Playoff Probabilities and Seeding / by Drew Olsen

Now that the "Playoff Push" has given way to the actual playoffs, we have included the probabilities of all the various outcomes in this year's edition of the MLS Cup. One sees that our model's darling, Sporting Kansas City, has the best chances at an MLS Cup trophy of all teams, which is not surprising. But what this simulation really articulated to me were the differences between the three, four, and five seeds in each conference, as well as the top seeds overall. Despite the fact that our model thinks that fifth-seeded Colorado is nearly as good as Portland and Real Salt Lake, its chances at the MLS Cup are significantly lower as a five seed. Having to play that extra match on the road essentially chops the Rapids' chances in half right away, and then its slight disadvantage in a home-and-home against Portland---a 42-percent chance in that series---leaves Colorado with just a 3.2-percent chance at the silverware.

In the Eastern Conference, the same issue arises for fourth-seeded Houston. The Dynamo are not thought to be significantly worse than New York---the model projects the Red Bulls to win that potential home-and-home matchup with 59-percent probability---but the additional uncertainty of the play-in game really screws them over.

The three seeds, however, are well-represented in Cup probabilities. Though New England's Cup chances sit at just 5.1 percent, you have to remember that they play Sporting KC in the first round. We love SKC around here, if you weren't aware. And then Los Angeles, the West's third-seeded team, actually has the third-best chance overall at a Cup win---15.0 percent.

Finally, the potential for home-field advantage in an MLS Cup Final really has Sporting and New York drooling. Together those two teams hog nearly 44 percent of all the Cup probability. Given that Sporting makes the finals, the probability that it goes on to win them is about 64 percent (26.5/41.2). New York's conditional probability is similar at about 62 percent (17.4/27.9). That home-field advantage gives each of those teams a huge boost if  they can make it that far.

For Cinderella teams that make it that far, having to play a superior opponent on the road in the championship one-game-off doesn't bode well for a storybook ending.

Keep track of all the playoff outcome probabilities on our Cup Chances 2013 page under MLS Tables.