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Is four games too long to get the first win?

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It took four games for the new look Chicago Fire to tally their first win of the 2016 season and history shows that slow starts can greatly affect a team’s playoff chances.

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Every fan comes out or tunes in to the first game of a new season hoping to see a convincing win by their club of choice and, of course, no more than half can come away happy with the result.  It has taken Veljko Paunović four games to earn his first win as an MLS coach and that places doubt on the team’s chances of making the playoffs.

I was as thrilled as any to get three points on Saturday and, while it was not a convincing performance, a win before all of the trees in Chicago have shown their buds is a great improvement to recent seasons.  It made me wonder (on-field performances aside) if we are already falling behind where we need to be to slip into the playoffs this year.

Using the standings and results maps on MLSsoccer.com, I compiled a list of all playoff teams from 2007-2015 and listed the number of games it took them to earn their first win.  2007 is chosen as the starting point because it is generally perceived to be the start of "MLS 2.0" when Toronto FC entered the league and the steady expansion of the league truly began.  Looking at playoff teams and the associated results prior to this period seems much less relevant to making the playoffs in 2016.

What the Numbers Say About CF97’s Chances

Well, let’s not sugarcoat things.  It does not look good for the 2016 playoffs.  By no means is it impossible, but it is not likely using this analysis from the past nine years as a guide.  The average number of games it took for playoff teams to win their first game is 2.35 games and the vast majority won their first game of the season (45 times).  If one looks at Chicago Fire’s history, the average for years with a playoff berth is a win in the first 2 games of the season.

There is some record of playoff teams taking four or more games to earn their first win, so all hope is not lost.  It has happened 22 of 84 times which comes out to a rate of 26.19%.  So, one could be an optimist and say we still have a 25% chance of making the playoffs, all other variables aside.

Before the season, did anyone really think Chicago Fire would contend for MLS Cup?  Now, four games into the season, does it seem even less likely?  Well, the numbers show that MLS Cup Champions take, on average, only 2 games to tally a win.

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A quick look at the above chart shows how the odds of a team making the playoffs goes down considerably each passing week.  It is strange that game 3 wins is so low, but that is probably more a product of the sample size than anything from which you can draw conclusions.

So You’re Sayin’ There’s a Chance...

YES! There is a chance!  What can we look at in history to give Chicago Fire fans hope after four games?  Well, as mentioned before, over 25% of the time, playoff teams took four or more games to win for the first time.  One has to assume that some of those wins were the first points of the season, in which case Chicago Fire would be ahead of this pace as they sit on five points.  In addition, a very high proportion of the league makes the playoffs in the current structure, so it is easier than ever to make it.

Now is the time for the oddball observations.  The longest a team had to wait for their first win before going on to make the playoffs was Columbus Crew in 2009.  They did not get their first win until the eighth game of the season and still went on to finish atop the Eastern Conference and host a playoff game.

Are your ambitions still to win MLS Cup in 2016?  Well, just last year, Portland Timbers finished third in the Western Conference and went on to win it all.  How long do you think it took them to get their first win of 2015?  They did not win until their fifth game.

The takeaway from this analysis is that, after four games, fans know the team can win and will win more games this season.  A win in the fourth game of the season for a mostly new squad, new front office, and new coaching staff is not horrible.  The team has an uphill battle, but they can still keep the 2016 playoffs as a realistic goal.  Finally, once over this nine year period, a team has taken at least 4 games to win before becoming champions, so, CHICAGO FIRE CAN STILL WIN MLS CUP IN 2016! (just maybe don’t bet on it...)