A long time follower of the Power Rank, Jeremy Templeton has graced us with a fascinating preview of the MLS playoffs. Temple, as we call him, is the LeBron James of fluid mechanics and applied mathematics. He also knows his soccer. The Power Rank is in negotiations to make him the MLS correspondent next year.
As we get ready for the MLS post-season, one point is clear: the top two sides won’t meet in the final. The LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake have occupied the top of the table as well as The Power Rank for most of the season following their contest for the MLS Cup last year. However, the path to success for both squads couldn’t be more different. LA began the season with the highest payroll in the league with designated players David Beckham and Landon Donovan, and only lost that distinction after the Red Bulls bolstered their side with Barcelona leftovers. Complemented with shrewd acquisitions, particularly in the midfield, by Bruce Arenas, the Galaxy follow the formula of many top European clubs by finding the best and paying the best.
One European team that best exemplifies this model for putting quality on the pitch is Real Madrid, who have taken Real Salt Lake on as namesake and affiliate. This is a side with nary a designated player to be found, and under head coach Jason Kreis, have taken a very different approach to team building. Kreis began assembling the nucleus of the team when he transitioned from an RSL player to coach in 2007. While not completely shunning the transfer market, he has kept the core group of players together, given them time to gel, and turned Rio Tinto Stadium into one of the most difficult places to visit in the league. Playing a sport that requires extreme fitness, being conditioned at altitude offers a significant edge. Examining the goal distribution by minute shows RSL scored a disproportionate number of goals in the final fifteen minutes of matches in the last two seasons, which is precisely when teams used to oxygen levels at sea level begin to lose a step. This advantage has enabled RSL to go undefeated at home this season, picking up 11 wins out of 15 matches, and helping them to the best goal differential in the league despite being merely average on the road.
For better or for worse, success in any sport is measured by the number of championships, but looking at RSL forces us to think a bit more about this. While achieving a convincing victory over tournament favorite Columbus last year, it’s impossible not overlook the fact that RSL backed into the playoffs with an incredible amount of luck on the last day of the season, and won the Eastern Conference and MLS championship matches on penalties, hardly the resume of a dominant team. In 2010, things have been different. After a mediocre start marred by poor away form, RSL has been the top team with the best goal differential in the league, despite scoring almost the exact same number of goals last year (43) as this (45). Conventional wisdom says it’s an improved defense, and indeed, it has been difficult for the opposition to put the ball in the back of the net.
But the Royal Army’s improvement is indicative of a trend taking place in MLS over the past few years: a shift from tactics centered on long-balls over the mid field to possessing and passing the ball through the midfield. Last season, RSL was overly dependent on the long ball, while this year they have only used it tactically, instead preferring to let Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman control the pace of the game in the midfield. One key stat bears out this change: fouls suffered. During the 2009 campaign, no player was fouled more than 30 times and only one (Morales) was fouled more than 20 times. This year, Morales drew a whopping 70 fouls and 5 players drew more than 20. Ball possession in the midfield denies opponents attacking opportunities and provides additional cover for the back four. And by the way, it also provides more scoring chances when the midfielders are fouled in the attacking third; the 2010 season saw RSL score nearly a third of their goals on set pieces.
So which approach is best? Well, Beckham earned his exorbitant salary (possibly) by scoring the equilizer in the final game of the regular season against FC Dallas, giving LA the top seed in the west and preventing a trip to the fortress that is Rio Tinto for the conference championship. But LA is a fashionable pick for a first round upset at the hands of Seattle, due partially to the form which the latter ended the season, but also because of the difficulty they’ve had keeping a clean sheet… at roughly the time Becks returned to the lineup. Beckham is master of the accurate long-ball, and when he’s on the pitch, the Galaxy go that route at the expense of working the ball through the midfield. So will LA’s big spending ways finally pay off? Can Henri win a championship on this side of the pond? Will Real Salt Lake repeat? That’s what makes the playoffs so much fun.
So now, on to The Power Rank playoff best estimate. The end of the regular season rankings roughly follow goal differential, with Seattle being ranked higher at the expense of the Crew. Playoffs in MLS are somewhat bizarre in that the top two teams in each conference getting the top seeds with the remaining four teams filled in with points. This “punishes” the 5th and 6th teams in the West with match-ups against weaker Eastern Conference sides for a home and away series. While playing the second leg at home is awarded to the top seed, we expect this to offer little advantage on aggregate. In the end, expect New York to have a half a goal edge on the Earthquakes, while Colorado would be favored by a third of a goal over the series. Out west, the Galaxy should be half-goal favorites over Seattle while RSL holds the greatest advantage of the first round against FC Dallas at 0.6 goals. The second round is a single game at the highest remaining seed, so the significant home field advantage of soccer comes into play. Therefore, despite being lower ranked by their opponents, the Henri’s and the Beckham’s should meet in the final in which LA wins their first MLS cup in 5 years.