Want to make the MLS Cup Final: don’t win your conference – data analysis

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Each year, just like every other sporting league around the world, the Major League Soccer crowns their new champion. However, the MLS does things differently than your average professional football league. Most leagues (e.g. the Premier League, Bundesliga) around the world have a league table, apart from the Americas. Each team plays every other team twice (home and away) and are awarded points for wins and ties.  By the end of the year, the team with the most points is declared the champion.

But this is America, and what American professional sports league would be complete without a playoff system? Playoffs are about as ingrained in the American culture as hot dogs, bald eagles, and the Fourth of July. So, of course, when a professional soccer league arose in the States, a playoff system came with it.

In the MLS teams are divided into two conferences – Eastern Conference and Western Conference. As of 2020, there are 26 teams in the league, so 13 teams in each conference. Each team plays every team in their conference home and away, which accounts for 24 of their league scheduled matches. The remaining 10 games of their schedule are played against 10 of the 13 opponents from the opposite conference. This is simply how it is done in 2020. The league structure has changed almost on a yearly basis and will continue to do so as they are constantly adding new teams.

Want to make the MLS Cup Final don’t win your conference - data analysis statistics
The new format for the 2020 LS Cup Finals.  The top team from each conference gets through, and home advantage throughout the playoffs

Given the constantly changing league structure and size, as well as the lack of promotion/relegation, it arguably would be near impossible for the MLS to have a champion determined simply through league play. The league does award the team with the most points at the end of the season the Supporters Shield and that team is given home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, most fans do not care about this award and it is considered a distant second to lifting the Anschutz Trophy, the award for winning the MLS Cup Final.

So, if the ultimate goal is to make it to the MLS Cup Final, what is the best way to do that? This might sound like a silly question, but it is very straight forward in most leagues. Get the most points, you win the league. Does the team that gets the most points generally win the league in Major League Soccer? Data analysis shows that the team that should make the final rarely does.

In fact, if you look at the previous nine seasons of MLS Cup (nine years ago the league increased from 30 league games to 34, as well as a different playoff format), you would find that only 2 of the 18 (11.1%) teams to reach the final were the number one-seed (LA Galaxy in 2011 and Toronto in 2017, both of them going on to win). If you dive deeper into the analysis, it is actually worse than that. Looking all the way back to 2006, when the league expanded to 10 teams, only 3 of the 28 (10.7%) teams to reach the finals were a number one seed.

So, if being the overall number one team wasn’t the best overall position to make a final, what would be? The analysis shows it would be around 5th place. If you average the overall position of every team that made the MLS Cup Finals in the data, their collective average finishing position was 4.94. So it helps to be good, but you don’t want to be too good.

What about winning your conference? Surely winning your conference must be a large indicator of your likelihood of making the MLS Cup Finals. Especially when you consider that by winning your conference, you are guaranteed a first-round bye in one form or another since 2006 (some years had wild card play-in games, which the winners would have played the conference champions). However, it really doesn’t work out like that.

Want to make the MLS Cup Final don’t win your conference - data analysis statistics
This graph shows the likelihood of making the MLS Cup Finals based upon your conference finish. Not only is there no benefit to winning the conference, but it is also actually beneficial to finish 2nd

Even though there are now twice as many teams to choose from (there can only be one overall leader, but two conference champions), there are still only two conference champions who reached the MLS Cup Finals since 2011. Obviously, those are the LA Galaxy in 2011 and Toronto in 2017. If we look all the way back to 2006 we only add one more conference champion (LA Galaxy who were runners-up in 2009), which means only four of the 28 teams (14.3%) who made the MLS Cup Finals in the past 14 years were conference champions during the regular season.

Want to make the MLS Cup Final don’t win your conference - data analysis statistics
This graph shows the odds of making the MLS Cup Finals based on your overall finish in the league. Clearly, finishing as the league’s overall 3rd best team is not a good thing

So if it is not beneficial to win your conference and your goal is to make the Finals, where should you finish. Well, it turns out the answer is 2nd. Since 2011, nine of the 18 teams (50%) who have made the Finals finished the regular season second place in their conference. If you look back to 2006, despite the crazy cross-over systems they had in the playoffs, you still have 13 out of the 28 teams (46.4%) that made the Finals finished the regular season second in their conferences.

Now that we have that figured out, we need to determine if there are any other things to consider when trying to give our team the best opportunity to make the MLS Cup Finals. For example, there is a general assumption that whoever finishes the season strongest makes it to the finals. Well, is that true? The answer is it’s somewhat true.

If we break up all of the seasons of the teams who made the MLS Cup Finals from 2011-2019 into thirds, and then look at their points-per-game in each of those thirds, we should be able to see if the assumption is true. Or did teams that made the finals tend to start the season strong? Or did they come alive in the middle of the year, then wait for playoffs? What we actually see when we look at all the statistics as an average, is a slow progression in points-per-game.

The average points-per-game for the first third of the season amongst these teams is 1.61. That is slightly above a win every other game. The PPG for the middle third works out to 1.65. Only slightly above the first third, but still an increase. For the final third of the season, the points-per-game worked out to 1.84, which does show a decent increase in performance leading into the playoffs. That would support the theory (even if only slightly) that teams that make the Finals are the ones that are playing at their best when the regular season is ending. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is the reason why teams reach the final.

Want to make the MLS Cup Final don’t win your conference - data analysis statistics
Here you can see each of the 18 teams that have made the finals in the past nine years, and the rate they earned their points

It is important, and slightly amusing, to note some of the outliers of this group. One reason why the increase is so small in the middle third, and slightly larger for the last, is the 2014 New England Revolution squad. They started the year taking 2.09 PPG out of the first third of the season, which is a fantastic start. They ended that period winning 7 out of 9 games. But then things took a turn. For the middle third of the season, they won only 1 of their 11 games, and only tied once as well, giving them a 0.36 PPG. It looked as though it would be impossible to make the playoffs, but then they did the exact opposite of the middle third, with a record of 9-1-1. If you take them out of the data analysis, you find the thirds looked more like this:

First third – 1.58 PPG

Middle third – 1.73 PPG

Final third – 1.80 PPG

Not drastically significant, but still interesting to note.

Want to make the MLS Cup Final don’t win your conference - data analysis statistics
A tale of three seasons. New England had one of the best starts in MLS history, then earned only 4 points in 11 games, just to finish with 28 out of a possible 33 points to make the playoffs

It is interesting to go through such data analysis and realise the MLS has chosen a different path from much of the world. It is understandable how American culture would have a hard time giving out a championship without a playoff system, but it is interesting when you realise just how different the landscape would look if we did not have the MLS Cup. For example, the Columbus Crew would be 3-time MLS Champions if it was done via the Supporters Shield. Instead, they only have 1 championship, through the MLS Cup in 2008.  The Houston Dynamo have won 2 MLS Cups, having been in 4 finals, but they have never won the Supporters Shield. So, if MLS were to use the other system, Houston would have nothing to show for their time in the MLS.

At the end of the day, the purpose of crowning a champion at the end of the season is to say, this is the best team in our league. When you look at the data, does the MLS actually do that each year? Does it crown the team that was the most successful from the start of the year to the end, or does it reward the team that is playing the best as the year comes to a close? What should we value?

Each league around the world is within its rights to format its league however it wants. In fact, it is great to see each country able to represent its own cultural identity into their league, which helps grow the sport. With the rapid growth of the league in the United States, I do not see anytime soon that the MLS could possibly ditch their current model, nor do I think it would be beneficial to the league and its fans.

Michael Stauber
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