Fortress Bethlehem: What the Steel must do to make the playoffs

Feature photo courtesy of David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons. Modified by Sara Griswold.

In recent seasons Major League Soccer has added a new statistics column to its official points-currently-won standings, or table. The addition is “points per game,” or PPG, and MLS writers refer to it regularly.

MLS does so because only twice a season – before early March’s “First Tap”, and after late October’s “Final Whistle” – are the point totals exact comparisons of clubs’ respective achievements. At any given moment during the season, many teams have played different numbers of games, so an average rate, like total points divided by total games (PPG), is a more accurate comparative tool than a raw point total.

Why PPG is useful

Bethlehem Steel FC currently illustrates why the United Soccer League should provide a PPG number.

Bethlehem followers looking at today’s standings should be thrilled to see their side sitting fifth in the east, two points ahead of sixth place Indy and two points behind fourth place Charleston. But they need to examine how the teams come to be there, and the implications for where they may end up in playoff qualification.

USL East "Points-Per-Game" Table

The eastern conference ranked by average points earned per game played
PlaceTeamPPGGames LeftPlaceTeamPPGGames Left
1stF. C. Cincinnati2.30319thOttawa Fury1.3631
2ndLouisville City F. C.1.909110thNorth Carolina1.3331
3rdPittsburgh Riverhounds1.787111thCharlotte Independence1.2721
4thCharleston Battery1.606112thTampa Bay Rowdies1.2421
5thIndy Eleven1.484113thPenn FC1.0901
6thNY Red Bulls II1.484114thAtlanta United 20.8481
7thNashville1.454115thRichmond Kickers0.6661
8thBethlehem Steel FC1.424116thToronto FC II0.5151

Bethlehem lie sixth in the PPG table, not fifth, and Indy are ahead of them not behind. The differences are because Bethlehem has played the most games in the league, 28. They have had the most points available to be won, so their slightly lower rate of acquisition produces a slightly higher end product.

But Bethlehem also has the fewest points left available to be won in the entire league, 18. By contrast, two other teams, Seattle Sounders 2 and Toronto FC II, have played only 23 times and so each has 33 points available to be won.

Bethlehem’s maximum possible point total is 60. Conference and league leader Cincinnati already has 57 with 24 more available from its remaining 8 games, for a ceiling of 81. Bethlehem’s other competitors’ maximum ceilings are all higher as well because each holds various games in hand.

  • Currently, tie breakers are influenced by the Steel’s extra games, since the first two, wins and goal differences, are totals. If you have played more games, all other things being equal, you should have a higher total, and Bethlehem does.
  • Two of Bethlehem’s three remaining away games are against teams that lie above them in the PPG table. Securing additional away points would be a positive step in the Steel’s playoff quest, because winning away is challenging,
  • The three remaining home games are against teams below them in the PPG table. A well-known, outspoken, older Swedish striker currently in Los Angeles might say the Steel do not deserve the playoffs if they cannot win those. Zlatan thinks of home as a fortress.
A possible playoff path

The home win last Wednesday against Ottawa was huge. It was against a side then above Bethlehem in the PPG table. Mathematically, it was not a “must win”, but pragmatically it might as well have been.

Following Ottawa, the match on short rest in the heat of Nashville was  massive. It ended the last Wednesday-Saturday sequence of the Steel’s season, meaning the home stretch’s final six games will all be played on adequate rest. And, given the Tennesseans’ home record and their second-stingiest goals-conceded number, the win was an unexpected,  welcome bonanza.

Several days ago, when analyzing the playoff chances of a different side, USL writer Nicholas Murray  wrote a three-part classification of that team’s remaining schedule. We use his categories  (in italics below), classify Bethlehem’s remaining schedule, guess how many points will be needed where, and  update the results.

  • A draw would be nice, but a loss is not a disaster. Zero points were needed; three have been won.
    • 8/25  away to Nashville — WON
    • 9/7    away to Pittsburgh
  • A win would be nice, but a draw is acceptable. Four points are needed; none are yet won.
    • 9/30  away to Ottawa
    • 10/6   away to Indy
  • These must be won. Ten points are needed and 12 would be nice; three are already won.
    • 8/22   Home to Ottawa – WON
    • 9/2.    Home to Penn
    • 9/22   Home to TFC2
    • 10/14  Home to Tampa Bay

Goodman Stadium must be an impregnable fortress like Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle, if the side is to meet its goals.


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