By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
As you probably know, after each playoff game we've been simulating the remainder of the MLS Playoffs 50,000 times using our expected goals model. Yesterday we did it for the last time in 2015 (though there was no need to simulate a single game!). The odds for both Portland and Columbus are listed to the right.
There are plenty of limitations to our model - it doesn't account for injuries, it doesn't care about formations (Nagbe in the single pivot, anyone?), and we still can't predict weather patterns - but on the whole it has been pretty accurate.
Given those limitations, 65% odds for Columbus may seem high to some, and they are certainly pretty favorable odds in a game pundits are calling a fairly even matchup. Consider that the Crew had the 4th highest expected goals against (xGA) this season, which was worse than Chicago, Orlando, and Philadelphia, and you may be even more confused.
But they've covered up for their defensive vulnerabilities this season by being such a prolific offensive team, finishing second in expected goals for (xGF) only behind the Red Bulls team they just eliminated. They will face a defensively stout Timbers side that was 5th best in xGA, but middle of the road - 9th - in xGF.
In short, we have a great offensive team with a mediocre defense (the Crew) going against a solid defensive team with an average offense (the Timbers). So what gives? Why are the Crew favored so heavily?
After all the number crunching that leads us to the conclusion that these teams are pretty evenly matched, it actually comes down to something really quite simple. Below are the winning percentages for two teams in MLS during the regular season. Can you guess which teams they are?
Team A: won 54% of its games, tied 21%, and lost 25%
Team B: won 25% of its games, tied 21%, and lost 54%
Do you have a guess?
Do you think you know? Are you sure?
Did you notice that those records are opposites of each other?
By now you've probably figured out that it was a trick question. If not, then GOTCHA!
Team A, of course, is the home team, and team B is the away team.
That's right, the home team won and the road team lost 54% of their games this season, and that amounts to a huge advantage in MLS Cup. Even if you throw out ties (though games that go to extra time favor the home team), it is just very difficult to get a result on the road in a league with as much parity as MLS.
Some may point to Portland's road win in Columbus a couple months ago, or their generally good road form, but the fact remains that they had a losing record on the road in 2015 and Columbus had only four losses at home all season.
Still, the beauty of soccer is that anything can happen and despite all the advantages that Columbus has going into this game, Portland is still projected to win the game 35 out of 100 tries.
And that, my friends, is why you play to win the game. See you on Sunday.