The sports-ism often uttered around playoff time is that everything that has happened previously goes “out the window”. It doesn’t matter what a team has done to get there, this is a fresh start. It is the mentality that Toronto FC is taking going into this year’s postseason, and it is a good one to have.
Only it isn’t 100% true. The MLS Cup playoffs, by and large, can be quite random, which is part of the intrigue. But what happens before they start does matter, as going into the playoffs in good form does correlate with success.
In an article published earlier this season, Waking the Red discovered that MLS Cup winners since 2007 have all had a better points-per-game rate over their last 10 games of the regular season than the first two-thirds of the campaign. In other words, they are ‘hot’ going into the playoffs.
With that in mind, and the 2017 edition of the playoffs set to get underway on Wednesday, here is a look at which teams are hot and cold. The graphs below show the positive or negative difference between each playoffs team’s points per game in their first 24 matches and their last 10 of the season.
Who is hot right now?
They may be going through some turmoil off the field, but the Columbus Crew certainly don’t need saving on it. While the club has been operating under the threat of relocation, they have also been the hottest team in the league.
After a poor middle section of their season, the Crew did not lose in their last 10 matches, grabbing six wins and four draws over that stretch. They averaged 0.87 more points per game over the final 10 compared to the rest of the season.
As luck would have it, however, their knockout-round playoff matchup on Thursday pits them against the second hottest team in the east right now: Atlanta United. Atlanta has been on quite a run dating back to the halfway point of the season, losing only twice since then.
Out west, the Portland Timbers clinched the conference on Decision Day, and in the process cemented themselves as an MLS Cup final favourite. They are the hottest team in their conference, averaging 1.9 points per game over their last 10 matches.
The only other hot playoff team in the Western Conference is the Vancouver Whitecaps. After a poor start to 2017, the Whitecaps are also in the conversation to come out of the west and will be heavy favourites in their knockout-round match against the Earthquakes.
Finally, Toronto have impressively remained in the hot category despite being the league leaders for most of the season. They were still able to raise their level over the last 10 games of the season and while the performances haven’t neccessarily been impressive of late, they have still been getting results.
Who has been struggling?
As the autumn months have reached MLS, it appears all of New York has gone cold. The Red Bulls and New York City FC are the two playoff teams in the worst form relative to the rest of their respective seasons.
The Red Bulls only won twice in their last 10 matches, and come into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. City, meanwhile, finished second overall in the league but came nowhere near catching Toronto as they won just three of their final 10 games.
Sporting Kansas City and the Red Bulls share the dubious honour of worst form going into the MLS playoffs, both averaging 1.2 points per game over their last 10 matches of the regular season.
Like New York City, Chicago Fire have also been near the top of the table all season but struggled a little with the playoffs looming. A 3-0 loss to Houston on Decision Day cost Chicago a first-round bye and now they will have to beat the Red Bulls on Wednesday.
Houston’s poor form over their last 10 should come with a bit of an asterisk, as they won three of their last four games. So of all the teams we have defined as cold, they go into the playoffs in the best shape.
The knockout-round comparisons
Chicago Fire (-0.31) vs. New York Red Bulls (-0.38)
Columbus Crew (0.87) vs. Atlanta United (0.40)
Vancouver Whitecaps (0.24) vs. San Jose Earthquakes (0.07)
Houston Dynamo (-0.24) vs. Sporting KC (-0.34)