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Chicago Fire can make the playoffs, says MLS history

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A very special guest contributor used fancy numbers to show the Chicago Fire have a great chance of improving off 2015's last-place finish and even a reason to dream about playoffs.

Numbers show these two just might be able to push for the playoffs in their first year at the club.
Numbers show these two just might be able to push for the playoffs in their first year at the club.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: Most of you know him simply as Louis or LOU! Some may know him as It's Louis You Guys! (@StevensBoudreau) on Twitter. Regardless, the King of Banter and the man who knows Matt Dunphey, is a big deal in Fire fandom and he wrote up a reason for fellow fans to be optimistic about the team heading into 2016. Light editing was done to the original posting on despitetheresult.wordpress.com


"Well it can't get any worse!"

The catchphrase of the 2015 Fire and a possible marketing slogan for 2016? With a last place finish, this was a common silver lining throughout last year's brutal campaign. The downside is, well, it could get worse. The Fire still reached 30 points last season. Disaster, but also banter, looms if they go below 30 points this year.

But the hope is that 2015 was rock bottom for real this time. After a fun draft day and a few promising dudes from last year still around, it is not unreasonable to think this team will finish somewhere other than the basement.

A little bit of context and history supports optimism for the Fire to not be as much of an on-field disaster as they were in 2015, though we may have to settle for something like 2014.

The first bit of good news is that last place in MLS doesn't appear to be that bad  when compared to other leagues that many fans follow. A bit arbitrary, but I looked at last place finishers in the 2014-15 seasons of the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Liga MX. I took their point totals and goal differential and adjusted for the fact that European clubs play 38 games instead of 34. Here is what I found:

*Parma were docked 7 points for not paying players. I decided to include those 7 points as they are a better indicator of on-field play. Still, Wikipedia, my source for this and most stuff I look at, lists them at 19 points.

Thank goodness. Fire don't suck as much as the clubs from countries where there are entirely different league structures and perennial powerhouses that are good for freaking ever! Still, it is nice to know that just by the nature and structure of MLS, last place isn't as far from success as it is in other leagues across the world, and that is partially why no MLS club has ever finished dead last two seasons in a row.

Here is a list of every last place team in the history of MLS, how they finished last year, what percentage of teams they finished better than and a running average.

MLS is always changing and usually growing, so I decided to look at what percentage of teams finished behind the last place team during the next campaign, as Colorado finishing 7th in 1997 is less impressive than it would be if Fire finished 7th overall in 2016. I also didn't want to look at point totals or whether or not a team made the playoffs, as those rules have changed as well.

What we see here is a bit promising though. No team that finished last overall one year has finished last overall the next season, and on average, last place teams are in the 42nd percentile the next season. If that holds true this season, that puts the Fire in 11th or 12th place, depending on how you round. Either way, if the Fire follows the average form of 20 years of wooden spoon winners, they might just squeak into the playoffs.

I included the rolling average to see how the average MLS last place team has fared as time has gone by, and I Illustrated that in a graph.

Thanks to New York's great 1999-2000 turnaround and San Jose's 2000-2001 transformation, at one point, if you were a last place club, you could expect to finish in the top half the next season.

Since 2003, the number has really stabilized. On average, the year after you finish last, you finish better than 42% of teams in the league. You see Toronto FC twice and San Jose once continue to perform really bad, but look at the Red Bulls from 2009-2010 and D.C. United in 2013! Even Chicago's 2005 turnaround was pretty good.

We can also look at 40% as a bit of a magic number. If you finish better than 40% of clubs this season, you finish 12th and have a really good shot to make the playoffs (of course the MLS structure means the 12th-place team is not guaranteed playoffs, but it has a good shot). In eight of the league's 19 seasons in our sample size, the last place team finished ahead of >40% of the league. So, if the Fire continue the 20-year trend of last place clubs, there is nearly a 50% chance they make the postseason.

Of course every team on here had a different set of players, different types of offseasons and it's not as easy as just saying "well they sucked last season, should be better this year!" The huge roster turnover and putting a lot of stock in some rookies (thinking we see both Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell get big playing time) means 2016 could be a struggle. It would be a folly to use the offseason of the 1997 Colorado Rapids or 2008 Toronto teams to predict what Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic have lined up.

But there is some reason for optimism, as I think everything above illustrates the parity in this league. Personally, I think the Fire will do a tad worse than the other teams on the list, but I would not be surprised if they move up a couple of places in 2016.