Sunday night, after D.C. United finished kicking the Colorado Rapids all over RFK Stadium, I decided to pause and take a look at the Supporters’ Shield race as it currently stands. Needless to say, it’s about as close as you can ask for, with six teams within striking distance of MLS’s regular season crown. I took a look at their current form and remaining schedule, then did my best to prognosticate the order these six teams will finish in [READ: I pulled guesses out of thin air]. My analysis and wild guessing are below.
Sporting Kansas City (42 points, 10 games remaining)
Last year’s MLS Cup champions find themselves in a two-way tie at the top of the Supporters’ Shield table. SKC had won six of seven matches before hiccups against the Philadelphia Union and the Vancouver Whitecaps, but Saturday’s trouncing of Toronto FC certainly suggests that Sporting may have righted the ship.
The remaining MLS schedule sets up favorably for Sporting KC, with half its games at home and with opponents that are averaging only 1.26 points per game this season. However, Sporting’s schedule is complicated by the mixed blessing of CONCACAF Champions League play: SKC will play four CCL matches before the MLS regular season concludes, meaning half of the club’s remaining games will be played on 5 days’ rest or fewer. MLS teams have begun to prioritize international play in recent years, so whether Sporting will have to ration minutes down the stretch is a significant question.
Real Salt Lake (42 points, 10 games remaining)
Since it took 120 minutes and 20 penalty kicks to separate Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake in MLS Cup 2013, it’s fitting that these two teams would be tied atop the standings with 10 games left in the 2014 season. After a hot start to the season that saw the Claret-and-Cobalt undefeated through its first 12 matches, the team hit a June swoon in which it only pulled 1 point out of 3 matches. The drop-off coincided with RSL losing the bulk of its central spine (Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Alvaro Saborio) to World Cup duty. Although Saborio is still out injured with a broken bone in his foot, Beckerman and Rimando have returned, and with them, RSL’s attacking rhythm has reappeared. The team has won four of its last five and is unbeaten in six, including a 3-0 thrashing of D.C. United and a solid win over the Seattle Sounders.
And that attacking rhythm has returned none too soon. RSL’s home stretch is no cakewalk. The team faces FC Dallas twice (once on the road) and plays away at Seattle, along with matches at Vancouver and at Portland. While those five games seem likely to test RSL’s mettle, they are interspersed with matches against teams closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than to the top: San Jose Earthquakes (once home, once away), Chivas USA (once home, once away), and Colorado Rapids (home). Importantly, RSL only stands to play a single game on a short week (unless you count the September 30 match at Chivas USA, which comes five days after a friendly against USL PRO side Sacramento Republic FC, which will likely feature few of RSL’s regular starters).
Seattle Sounders (41 points, 12 games remaining)
This season has been a classic Sounders season, with the team holding games in hand while riding at the top of the Western Conference. From April to late June, the Sounders entered a torrid stretch that saw the team take all three points from nine of eleven games, opening a ten-point gap between itself and the rest of the conference. However, also like a typical Sounders season, the team has shown some wobbliness down the stretch, dropping four of their last six. Which Sounders team will we see down the stretch? The team that went winless in its final seven games last year, managing only three points in that stretch? Or a new Seattle that endures and comes away with the Supporters’ Shield.
Seattle enters its final twelve games in a position of strength. It has the best points per game in MLS at 1.86, and although the side is a point out of the lead in the Shield race, the squad also has two games in hand on the leaders. But games in hand can be a mixed blessing; even though the Sounders have no Champions League games this year, their oddly back-loaded schedule means that of its final twelve matches a surprising eight will be played on short weeks. Seattle also has four games remaining against other teams in the top-six of the Shield standings, two of which are on the road. However, the Sounders balance that tough slate with two matches against Chivas USA, two against the Colorado Rapids, and one at home against San Jose Earthquakes.
D.C. United (40 points, 11 games remaining)
Can Comeback Player of the Year be awarded to a team? For a squad that finished at the bottom of the league last year by a LONG way, D.C. has really engineered a turnaround. That jump in quality is perhaps due to an excellent offseason, and that offseason was aided by the cash infusions that came from its Champions League berth (gained from a Twilight Zone U.S. Open Cup victory) and its “you suck” allocation for finishing at the bottom of the table. Striker Fabian Espindola has certainly worked wonders for the team, scoring and assisting seemingly at will. Having won seven of its last eleven, D.C. United are in fine late-season form.
Like Seattle, D.C. has a game in hand on the Shield leaders. However, like Sporting, D.C. also has to manage a CONCACAF Champions League schedule during the critical final months of the season. As a result, D.C. will play seven of its final eleven matches on short weeks. Additionally, almost two-thirds of the team’s final matches are on the road. Luckily, with most of its remaining matches against Eastern Conference competition, its opponents’ points per game numbers are relatively low, suggesting a relatively gentle end to the season.
FC Dallas (39 points, 10 games remaining)
After an eight-game winless stretch in April and May, the Hoops are undefeated in nine with six wins during that time. As a result, the Pride of Frisco, Texas finds itself three points out of the lead in the Western Conference. With Fabian Castillo on a scoring binge, Dallas looks difficult to stop.
That said, of the six teams with a realistic shot at winning the Supporters’ Shield, FC Dallas also has arguably the most difficult schedule to close out the season. Its opponents’ average points per game is the highest of the shield contenders at 1.51, with a home schedule relatively more difficult than its away schedule. The side also has five of its final ten games against Top-Six teams (RSL twice, LA Galaxy twice, and home to Seattle), with only one game against weak competition (at Chicago Fire). With such a daunting schedule to finish the season, it is hard to imagine FC Dallas coming away with the Shield. That said, they are certainly in contention, and a playoff berth seems all but guaranteed.
LA Galaxy (34 points, 13 games remaining)
The non-self-destructive Los Angeles side is once again in the hunt for MLS’s top regular season prize, looking for its third Shield in five years. Winning a trophy or two would be a fitting end to the career of Landon Donovan, who plans to move on from soccer at the end of this season. Together with the San Jose Earthquakes, the Galaxy have played the fewest games in the league, with 21. LA has been defined once more this season by its consistency, including a stretch from May to August during which the squad only lost one game while winning seven and drawing another four.
With three games in hand on the Shield leaders, LA finds itself in much the same position as Seattle. By winning those additional games, LA can rise quickly up the table. However, having games in hand also means playing multiple games on short weeks, and LA has 8 such games. In addition, with only 3 matches against teams at the bottom of the standings, its schedule doesn’t exactly ease up. Finishing with back-to-back games against the Sounders certainly doesn’t help.
HANDICAPPING THE RACE
So how about some wild guessing now? Who will win the 2014 Supporters’ Shield? There are some very sophisticated methods of extrapolating to find the winner. I am not using any of those. Obviously, I am not Nate Silver. I’m not nearly so crafty (or accurate). So I’ve used two very basic methods: Win-Home, Draw-Away Method and the Slightly-More-Accurate-Than-A-Coin-Toss Method.
Win-Home, Draw-Away Method. In MLS, home field advantage is very real. Winning home games while drawing road games is frequently viewed as a good goal, and if a team can achieve it, that team can rack up points quickly. However, we can’t simply assume that all six of the top teams can accomplish this goal. After all, some of these teams play each other, and as a result, either the home teams must draw some games or the road teams must lose some games. To account for this, when Top-Six teams play each other down the stretch, I’ve given the benefit of the doubt to the team with the higher points per game (i.e., when two Top-Six teams face off, if the home team has a higher points per game, then I have picked the home team to win, but if the road team has a higher points per game, then I picked a draw).
Using this method, the results turn out as follows:
- Seattle Sounders, 65 points
- Sporting KC, 62 points
- Real Salt Lake, 59 points
- D.C. United, 56 points
- FC Dallas, 54 points
- LA Galaxy, 53 points
Slightly-More-Accurate-Than-A-Coin-Toss Method. But the Win-Home, Draw-Away method is very inflexible and doesn’t account for schedule difficulty. So I also went through each team’s remaining games and came up with my own predictions. Honestly, my picks show some fairly optimistic form for all of these teams. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am an RSL aficionado. I tried to be objective in picking games, but once you take one look at my predicted final standings, you’ll probably accuse me of wearing Claret-colored goggles.)
- Real Salt Lake, 65 points DWWLWDWWWW
- Sporting KC, 64 points DWWDWWDWDW
- Seattle Sounders, 60 points (tiebreaker: 18 wins) WLWWWDLWDDLD
- D.C. United, 60 points (tiebreaker: 17 wins) DDWLDWWDDWW
- LA Galaxy, 60 points (tiebreaker: 16 wins) DWDWWWWWDDLWD
- FC Dallas, 57 points DWLDLWDWWW
So what are your predictions? Share them in the comments or tweet at me (@RSLTotalMLS).