can’t afford to wait around for that group to get healthy to start their push for the playoffs. It’s getting late, early, as they say, and the math isn’t good.
More From Jason Davis:
- Will things change for Seattle or Orlando?
- Atlanta United's All-Star Game
- Orlando City and the MLS coaching game
- Reopening the US Open Cup
Photo by Tim Bouwer - ISIPhotos.com