By Ridge Mahoney
A slew of teams are clustered together in the MLS standings, and no team looks anything like the Supporters’ Shield winners of the past two seasons.
On the other hand, the battles for playoff spots are closer than ever.
San Jose took the overall points crown last year with 66, a figure that seems well out of reach. It’s likely nobody will even match the 63 points accrued by Eastern Conference winner (and No. 2 on overall points) Sporting Kansas City.
San Jose won 19 games and SKC 18. Their points-per-game stats were 1.94 and 1.85, respectively. Three other teams won 17 times, exactly one-half of the 34-game schedule.
How many teams have won one-half of their games so far this season? How about zero? Only twice before in the post-shootout era (since 2000) has no MLS team managed to win one-half of its schedule, in 2004 and 2009.
The points-per-game leaders so far in 2013 are Portland and Montreal at 1.65, and right behind is Real Salt Lake at 1.64. They are about 15 percent off the Quakes’ 2012 pace of 1.94. RSL, which leads the SS race with 41 points with nine games to play, would need to win eight and tie the other one to match the Quakes’ 66 points.
Intensely competitive playoff races will likely set a new mark for the amount of points needed to secure a postseason berth across both conferences.
Last year, Houston captured the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 53 points while Vancouver got the last Western slot with just 43 points. That scenario won’t be repeated this year, and it has to be remembered that the ‘Caps were 11 points behind the fourth-place Galaxy. Might a team miss the playoffs with 52 points, as did Columbus last year? Sure.
Coincidentally, both Houston and Vancouver currently sit fifth in their respective conferences. Houston is fifth in the Eastern Conference with 36 points from 23 games. At a rate of 1.57 points per game, that would compute to 53.38 points for a 34-game season. Vancouver has 36 points from 24 games; that rate of 1.5 points per game would yield 51 points in a 34-game season. The sixth-place Sounders, despite losing to Houston, 3-1, last weekend, are accruing 1.55 points per game, which would equal 52.7 points for a 34-game season.
While the playoff cutoff is quite possible to be 53 points, the spread between the first-place and fifth-place teams is incredibly tight. Sporting Kansas City and New York, tied atop the East with 39 points, are just three points ahead of Houston. Supporters’ Shield leader Real Salt Lake (41 points) leads Vancouver by only five.
In any case, the bar has been raised since the league changed its playoff format to five-teams-per-conference in 2011. In that season the fifth-place teams were New York (46) and Colorado (49).
The points have to come from somewhere, and one needs only to look at the bottom slots in both conferences. The three stragglers -- Toronto FC, D.C. United, and Chivas USA -- have won a combined total of 11 games out of 71 for a winning percentage of 15.5. Last year, the bottom three were TFC, Chivas USA and Portland, and they won a combined total of 20 games out of 102 (19.6 percentage).
Here are other comparable numbers from the 2011 season:
Supporters Shield winner: Los Angeles, 67 points (1.97 points per game);
Runner-up: Seattle, 63 points (1.85 per game);
Lowest playoff point total: New York, 46 points (1.35 per game);
Win total bottom three teams: 17, Toronto, New England, Vancouver (16.7 winning percentage).