Charting out the rest of the season for the Chicago Fire and the top teams in the MLS East

Sean Johnson takes a look at the Fire's remaining schedule... and he likes what he sees.

The Chicago Fire have 13 games remaining in the 2012 MLS Regular Season. They currently sit in 5th place in the Eastern Conference.

Team Pts
New York 38
Houston 37
Kansas City 37
D.C. 33
Chicago 32
Columbus 28
Montreal 27
Philadelphia 23
New England 23
Toronto 19

The top five teams in the East qualify for the playoffs so the Fire would just squeeze in for the final spot. This table is very simple for the standings as some teams have more games remaining in the season than others. We'll talk about that after the break but we'll also discuss the fact that some games are tougher than others. Which playoff contender has the easiest path down the stretch? If you are a Fire fan, you are going to like the answer.

New York Red Bulls

Current Points: 38

PPG: 1.73

Current Points Pace: 59

# of Remaining Games: 12

# of Remaining Home Games: 7

Mean Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.43

Median Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.59

New York leads the pack but have they gotten where they are today by feasting on the least of the East? The only teams that the Red Bulls play multiple times from here on out are Houston and Kansas City (currently tied for 2nd place). Somehow 3 of New York's final 12 games are against KC. The Fire and the Columbus Crew each get a final crack at the Red Bulls but they have to travel to New Jersey. Outside of matches against Portland, New England, Toronto and Philadelphia, all of New York's games are against fellow Eastern Conference playoff contenders.

There's no doubt New York has the firepower to continue to contend. I think they'll make it into the playoffs. If they manage to finish first, it will be quite the accomplishment. I would put them as MLS Cup favorites if that happens.

Houston Dynamo

Current Points: 37

PPG:1.68

Current Points Pace: 57

# of Remaining Games: 12

# of Remaining Home Games: 7

Mean Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.38

Median Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.34

Houston faces a very tough next seven games. Six of their seven opponents have at least 1.47 PPG. If Houston can make it to September 23rd while still in a good position, the East and indeed the rest of MLS will be put on notice. The average PPG of the Dynamo's final five opponents is 1.13. Imagine playing the Montreal Impact 5 games in a row. New York, Kansas City, Chicago and Columbus all get one crack before the season ends. New York even gets two back-to-back starting Saturday.

Sporting Kansas City

Current Points: 37

PPG:1.68

Current Points Pace: 57

# of Remaining Games: 12

# of Remaining Home Games: 6

Mean Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.40

Median Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.50

Kansas City is tied with New York for the toughest schedule to finish the season. Their opponents are not quite as tough as New York's but KC's opponents still have high averages. That's not good news for the team that won its first 7 games only to go 4-7-4 in their last 15 games. Which is the real KC? I'm guessing it's closer to the 1.06 PPG the team currently has in the last 15 than the 3.00 PPG they had in their first 7.

You have to remember that KC's form last year had a lot to do with playing 17 of their last 24 matches at their brand new home stadium. This year they played 4 of their first 6 matches at home and clawed out 1-0 victories in 4 of those first 6 games. When you have that many home games, it becomes easy to find a groove. You will win games thanks to the little edges. Now that KC is back to a regular schedule, they look like the same group of players that have primarily been playing under coach Peter Vermes since he has been the technical director. Those were not good teams.

D.C. United

Current Points: 33

PPG: 1.65

Current Points Pace: 56

# of Remaining Games: 14

# of Remaining Home Games: 7

Mean Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.36

Median Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.39

D.C.'s remaining opponents are along the same lines as Houston's. They have a tough matchup on September 1st at Real Salt Lake but then they also have 'good' games against Chivas USA and the Portland Timbers. D.C. benefits from having the most opportunity for points among the top contenders: if they win their next two matches, that would put them on a higher pace through 22 games than the rest of the competition. The key battles will be August 4th and October 20th versus the Crew and August 22nd and October 27th vs. our own Chicago Fire. D.C.'s only home game out of those 4 matches will be the August 22nd game. The season finale for both D.C. and Chicago is that October 27th game. You might want to buy your tickets now for that potentially fate deciding game.

Chicago Fire

Current Points: 32

PPG: 1.52

Current Points Pace: 52

# of Remaining Games: 13

# of Remaining Home Games: 7

Mean Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.34

Median Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.21

The Fire are shaping up to have a cupcake of a finish to the 2012 season. They have the lowest mean average opponent PPG (albeit by a .01 point) and the lowest Median Average by far. There are two games against each of the last three teams in the East (Philadelphia, New England, and Toronto FC) and a home game against the 4th worst team in the East (Montreal). Rounding out Chicago's schedule is a home/home matchup against D.C. and one game against each of the other East playoff competitors.

There are more home games than road games in the final 13. More than half of the games left are against Montreal, New England, Philadelphia or Toronto FC. There's a chance to knock down or stabilize the rise of each major playoff threat. The final game of the season is at home against a playoff contender. This is a bit of a gift but it needs to be taken advantage of. If the Fire fail to reach the playoffs, it will be quite embarrassing given the riches of opportunity they have going into the final stretch.

Columbus Crew

Current Points: 28

PPG: 1.47

Current Point Pace: 50

# of Remaining Games: 15

# of Remaining Home Games: 8

Mean Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.35

Median Average of Opponents' PPG: 1.43

Columbus stubbornly remain in the playoff hunt. It helps that they have so many games remaining but that also poses somewhat of a problem. Over the 49 days between August 4th and September 22nd, the Crew have 11 games. The last game in that stretch is at Toyota Park. Chicago should take advantage of a road-weary Columbus team on that day. If the Crew can withstand the brutal stretch (and even heaven forbid, take 3 points from Chicago that late September day), they will be a battle tested and primed squad for the playoffs.

Final Thoughts

Traditionally a team needed 40 points to get into the playoffs under the old system with fewer teams in the league and 30 games played. 40 points in 30 games translates to a 1.33 PPG. Last year New York Red Bulls squeaked into the playoffs with 46 points (1.35 PPG). Does that mean 45 or 46 points is a lock to make the playoffs in 2012? I'm not so sure.

A big difference between 2011 and 2012 is that teams are tying dramatically less this year. In 2011, 39% of the games played by Eastern Conference teams resulted in ties. This year only 20% of games are ties. With more wins and losses come more 3 point games and less games where are only 2 points are distributed. Just look at the Crew who are currently out of the playoffs but still on pace to get 50 points. Last year 50 points would have given you 2nd place and made you trailing 1st place Kansas City by a single point. Now a 50 point pace is not a guarantee to make the playoffs.

Two things might halt the 'record' pace of these clubs. Almost all of the remaining games are East vs. East from now on. If D.C. defeats the Crew, D.C. moves up and the Crew stay the same. Let's say the Columbus game congestion starts to negatively alter the Crew. That's three points for the top teams and a push down for Columbus. We could end up with a very boring playoff race. It would be a playoff race that is only seeding based. A much more entertaining playoff race would involve constantly rotating victories. Chicago beats Kansas City who then beat D.C. who then beat New York who then beat Houston who then beat Columbus who then beat Chicago who then--- okay you get the point. That circle of three points would be a rising tide that lifts all boats so East vs. East does not alone mean the paces will fall.

What is more likely to happen is teams will start to play more conservatively. Pretend you are New York head coach Hans Backe. You are on the road against Houston. You sit atop the East with 38 points and have 12 games to get to around 50 points. If I'm you as Hans Backe (follow me here, I've painted us into a corner and I don't want to use the backspace), I know I'm inclined to go for the draw. A draw allows me to maintain my place in the standings and it keeps the Dynamo from leapfrogging me.

Prediction

Time for me to go on the line with a prediction here. For Toronto, Philadelphia, New England, and Montreal fans, my apologies to you for not including your team in the mix. I don't apologize to the teams themselves though because their ladders to success are too high to overcome. Philly has the best shot and they need 27 points in their last 15 games just to reach 50 points. That's 1.80 PPG - about where Real Salt Lake has been this year. That's not happening. Based on everything I've said above, here is the predicted final top of the 2012 Eastern Conference standings:

Team Pts
Houston 60
Chicago 57
D.C. 56
New York 54
Columbus 52
Kansas City 50
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