Way Down In The Hole: Are The Playoffs Still A Possibility?

USA TODAY Sports

With only 3 months left in the season, can the Chicago Fire still make the playoffs?

At the end of May, after the Chicago Fire toughed out a 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake on the road. The feeling after the RSL game was one of hope. The Fire had snagged a tough point on the road, and Mike Magee was on his way back home. With Chicago’s 1-1 draw against Houston on the road last weekend, Fire fans have become uneasy about the growing gap between Chicago and the top of the Eastern Conference.

I began putting together a post for HTIOT after the RSL game where I tried to project how tough it would be for the Fire to make the playoffs. That post ended up on the back burner. After this recent draw, I felt that now might be an appropriate time to revive this old post .

For a quick reminder of where the Fire stood after the draw in Utah, here is what I wrote in my initial draft:

As of Saturday night, the Fire currently have a woeful 8 points out of 11 games and are 10 points behind the Philadelphia Union, who are in the last playoff spot in the east. Only being 10 points out of a playoff spot does not seem insurmountable considering that the Fire have a game or two in hand on almost every team in the Eastern Conference.

At the time I was writing this, I was wondering how difficult it was going to be for the Fire to make the playoffs after such a poor start to the season. To get a better perspective on this uphill battle that the Fire were going to have to fight, I went through the records of every MLS team back to 2009 to see where they stood after 11 games and where they finished at the end of the season.

Looking At The Fire’s First 11 Games From A Historical Perspective

Initially, I was going to only talk about the teams that had less than 10 points after 11 games into the season, but that was too depressing. There have been 9 teams since 2009 in that situation and only one of them made the playoffs. The one team that was the exception were the 2011 Sporting Kansas City squad that had the unusual situation of being homeless until June while Sporting Park was being completed.

I decided to broaden the scope of my data and only looked at the teams that who were averaging less than 1.25points per game (ppg). I chose the number 1.25 because it was about half of the ppg of the two teams with best records. The best records were the 2010 Columbus Crew and 2010 LA Galaxy. Each team had 27 out of 33 possible points at a rate of 2.45 ppg.

Team Year PPG through 11 Final Points PPG from 12 on
Final Position PPG Diff Playoffs
CREW 2009 1.18 49 1.89 1 0.79 Conference Semi
CUSA 2011 1.18 36 1.00 15 -0.18 None
NER 2012 1.18 35 0.96 16 -0.23 None
CUSA 2012 1.18 30 0.74 18 -0.44 None
NER 2011 1.18 28 0.65 17 -0.53 None
SEA 2010 1.09 48 1.89 5 0.80 Conference Semi
LAG 2009 1.09 48 1.89 2 0.80 MLS Cup Runners-up
MON 2012 1.09 42 1.30 12 0.21 None
FCD 2012 1.09 39 1,17 13 0.08 None
SKC 2010 1.09 39 1.42 9 0.33 None
POR 2012 1.09 34 0.96 17 -0.13 None
LAG 2012 1.00 54 1.87 8 0.87 Champions
RSL 2009 1.00 40 1.53 8 0.53 Champions
TFC 2011 1.00 33 0.96 16 -0.04 None
NER 2010 1,00 32 1.11 13 0.11 None
PHI 2010 0.91 31 1.11 14 0.20 None
CUSA 2010 0.91 28 0.95 15 0.04 None
CHI 2011 0.82 43 1.48 11 0.66 None
FDC 2009 0.82 39 1.58 11 0.76 None
NYRB 2009 0.82 21 0.63 15 -0.19 None
PHI 2012 0.73 36 1.22 15 0.49 None
SJ 2009 0.73 30 1.16 14 0.43 None
VAN 2011 0.73 28 0.87 18 0.14 None
SKC 2011 0.64 51 1.91 5 1.28 Conference Finals
DCU 2010 0.64 22 0.79 16 0.15 None
TFC 2012 0.23 23 0.87 19 0.60 None

Over the past four seasons, 26 teams have averaged less than 1.25 points per game after the first 11 games. Only 6 of those teams made the playoffs. Of the six teams to make the playoffs, only one of those teams averaged less than 1 point per game after 11 games which were the aforementioned homeless 2011 Sporting Kansas City squad. In order to make the playoffs, those six teams had to increase their ppg by an average of 0.83 for the rest of their season (a range of 0.53 to 1.28).

My Projection At The Time

Here is what I wrote about what the Fire would need to do to make the playoffs:

Averaging 0.73 points per game, the 2013 Chicago Fire have some big odds to overcome if they want to make the playoffs. If the Fire were to start averaging 0.83 more points per game for the remainder of the season (which would put them at 1.56 ppg), they would finish the season at about 44 points. Would 44 points be enough for the Fire to get into playoffs?

My prediction was that 44 points might be enough for the Fire to just barely capture a playoff spot because, at a third of the way into the season, 2013 seemed to be shaping up a like 2011.

2011 2012 2013
Average PPG through 11 1.44 1.50 1.45
Median PPG through 11 1.41 1.45 1.36

In 2011, the New York Red Bulls capture the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with just 46 points. Take is consideration that there is margin for error, it would be reasonable to say that 44 points could possibly get a team into the playoffs based off this projection.

A Recalibration

Since the end of May, it appears that the Eastern Conference will be tougher than I projected. I use the word "appears" because the average ppg in the east right now is 1.31. This number is being brought down significantly by Toronto FC and D.C. United (who would be fortunate to break 20 points this season).

Since the game in Utah, the Fire have taken 17 out of 27 available points. Their ppg over this stretch is 1.88, which is 1.15 points more per game than the 0.73 mark they hit for the start of the season. This also means that they are the hottest team in the Eastern Conference since the end of May. Here are the teams in the east in order of their ppg since the 11th game of the season.

Team PPG
CHI 1.88
SKC 1.72
PHI 1.72
NER 1.70
NYRB 1.64
MON 1.33
HOU 1.11
TFC 1.00
CREW 0.72
DCU 0.50

If these ppg rates hold steady, below is how the east would finish.

Place Team Points
1 SKC 56.7
2 PHI 54.7
3 NYRB 54.6
4 MON 53.6
5 NER 52.1
6 CHI 51.4
7 HOU 45.5
8 CREW 31.7
9 TFC 30
10 DCU 16.5

The conference has turned out to be more competitive than what I projected while the Fire have actually performed better than I predicted they would need to (which is a really good thing). If the Fire make the playoffs this year, it will be by the skin of their teeth.

Projections aside, I think the right way of thinking is not "will the Fire make the playoffs?" but that the playoffs start this Saturday in Philadelphia. The upcoming slate of games in August are critical for the Chicago Fire. If the Fire do not play playoff caliber soccer in August, they could find themselves out of the playoff race come September.

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