With only four games left in the MLS regular season, it’s crunch time in the race for the playoffs. And while Orlando City has a relatively easy schedule (MLSsoccer.com calculates it as the second easiest), the Lions may have left it too late to force their way back into contention.
Currently four points shy of seventh with both the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact above, Orlando City no longer controls its own destiny despite a match-up against the aforementioned Revs outfit this coming Saturday. The Lions must not only pick up points, including in the huge six-pointer on Saturday, but also hope that those above them falter. Meanwhile the Chicago Fire remain one point behind with the two teams meeting on the final day of the season.
While MLSsoccer.com suggests only Chicago has a weaker set of opponents than Orlando City based purely on the opposition’s points per game, a team-specific strength of schedule based on a points-per-game differential between the match’s two teams as well as adjusting for the home-away split ranks Montreal’s run as easier comparative to the team’s own ability.
In this instance, Orlando City has the second-easiest run of the teams looked at while New England’s fixtures have a negative average difficulty value. It is calculated on a per-game basis and gives a difficulty value based on the home team’s home points-per-game pace minus the road team’s road points per game. For example, Orlando City’s home points-per-game average in 2019 is 1.33 while New England’s away average is only 1.07, giving Orlando City a 0.26 points advantage. Conversely, the Revolution has a -0.26 difficulty rating.
On average, Orlando’s game difficulty the rest of the way is 0.20 with the easiest match-up being the Chicago Fire’s Decision Day visit (0.87) while the trip to Houston may prove most problematic at a value of -0.79. As mentioned, Montreal has the easiest run of the four teams, averaging 0.28, including a healthy 1.11 rated fixture at home to the Eastern Conference’s basement team FC Cincinnati while a trip out to play the Galaxy looks to be the trickiest at -1.13.
Despite a hot start under Bruce Arena, the Revs look to be cooling off having won only one of the last six league games. Things may be compounded by a tricky schedule with three negatively ranked games scheduled at an average difficulty value of -0.32, including the most difficult fixture of the four teams I’ve looked at, a Decision Day trip to Atlanta (-1.29). Finally, there’s the Chicago Fire, who average a fixture difficulty of 0.14. A home visit by FC Dallas projects to be the easiest of the four (1.01), while the aforementioned visit to Orlando is slated at a tricky -0.87.
Translating these figures into points, we can project Orlando City to take 5.48 points from the final four games on current pace. Montreal can expect to take 6.93 points from its final four games and the Revs are on pace to collect 6.08 despite a difficult run of games, thanks in part to the extra game in hand that will see them over the line.
By those numbers it would take 10.07 points for Orlando City to make the playoffs. While not impossible, it basically means four wins from four by a team that is yet to win consecutive league games under James O’Connor since the Irishman’s appointment back in July 2018. Given that the current points projections are done using a pace that has landed Orlando City in ninth, it was never likely that the numbers would run in Orlando’s favor unless it was to face four of the worst road teams at home. The benefit of factoring in both teams’ averages like this, unlike the method MLS uses which just takes into account the opposition, means it gives a comparative figure as to the difference between both teams.
However, the Lions’ past proves ominous for any wishful Orlando fans at this late stage. In the previous four campaigns, Orlando City has finished the season in exactly the same position as where it was with four games to go, proving how difficult it is to play catch-up as games rapidly start to run out. In 2015, we saw the team’s strongest finish, taking nine points from the final four games but remaining stuck in seventh — five points off the playoffs when only six teams made the cut. Since then, the points taken from the final four games have steadily decreased, taking seven, four, and three respectively from the last three seasons, while the finishing positions have gotten worse: eighth, 10th, and 11th.
The good news is that statistically this is the easiest final four fixtures Orlando City has seen since joining MLS. Only once before have the Lions faced a positive difficulty rating comparative to their own — back in 2017 when the final four fixtures, which still included two negative rated games, averaged out at a negligible 0.06 value. With only one negative ranked fixture this time around and a difficulty average of 0.20, there’s arguably never been a better opportunity for Orlando City to win out and stake a postseason claim. Even more hopeful is the fact that only once has Orlando City not succeeded in outperforming its final four points projections — ironically back in 2017, when the team only took four points instead of a projected 5.75 in its previous weakest schedule.
Importantly, despite all this number crunching and statistical modelling, all we really know is that soccer is played on the pitch, not on paper and, while unlikely, a purple postseason is still mathematically possible. Things could change at the drop of a hat with this weekend’s game proving crucial. A win over New England closes the gap to one point, albeit the Revs will still have a game in hand. Montreal, meanwhile, hosts Cincinnati at the same time and any slip-up in the Canadians’ easiest fixture would set things up for a truly grandstand finish.
It ain’t over till it’s over folks.