The Cruel Line: Who Will Finish Above the MLS Cup Playoff Cut?
Soccer

The Cruel Line: Who Will Finish Above the MLS Cup Playoff Cut?

Six matchdays remain, but there are probably 12 teams with plenty of work to do to get into the playoffs. If we consider those clubs using the expected goal differential of their remaining opponents, who has the best chance to get in?


We’re into the final stretch of an extremely competitive 2021 MLS regular season. Only the top seven teams in each conference earn their way into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Anyone below the line is scrambling to climb above it, and many above the line are clinging on for dear life. Amazingly, in both the Western and Eastern Conference, the six teams closest to the cut-off are separated by only six points. With six games left in the season and 18 points on offer, plenty of permutations still exist.

Let’s take a look at those six teams in each conference: three currently above the cut-off and three looking up. With 28 games played, we’ll use expected goals for and against of each MLS team to get to their expected goal differential. While it doesn’t mean everything, xGD can be a great way to convey how many more chances a team creates versus how many they have given up over such a large sample of games. From there, we can discuss the strength of remaining schedule for each playoff contender.

The green pills indicate matches in which the playoff contender has an xGD higher than the opponent they play that week, and the numbers within are the season-long xGD of that week’s opponent:

MLS Strength of Schedule

We’ll dig into this and see what kind of conclusions we can draw about who might have enough to make the playoffs, and who might be going on vacation a little earlier than they’d like.

The West

MLS West Playoff Race

Playoff Bound?: LAFC, LA Galaxy

The LA Galaxy had put themselves in fantastic position to make the playoffs with their early season form and solid performances at home. However, a winless streak over the last nine games has brought them perilously close to the teams below the line. When looking at the strength of the opponents remaining on their schedule, while no cakewalk at seventh out of 12 playoff hopefuls, they do have the last negative value regarding their opponents’ total xGD. So the Galaxy’s forthcoming opponents may give up more chances than they create. Given how they started and where they are now, nine points from a possible 18 should be good enough to keep the Galaxy above the line. But it’s close, and that last game of the season against Minnesota might itself be a playoff game.

The numbers have loved LAFC all season, and yet there they sit in ninth, four points away from the playoffs. Still, the strength of their remaining opponents makes for a slightly easier path than everyone above them in the standings —with the exception of Real Salt Lake – and their own xGD is second in MLS at 21.52. The numbers mean nothing if LAFC cannot convert their chances into goals, especially in two critical upcoming matches. They face Minnesota away and Vancouver at home in crucial six-point affairs. Given a massive xGD gap between LAFC and those teams at 18.9 and 28.4 respectively, it seems feasible they’ll do just enough to pull themselves into the playoffs.

Oh So Close: Minnesota, RSL

The third and final spot left of these six teams is just too close to call. Real Salt Lake have done well enough this season to have the fifth spot in the standings and the best (and only) positive goal differential on the season of the teams nearest the cut line. Looking simply at their upcoming opponents’ total xGD, at -16.07, they have the easiest final six games in the West. If we look a little closer, we may want to take into account Salt Lake’s own -4.84 xGD on the season. 16 teams in MLS have a better xGD on the season, including the hapless Chicago Fire. Compared to RSL’s next opponent, the Colorado Rapids, the gap between the two teams’ xGD on the season is 11.29 in Colorado’s favor. Say RSL lose at home to Colorado, then fail to take three points from the Fire in Chicago. Teams behind RSL in the standings will be breathing down their necks.

One of those teams will be Minnesota United, but the strength of their upcoming opponents does them no favors. With a combined xGD of 12.48, it’s the second-hardest remaining schedule in the West. Their own 2.62 xGD is decent enough at 11th in the league, so perhaps there’s a slight advantage for three out of the six remaining games, including matches against fellow playoff hopefuls Vancouver and the LA Galaxy. Minnesota also have LAFC left to play at home. Numbers aside, Minnesota control their destiny and know exactly who they need to beat. If they can do that, they’ll have heartily earned their playoff spot.

Going Home? San Jose, Vancouver

Unfortunately, the San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps may have just a little too much to do to make the playoffs this year. San Jose’s strength of their remaining opponents isn’t that bad. They play five teams with a negative xGD figure for a total of -14.21. But their own -10.16 xGD is poor: 22nd in the league. The games they play where they could make up the most ground are at LAFC and at RSL, against whom they are bested by a combined 37 xGD. Combine that with five points to make up to grab that last playoff spot? It’s just too far a gap for us.

Vancouver, who also have points to make up, have a brutal remaining schedule. It’s the hardest of the playoff hopeful teams in the West with those opponents amassing a 22.14 total xGD, including the likes of Seattle, Sporting Kansas City and Portland. They do play an incredibly important six-point match at home against Minnesota. Vancouver will have to win that one, plus several other unexpected results. It’s only a one-point gap to make up, but it still doesn’t seem likely.

The East

MLS East Playoff Race

Playoff Bound?: NYCFC, Montreal

The playoff battle in the East is similarly intense, with all three teams above the line in fifth, sixth and seventh tied on 40 points. Of those three, the numbers support New York City FC and CF Montreal to maintain their playoff qualification the most.

NYCFC have dominated the MLS as far as the numbers are concerned. Second in in both xG (53.38) and xG against (30.41), they have the best xGD at 22.97 in the league. Their remaining scheduled opponents are relatively weak, third weakest in the East, and total -8.87 xGD. With those numbers, you might not be surprised to see them win out the rest of the season. Of course, the numbers have argued this all season long, yet their 44 goals – a significant underperformance from their xG – has them in sixth. Still, we’re confident they’ll do enough to make the playoffs.

CF Montreal have been somewhat of a surprise this season, but the numbers say they deserve to be sitting in the playoff picture. Their 4.1 xGD is good enough for fifth in the East and they’re tied for fifth on points. Luckily for them, their remaining schedule is the second weakest of all 12 teams discussed in this article. Considering the -20.88 total xGD of their opponents, Montreal should create more opportunities than they give up down the stretch. Their path seems favorable enough for them to stay above the playoff line.

Oh So Close: Atlanta United, D.C. United

Separated by only one point in the standings, this one is a tough call. D.C. United have been beastly regarding xGD, third overall in the league at 13.8, while Atlanta United has a negative figure (-1.3). D.C. are the only team with four home games left as well.

Here’s the problem, though. D.C. has quite the gauntlet in their final six games of play. Including the likes of Nashville, New England, NYCFC and Colorado, the total xGD of their opponents is 44. That’s 11th most difficult out of the 12 teams discussed. Rough. Compare that to Atlanta’s -35.76 figure with two matches against Toronto and FC Cincinnati once, and it’s a far easier path for the Five Stripes. Plus, Josef Martinez seems to finally be on the right side of rehab.

Both teams have matchups of huge playoff significance against NYCFC. Atlanta get them at home; D.C. play them away. For us, it looks like Atlanta just might have the edge. Who knows though – D.C. have wrought chaos in the MLS this entire season – what’s to stop them now?

Going Home?: Columbus, NYRB

This brings us to the teams with the most ground to make up. The Columbus Crew, following a championship, have had a rather confusing and poor season. They’ve had real problems creating chances and have the second worst xG in the league at 31.07. In fact, their -7.12 xGD is very close to their actual goal differential, so there’s not much of an argument to be made for them being anywhere other than the position they’re in. With six points to make up, three teams to pass and a relatively difficult end-of-season schedule, it doesn’t seem likely.

The New York Red Bulls, for all the excitement their intense pressing system can bring, are on the outside looking in. They’ve outperformed their xGD of -1.16 with an actual goal difference of +4, but that’s the best thing to be said regarding their playoff hopes. They have the toughest remaining schedule of all our playoff hopeful teams. Their remaining opponents total a 59.69 xGD. It looks like we’ll have to wait until next year to see the Red Bull press in the playoffs.


Design by Matt Sisneros.