1. Parity Strikes
In Week 26, the top three teams in the Supporters' Shield race got zero goals and zero points between them: LA Galaxy lost 1-0 in San Jose; Vancouver lost 2-0 in Houston; D.C. United lost 3-0 in Red Bull Arena. No coincidence all three teams were away from home - even very good teams struggle on the road in MLS (as LA, with just two away wins all season, seems determined to highlight this year).
Meanwhile, the two worst teams in their respective Conferences - and therefore the entire league - each played twice and didn't lose. Chicago Fire was dead last in the league at the start of Week 26: 23 points from 24 games. It beat the New York Red Bulls (the points-per-game leader in MLS after Week 26) and tied Orlando. Now Chicago is just two points outside the playoff places in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand on sixth-placed OCSC.
Colorado started the week last in the Western Conference and eight points outside the playoff places. Back-to-back home wins in Week 26 lifted the Rapids off the bottom of the West (to...second-bottom) - and they are now five points behind Seattle, the sixth-placed team in the West. Still not quite in the race, but no longer looking incapable of making the season run-in interesting for itself.
Just another week in what is increasingly looking like MLS's banner year for its most treasured selling point: competitive parity.
2. The Supporters' Shield race is to 55 points
It is this column's opinion that the winner of the 2015 Supporters' Shield will have more than 55 points, because 55 points would be an historically low total for a league-winning team in the 34-game era of the MLS regular season. The 2012 Red Bulls finished third in the Eastern Conference with 57 points. Chances are, even in this parity-stricken season, some team is going to break out with a string of wins and get more than 55 points, maybe more than 60. But that team is taking a while to reveal itself.
This column likes to use a simple formula for forecasting points races in MLS: look at the leader in any race and calculate their points total if they averaged 1.5 points per game for the rest of the season. Why 1.5 ppg? Because teams in MLS tend to win at home and lose away. It is, effectively, par form for the league. And therefore, however good or bad a team may appear to be, it seems reasonable to expect it will eventually revert to par.
Right now, the points leader in MLS is LA Galaxy with 46 points. LA has six games left to play. If LA gets 1.5 ppg over the next six games, it will accumulate another nine points. 46 + 9 = 55.
55 points is the target for the Shield race.
But what about games in hand? RBNY is only four points behind LA with three games in hand. Great - it is certainly easier in principle for the Red Bulls to get to 55 than it is for LA. But points in hand count for more than games in hand.
You and I may both think RBNY has a better-than-good shot at overhauling the teams in front of it, but it also just went to Chicago to play the worst team in the league and got thrashed. After Week 26, the top five teams in the Shield race have each lost their most recent game on the road. The points leader in the East - DC - is on a three-game losing streak. It is hard to pick up points in this particularly evenly-matched year in MLS.
So we're sticking with the simple idea that most teams will struggle to break out of the pattern of winning at home and losing away, and that pattern yields 1.5 points per game, and LA is due some respect for having more points than anyone else at this stage of the season.
It's a wide open Shield race, and - though it may be unlikely and unprecedented in the 34-game era - 55 points could be sufficient to win it.
3. The Eastern Conference playoff race is a shootout
Between them, the bottom five teams in the East collected five points in Week 26. And four of those were gained by the erstwhile worst team in the Conference - Chicago. The Fire is now in the race for a playoff place along with every other team in the bottom half of the East. Two points separate sixth-placed Orlando from last-placed Philadelphia.
Using the forecasting logic this column likes to deploy (and explained above), the cut-off for sixth in the East is dictated by OCSC - the team with the most points of the bottom five and therefore currently in sixth place. If Orlando averages 1.5 points per game over its seven remaining matches, it will collect another 10.5 points. There are no half points in MLS, so we round that up: OCSC is looking at 40 points at the end of the season (if it can muster even 1.5 ppg; it currently averages 1.07).
That is good news for Montreal, which has four games in hand on Orlando and is just a point behind Orlando. If L'Impact averaged 1.5 ppg for the rest of its season, it will end up with around 45 points. But no team illustrates the truth of the notion that points in hand are worth more than games in hand than Montreal, which has lost three straightand slipped out of the playoff places.
It has long been the case that L'Impact could effectively end the playoff race in the East by winning a few games and putting some distance between itself and the bottom four in the Conference. We're still waiting for that to happen and it's the beginning of September.
Much like the Shield race forecast above, the race for the last playoff place in the East is wide open. One of the current bottom five will surely find a bit of form and break free of the pack. But it could be any one of them.
4. Set the playoff bar in the Western Conference at 50 points
Over in the West, the 1.5 ppg forecasting method suggests the race is to 49 points: sixth-placed Seattle's projected total at 1.5 ppg for the rest of the season. That is at least a respectable total for making the playoffs: 1.5 ppg over 34 games is 51 points. The likelihood is the sixth-placed team in the Western Conference is going to have a points total pretty close to "par" for this league - and that seems about right.
But we must account for seventh-placed San Jose, which has muscled its way into the playoff race with four straight wins (and zero goals conceded in that run). The Quakes have the same points total as Seattle after Week 26, and a game in hand. Sure, points in hand are worth more than games in hand - but when points are equal, games in hand start to count for something.
Apply the 1.5 ppg forecast to San Jose, and you reach the conclusion the Quakes could canter to 50 points. So that is where we currently see the bar for playoff qualification in the West: 50 points.
5. MLS still has a little work to do to be Major League
This was supposed to be an observation from a couple of week ago, so it is dated - but still perhaps accurate.
In Week 25, a competitive professional soccer match featuring Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Mix Diskerud, Omar Gonzalez, Gyasi Zardes and Kwadwo Poku was almost nudged back by ESPN in favor of the conclusion of a lop-sided kiddie baseball game.
One of the most anticipated #MLS games of the year is delayed.... for a Junior League baseball game... that's 10-0. Phenomenal. A+ stuff.— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) August 23, 2015
Bruce Arena must be loving this delay for a 10-0 junior baseball game.— Andrew Das (@AndrewDasNYT) August 23, 2015
Fortunately, someone at ESPN decided to spare MLS's blushes:
Woah, they're switching Little League to ESPNews and not vice versa— JasonRBNY (@JasonRBNY) August 23, 2015
It was a minor landmark for the league, which is routinely shuttled to the far corners of the cable TV universe when preceding events - however seemingly inconsequential - run long. Indeed, those versed in ESPN's policies noted it was moment of great significance.
Among the most stunning moments in MLS history RT @svertelney: Whoa...did ESPN just break their own policy and cut away from a live event?— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) August 23, 2015
Credit some MLS screaming for that. ESPN always says that rule about leaving a live event is hard and fast. But they just did it.— Andrew Das (@AndrewDasNYT) August 23, 2015
So embarrassment was transformed into triumph. Still, most of the audience tuning in on time for the MLS Sunday showpiece got to watch some children play baseball for longer than they were expecting.
MLS grows in popularity year-on-year, it attracts increasingly bright stars and has made great strides toward developing its own homegrown heroes. And winning a head-to-head fight with a kiddie baseball game for top billing on ESPN's flagship channel is another small step in the right direction. But the fact such a battle even needed to be fought - and that there were teams skipping the week because they didn't have a field to play on - is also a reminder that the promise of Major League soccer is not yet entirely fulfilled.