A look at the race for first place

Photo: Earl Gardner

As one who used to accept PSP writing assignments concerning Bethlehem Steel FC until other circumstances intervened, I miss the statistical tables created by former PSP statistical guru Chris Sherman.  His probabilities reinforced readers’ instincts about the magnitude of upsets, and gave solid indications of the actual likelihoods of making the playoffs in what positions.

Remembering his work helped imagine the table that follows.  It makes no statistical inferences about probability whatsoever, but visually compares the future schedules of the current top three teams in the East — New York City FC, Atlanta United, and the Union.

[table id=111 /]

A key point is that by the time Philly will host LAFC on Saturday, September 14th, NYCFC has already added three points to take over first place and may well add three more. They beat New England 2-1 in Yankee Stadium Saturday and face Toronto there this evening.

Were every game to follow form with no ties – don’t laugh too hard, that is an improbably large assumption in soccer, so here is where we all miss Chris’s analysis! — for Philadelphia to finish the season in first place, New York City FC must lose at least twice. Specifically, Philly must take care of business at Talen Energy Stadium on Decision Day, having previously won out, and Atlanta must go into Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, September 25th and win.

In the Union’s above best-case scenario,  were the entire set of those highly unlikely circumstances to obtain, the top three would finish like this:

  1. Philadelphia Union       66 points (max possible)
  2. New York City FC          65 points
  3. Atlanta United               64 points

Only Chris Sherman could tell you the likelihood — or not — of this specific outcome. as of Monday 9/8 gives the Union a 10% chance of finishing first, 30% of second, 57% of third, 3% of fourth, and less than 1% of fifth. Their process is approximately similar to Sherman’s.


  1. Good stuff! Hoping for 1st but will be happy with 3rd place.

  2. However, the thing everyone should be talking about in Unionland — but which I don’t see anyone talking about — is that the chance of the Union earning their first-ever CONCACAF Champions League berth is actually quite high.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Right, Atlanta is irrelevant in that, I believe. Just need to finish above NYC. Worth keeping an eye on 2nd place in the West as well.

      • We don’t have to finish about NYC either.

        We have to finish above all the teams in the West besides LAFC.

        And then MLS Cup has to be won by LAFC, NYCFC, Atlanta, or the Union. (The odds of which, per, are 85%.)

    • Correct. To my understanding (correct me if I’m mistaken), we make the CCC if:

      1) we finish 1st in the East
      2) win the MLS Cup
      3) finish 2nd in the East if Atlanta FC finishes 1st (they won the USOC thus have already qualified) and our record is better than whoever finishes 2nd in the West (LAFC has already won 1st in the West)
      4) finish 3rd in the East if NYCFC finish 1st with Atlanta FC 2nd provided our record is better than the team finishing 2nd in the West
      5) if we finish 3rd with Atlanta FC finishing 1st and NYCFC finishing 2nd, then if NYCFC wins the MLS Cup and our record is better than the team finishing 2nd in the West.

      With 54 point already, we are well ahead of the current second place team in the West: RSL with 46 points with Seattle the same with a worse goal differential.

      • Sorry, we have 51 points right now…still a 5 point lead over the current second and third in the West. We also make it if NYCFC finishes 1st and Atlanta FC 2nd and we finish 3rd in the East with a better record than the West’s 2nd finisher.

      • It’s both simpler and more complicated than you’ve sketched out. Because the MLS Cup winner qualifies, whoever that is.

        If NYCFC finishes ahead of us (which, let’s face it, is fairly likely) and with more points than all the teams in the West besides LAFC (also quite likely) then LAFC, Atlanta, and NYCFC will all qualify right there. NYC would either win the division — and qualify on that basis — or finish 2nd behind Atlanta, which has already qualified, and therefore NYC (with the next-best point total in the league) would be next in line, and would qualify.

        In the above scenario — which, again, is pretty likely — the 4th spot would go to the MLS Cup winner. We would then have to rely on either A) winning MLS Cup ourselves, or B) MLS Cup being won by LAFC, NYCFC, Atlanta, or Toronto. If it’s won by a team that has already qualified (or can’t qualify), the spot would then go to the NEXT highest point total in the league. That would be the Union, as long as they are ahead of all the other west coast teams besides LAFC.

        So, the simplest and most realistic summary is that for us to get to CONCACAF, we need to either:
        A) Win MLS Cup; or
        B) Stay ahead of the 2nd place team in the West and have MLS Cup won by LAFC, NYCFC, Atlanta, or Toronto.

        I think you could devise some crazy combination of results within B that could keep us out, but it’s something that is never gonna happen. So, in addition to the Union picking up points, and hoping that Atlanta and NYCFC lose, we need to root against Seattle, Minnesota, RSL, or San Jose overtaking us.

      • Good explanation. Thanks Scottso 🙂

  3. I would have loved a flipped scenario of the end of last year with us playing NYFC at home for the last game then again for our first playoff game. The only way that looks possible now is for NYC to drop down to 4th and we get 1st place back – ideally both happen that last regular season game!

  4. Chris Gibbons says:

    People have talked about how the Union’s schedule is so brutal to end the season (and it is), but so is NYCFC’s. Every side left for them is fighting for a playoff spot. If they win first place in the East, they’ll have earned it.

  5. When the Union finished up against Atlanta, NCYFC had 3 games in hand. When the Union-LAFC game has about 30 minutes left, NYCFC will have played 1 more game than the Union. What’s wrong with this picture?

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