With just over two weeks until MLS Decision Day 2020 presented by AT&T, crunch time has well and truly arrived in Major League Soccer.
Under the tutelage of Manager Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City are closing in on a return to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs after 2019 marked the end of a club-record eight-year playoff streak.
But what must Sporting Kansas City do to finish the job and officially punch their ticket to the postseason? Let’s break it down in our first 2020 edition of Playoff Math.
First, it’s important to know that the top eight finishers in the Western Conference will advance to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, which will unfold in a single-game, single-elimination, bracket-style format with the higher seed enjoying homefield advantage. The first-round matchups will feature the No. 1 seed against the No. 8 seed, 2v7, 3v6 and 4v5.
The current Western Conference table is below. Sporting occupies third place, two points behind co-leaders Seattle Sounders FC and Portland Timbers as well as nine points above the playoff line. Vermes’ side will have the opportunity to jump to first with a win on Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids at Children’s Mercy Park.
|1||Seattle Sounders FC||32||1.78||18||9||4||5||36||18||18|
|3||Sporting Kansas City||30||1.67||18||9||6||3||31||25||6|
|4||Los Angeles Football Club||25||1.39||18||7||7||4||40||34||6|
|5||Minnesota United FC||24||1.41||17||6||5||6||28||23||5|
|7||San Jose Earthquakes||24||1.26||19||6||7||6||28||43||-15|
|8||Vancouver Whitecaps FC||21||1.11||19||7||12||0||22||40||-18|
|9||Real Salt Lake||21||1.17||18||5||7||6||24||29||-5|
Unlike most years, however, playoff seeding may not be based on regular season point totals. In 2001, when MLS clubs finished with an uneven number of games played due to cancellations following 9/11, the points per game metric was used to determine the final standings.
MLS has yet to announce how 2020 postseason berths will be distributed, but there is a good possibility that points per game could come into play. That’s because not all teams are scheduled to complete their full 23-game regular season slates by Decision Day on Nov. 8. The Rapids, for example, haven’t played in a month due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the team and are scheduled to play a total of 18 matches. Sporting is slated to play 22, while teams like Portland, San Jose and a few others are set to play the full 23—barring any further postponements.
With that in mind, let’s rearrange the Western Conference standings in a couple of different ways. We start with a table that ranks clubs based on maximum possible points. This is computed by taking the team’s number of scheduled games remaining, multiplying by three and adding that total to the points they have already earned.
As we can see below, the maximum number of points for ninth place is 33. Therefore, if playoff seeding is determined by overall points, Sporting would need—at the very most—just four points from their final four matches to hit 34 total points and guarantee a top-eight finish.
Western Conference: Maximum Possible Points
|t-1||Seattle Sounders FC||9-4-5||32||1.78||18||4||44|
|3||Sporting Kansas City||9-6-3||30||1.67||18||4||42|
|t-4||Minnesota United FC||6-5-6||24||1.41||17||5||39|
|6||Los Angeles Football Club||7-7-4||25||1.39||18||4||37|
|7||San Jose Earthquakes||6-7-6||24||1.26||19||4||36|
|t-9||Vancouver Whitecaps FC||7-12-0||21||1.11||19||4||33|
|t-9||Real Salt Lake||5-7-6||21||1.17||18||4||33|
As previously discussed, the more likely scenario is that MLS playoff seeding is based on points per game. Consequently, the table below, ranking Western Conference teams by maximum points per match, is probably the one to truly keep an eye on.
The maximum points per game tally for ninth place is 1.5. If playoff seeding is decided by points per game, Sporting would need to average north of 1.5 PPG for their 22 regular season matches. Crunch the numbers, and once again Sporting’s target for a top-eight finish and a playoff spot is 34 points.
Western Conference: Maximum Possible Points Per Game
|#||Club||W-L-T||PTS||PPG||GP||GR||MAX PTS||MAX PPG|
|1||Seattle Sounders FC||9-4-5||32||1.78||18||4||44||2.000|
|3||Sporting Kansas City||9-6-3||30||1.67||18||4||42||1.909|
|t-5||Minnesota United FC||6-5-6||24||1.41||17||5||39||1.773|
|7||Los Angeles Football Club||7-7-4||25||1.39||18||4||37||1.682|
|8||San Jose Earthquakes||6-7-6||24||1.26||19||4||36||1.565|
|t-9||Real Salt Lake||5-7-6||21||1.17||18||4||33||1.500|
|11||Vancouver Whitecaps FC||7-12-0||21||1.11||19||4||33||1.435|
Keep in mind, it’s very possible that Sporting can finish with less than 34 points and still make the playoffs due to the fact that Western Conference teams face common opponents and will inevitably cannibalize each other over the final two weeks of the campaign.
Although Vermes’ men cannot clinch a postseason berth on Saturday against the Rapids, they’re strongly positioned for a playoff return and well within reach of first place. The team that finishes first in the West would have up to three home playoff matches—assuming they win and advance—and potentially a fourth in MLS Cup if they have a better record than the Eastern Conference champion.
For Sporting, the short-term task at hand is simple: get three points against the Rapids on Saturday night. Kickoff at Children’s Mercy Park is set for 7:30 p.m. CT with tickets available at SeatGeek.com and live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports GO, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.