With the win over the New York City Red Bulls, Toronto FC clinched their first playoffs berth in club history. With tremendous energy and drive going into the playoffs, momentum, statistically speaking, could play a huge role for TFC as they try to chase the crown.
Because MLS is still new in North American sports, there isn't much data in terms of momentum swings. However, while gathering data for different sports, I found that it can have play a role when a team or star athlete wins a significant tournament.
The first noticeable example of this is by American pro golfer, Billy Horshel who currently plays on the PGA Tour. Horschel went from almost missing the cut at the Barclays tournament - where he ranked 69th out of 82nd - to be tied for second at the Deutsche Bank Championships. He then won his next two playoff events after that.
When asked about Horschel's prolific hot-streak, this is what CBS' golf analyst, Peter Kostis had to say:
"Billy Horschel showed us last year, though, that if you get hot at the right time, you can win," Kostis said. "Throw out the standings. Four great weeks, and you will probably win, regardless of where you started."
Golf definitely has many examples and so does Major League Baseball.
In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Jared Diamond writes since 2002, 10 wild-card teams have won their league's title, including both of last year's World Series participants, the San Fransisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. Five of those wild cards went on to win the World Series - most of which were in tight races straight through September.
Diamond continues to say that the success of winning the Wild Card has reignited the belief that it's the hottest teams at the time that win the biggest prize and not necessarily the best team.
To test the theory, the Wall Street Journal reviewed every team in the Wild Card-era (since 1995) and looked at their records for their final 20 games of the regular season. The conclusion was that late-season records and post-season performance aren't exactly intertwined.
Since 1995, teams that won the World Series had a combined percentage of .578 in their final 20-regular season games, World Series losers had a .611 winning percentage, League Championship Series losers had a .606 winning percentage and Division and Wild-Card losers had a .578 winning percentage.
Diamond continues to write that at times, teams stay hot and never cool down. Such as the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. After finishing 15-5, the Cardinals sneaked into the playoffs as a Wild Card participant and rode that momentum all the way to winning the World Series Championship.
However there's the case of the 2000 New York Yankees who lost 15 of their final 20 regular-season games but rebounded and defeated the New York Mets in the World Series.
Finally there's the NHL. In an article for Last Word on Sports, Ben Kerr looked at teams with the best records over the last 10 games of the regular season. In looking at data over the past decade, Kerr found seven of the 11 teams have lost in the first round whereas none have made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Only one advanced to the Conference Final.
He however looked back at the Stanley Cup Champions since 2006 and found that surprisingly, since the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, the average number of wins for a Stanley Cup Champion in their last 10 games was 5.89. The 2000 New Jersey Devils as well won an average 5.35 in their final 10 games of the season.
Kerr concludes that it's far more important for a team to play well during a long stretch than to suddenly get hot, days before the post season. He adds momentum doesn't seem to transfer to the next game and that it's 'evaporated' once the puck is dropped in the next.
While momentum is a controversial concept in sports, some argue that it doesn't exist at all and that it's simply a 'shift in momentum' in which team make proper adjustments and execute down the stretch. It's not some sudden change within that alters the course of a series.
However there's something to be said about putting several victories together and gaining confidence at the right time as they enter the postseason.
TFC might be getting hot when it counts at the end of the season, and while it's going to go in with their heads up high, it doesn't necessarily guaranteed prosperity in the post season.