MLS 2011 Playoff Preview

MLS playoffs
More parity than last year
Red Bulls as spoilers?

The MLS regular season has ended, so now it’s time to look at what The Power Rank can tell us about the playoffs. First, the good news: despite the point differential between conferences, in which Eastern Conference champions Sporting KC (#3) would have finished 5th in the Western Conference, there’s actually quite a bit of parity between the conferences. It worked out this year that 5 teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs, and indeed 9 of the rank’s top 10 made the playoffs. The lone exception was Columbus (#11) edging out the Fire (#10), but both play in the east.

Now for the bad news: the true elite teams, LA (#1) and Seattle (#2), both reside in the west, so fans will not be treated to a championship game pitting these sides against each other. This fact alone reveals the foolishness of the playoff system in a league in which each team plays every other team exactly twice. Because of this format, The Power Rank shows that the first playoff match featuring New York (#6) traveling to FC Dallas (#8) might be one of the most critical postseason matches. If Dallas wins, then the winner of Columbus at Colorado (#9) will play LA in the Western Conference semifinals. The Galaxy would be expected to score 0.8 more goals than the Rapids and a whopping 0.98 goals more than the Crew over a two game playoff. In contrast, KC would be favored by only 0.34 goals over Dallas.

However, if New York wins, the situation would be quite different. The Red Bulls are the most underrated squad by points based on their rank. Because they took the final playoff spot, if they beat Dallas, they will play LA. Even so, the Galaxy should still have a 0.62 goal advantage, but KC could potentially have as much as 0.56 goal edge if the Crew pull off the upset. In this bizarre scenario, the Galaxy end up with only a slight advantage over Sporting KC despite besting them by 16 points during the regular season.

Of course, a possible playoff round against the New York could be the least of LA’s concerns. In the one guaranteed marquee match up of the conference semifinals, Real Salt Lake (#4) will take on the Seattle Sounders (Seattle has a 0.5 goal advantage), setting up what could be one of the best matches of the playoffs if LA ends up winning their semifinal. Home field advantage for the Galaxy could be crucial as they would only edge the Sounders by the slightest margins on a neutral field: 0.01 goals. The Eastern Conference playoffs should still be exciting, as Philly is only a 0.12 favorite versus Houston, while KC would only have a 0.10 goal margin if the Union emerge from their semifinal. However, as has been the case for the past few years, the Western Conference champion will most likely be deserving of the MLS cup.

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