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Making the playoffs is nice, but it's not special in MLS

16 out of 20 seasons the Red Bulls made the playoffs. 0 MLS Cup titles. Is it really much of an accomplishment?

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Red Bulls beat the Portland Timbers on Sunday, they became the first MLS team in 2015 to secure a playoff spot. It is impressive as they did it with six games left in the regular season. Without going through and figuring out when the team clinched its spot every year, it might be the earliest they have ever done so. This is the 16th year in the team's 20-year history that they made the MLS playoffs. It is also their 12th appearance in the last 13 seasons.

This is all very impressive for a team that doesn't have a lot of trophies in its case. That is, until you realize that it actually isn't that impressive to make the playoffs.

This is not meant to belittle the accomplishments of this or any other Red Bulls/MetroStars team, but making the playoffs in MLS is not a hard task, you just need to not be a terrible team. Since its inception, MLS has been a league that has embraced the idea of playoffs. At least 8 teams every year in MLS (the number has grown since 1996) make the playoffs to compete for MLS Cup, the highest regarded award in the league. This means that every year since 1996, the league has allowed at least half of the teams to qualify for the playoffs. In fact, all but one year (2010) saw 52% or more of teams enter the postseason.

Year Teams in League Playoff Spots % of League in Playoffs
1996 10 8 80.00%
1997 10 8 80.00%
1998 12 8 66.67%
1999 12 8 66.67%
2000 12 8 66.67%
2001 12 8 66.67%
2002 10 8 80.00%
2003 10 8 80.00%
2004 10 8 80.00%
2005 12 8 66.67%
2006 12 8 66.67%
2007 13 8 61.54%
2008 14 8 57.14%
2009 15 8 53.33%
2010 16 8 50.00%
2011 18 10 55.56%
2012 19 10 52.63%
2013 19 10 52.63%
2014 19 10 52.63%
2015 20 12 60.00%

Number of playoff spots alone don't prove you just need to not be terrible. The league has many mechanisms for player acquisition that try to force parity on the league. The MLS Super Draft every year awards the top picks to the worse teams from the year before. The waiver and allocation orders are also set up in reverse order of the standings. Designated players aside, every team has a strict salary cap, but that money comes from the league. MLS is set up to almost ensure that a team can't be terrible over a period of years (Toronto FC the apparent exception).

So, when you hear that the Red Bulls have qualified for the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 seasons, remember that the league is set up to encourage it. Forced parity aside, history shows us a team doesn't have to be that successful in order to at least make the playoffs. Below is a table with the winning percentage of the last placed playoff team from each conference going back to 1996. A few notes on this table first though.

  • The stat used for comparison between seasons is Winning Percentage. Back in 1996, MLS was not using the 3-1-0 system that we know today for Wins-Draws-Losses. MLS has also adjusted the number of games played per season over the years; between 34 today to 32 in 1996, and 26 at the lowest point, thus win % is a more consistent measure of success.
  • The first 4 years MLS did not allow for draws. They relied on Overtime and Shootouts to decide a winner as they wanted US audiences to have a reason to tune in. During this period, OT wins (but not shootout wins) were considered the same as regulation wins. These were not separated out as those were the rules of the day. These seasons are denoted by a &.
  • * - From 2000-2002 and 2007-2011, MLS did not limit playoff spots by conference. From 2000-2001 there were also 3 conferences instead of 2. For these seasons, Win % was selected for the last team out of a conference, regardless of wild card status.

Year East Win% Central Win % West Win %
1996 34.38% 37.50% &
1997 34.38% 37.50% &
1998 46.88% 46.88% &
1999 40.63% 62.50% &
2000 37.50% 43.75% 40.63% *
2001 26.92% 38.46% 42.31% *
2002 39.29% 32.14% *
2003 33.33% 30.00%
2004 26.67% 30.00%
2005 37.50% 40.63%
2006 28.13% 34.38%
2007 36.67% 43.33% *
2008 33.33% 33.33% *
2009 36.67% 36.67% *
2010 36.67% 36.67% *
2011 29.41% 38.24% *
2012 41.18% 32.35%
2013 41.18% 41.18%
2014 41.18% 35.29%

The obvious thing here: to make the playoffs, a team was not required to win at least 50% of their matches. In fact, in most seasons, a team did not have to win at least 40% of their games. The average win percentage of the teams which qualified last in their respective years comes out to 37.39%. Again, the overall point is a team doesn't have to be good to make the playoffs, they just have to not terrible. Now, how does this relate to the Red Bulls?

Year Wins Total Games Win % Playoffs
1996 12 32 37.50% Yes &
1997 11 32 34.38% No &
1998 15 32 46.88% Yes &
1999 7 32 21.88% No &
2000 17 32 53.13% Yes
2001 13 26 50.00% Yes
2002 11 28 39.29% No
2003 11 30 36.67% Yes
2004 11 30 36.67% Yes
2005 12 32 37.50% Yes
2006 9 32 28.13% Yes
2007 12 30 40.00% Yes
2008 10 30 33.33% Yes
2009 5 30 16.67% No
2010 15 30 50.00% Yes
2011 10 34 29.41% Yes
2012 16 34 47.06% Yes
2013 17 34 50.00% Yes (SS)
2014 13 34 38.24% Yes
2015 14 28 50.00% Yes (6 games left)

In 16 seasons qualifying for the playoffs (including 2015), the Red Bulls have only won 50% or more of their games in 4 of them. That number could be 3 if the Red Bulls fall below that mark before the end of the regular season. They once qualified for the playoffs with a winning percentage of 28.13% (2006). Their highest winning percentage was 53.13% in 2000 when 66.67% of the league made the playoffs, and they only needed to win 37.5% of games to qualify that year. Their best regular season finish, when they won the Supporters' Shield in 2013, saw the team win 50% of their games. The Red Bulls average a 41.53% winning percentage in seasons they qualify (including 2015), and 28.05% in seasons they don't. Red Bulls winning percentage so far in 2015: 50%, current winning percentage to qualify out of the East: 37%.

Making the playoffs in the middle of September, and being the first team to do so in the season is great. We usually don't hear of MLS teams making the playoffs until late September/early October, so to do it so early really is an accomplishment. However, it really does speak to the nature of how easy it is to qualify if the Red Bulls could do it with a month and a half left in the regular season. The bottom of the East has been so bad that the Red Bulls could've coasted against Portland and still clinched a spot at some point in the next few weeks just by showing up and getting a draw or two. If Orlando City had lost to the Chicago Fire this past weekend, then the Red bulls wouldn't have even needed to show up for the Portland match, they would've already been in!

In the long run, making the MLS playoffs doesn't mean anything. It means more to miss out because of a medicore/bad team than it does to make them. The Red Bulls still have the Supporters' Shield to go for. They still have MLS Cup to go for. If they don't accomplish one or both of those things, then making the playoffs will matter even less than it actually does right now. I mean, it's not like they have to do much to get to the playoffs in any year. Playoff appearances don't really mean anything unless there's a title at the end of the road. Given that the Red Bulls have only reached the MLS Cup Final once (2008 as a wild card), why is 12 appearances in 13 years (or 16 in 20) impressive?