Small margins. It is a term you can expect to hear a lot in discussion centred on Toronto FC over the next few months. With every dropped point, chances of last year’s MLS Cup Champions getting to the playoffs become slimmer.
Having managed just 11 points through their first 12 regular season matches of 2018, it is worth looking at just how historical slim those margins have become. In order to do this, we have borrowed a concept from The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow, the point of no return.
The “point of no return” takes a look at the lowest number of points a team has had at each point throughout the season and still made the playoffs. It does this on a game-by-game basis, i.e. no team has ever had x amount of points through x amount of games and made the playoffs.
Dellow’s project was created for the NHL, for which it is a little better suited. Most pressingly, he has more data to work with, as MLS changed their playoff format in 2015 so there are only really three seasons that can fairly be measured. So it isn’t really “a point of no return” in MLS yet, more of a historical guideline.
However, the concept still provides a reasonably good look at where Toronto FC, and the rest of the Eastern Conference, are at this stage in the season. This probably won’t surprise anyone, but TFC isn’t looking so great.
In fact, no team with 11 points in their first 12 games has ever been able to claw their way back into a playoff spot under the current format. The lowest total (as indicated by the think black line) of any team that has qualified has been 13 points at this stage of the season.
This first chart shows Toronto FC and the other bottom six teams in the Eastern Conference. As you can see, Toronto, Montreal and D.C. United are already below the historical cutoff point for playoff teams. But clearly, it isn’t a “point of no return” because Chicago has crossed it twice.
The chart, however, is both proof that things are bad for Toronto FC right now, but also that things are potentially recoverable. In the past three seasons, three teams have made the playoffs after managing 13 points through 12 games, only two more than Toronto at this stage. Two of them, the 2015 Portland Timbers and 2016 Seattle Sounders, went on to win MLS Cup, while the 2016 New York Red Bulls won the Eastern Conference after their slow start.
Even at the midway point of the season, the 2016 Sounders were just a point-per-game team. They are far from the only team to be in this range at the midway point and still make the playoffs. The majority of the data points that make up the thick black line are that Seattle team, who are a perfect example of what Toronto will be trying to do in the latter half of the season.
How did that Sounders team turn things around? It started with bringing in Nicolas Lodeiro, who completely changed the way they played over the second half. Toronto FC certainly doesn’t have the salary cap to make a similar move, but in many ways will be getting their own “midseason transfers” when guys like Jozy Altidore and Justin Morrow return to health.
Toronto, however, will probably have to be marginally better than that Seattle team if they want to make the playoffs. That Sounders team qualified with 48 points, in a strong Eastern Conference Toronto will need at the very least around 51-52 points to beat the projected points per game total of sixth place Orlando City SC.
So, assuming Toronto FC needs about 40 points in their remaining 22 games to make the playoffs, they need to play at a 1.8 points per game pace. That basically means for every five games they play they need to win three or get nine points. For a team that has yet to win back-to-back games this season that will be tough.
Also concerning is a look at the teams above sixth place Orlando City. This chart looks at the top 5 Eastern Conference teams and their seasons relative to another line. The line indicates the points and games played total at which no team the past three seasons has missed the playoffs after collecting.
If we go by that Golden line, then four teams in the Eastern Conference are already all but locked into playoff spots: Atlanta United, New York City FC, Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls. New England could be close behind if they keep up their current form.
It should be noted that the golden line starts after 10 games because the 2017 edition of both Orlando and FC Dallas both got off to incredibly hot starts before falling apart and missing the playoffs.
So, already, there might only be one or two playoff spots that Toronto FC can realistically consider available to them. That is exactly the kind of small margins they are dealing with right now.
While history is against Toronto FC, the season isn’t over just yet. Being that the season is only 12 games old, however, it is remarkably early for those margins to be this small.