We are entering the stretch run of the 2021 Major League Soccer season. Each team in the Eastern Conference has five games left to play (aside from New England Revolution and Chicago Fire, who have just four apiece). What will it take for Nashville SC to make the playoffs? To finish in second place?
Soccer, which has a table system more complex than many other sports (the points you get for a win are different than those your opponent is denied, and also you can tie! Which has a different total number of points distributed between the teams than a win for either of them!) is tough to do true “magic number” calculations without being way smarter and having way more than Google Sheets-y spreadsheet capabilities. But let’s explore – as much as we can at this stage – what it’ll take for Nashville SC to lock up those benchmarks.
Nashville SC currently sits on 48 points, second in the league. If NSC were to win each of the five remaining games, the team would hit hit 63 points. The Boys in Gold cannot catch New England Revolution (67 points), nor can they be caught by FC Cincinnati (a perfect finish would net 35 points), Chicago or Toronto (can reach 40 points apiece), or Miami (47 points in a best-case scenario).
For the purposes of this exercise, then, the relevant teams are as follows:
- 3. Philadelphia Union (currently 46 points, can reach a maximum of 61)
- 4. Orlando City (45, max 60)
- 5. Atlanta United (42, max 57)
- 6. DC United (41, max 56)
- 6. CF Montreal (41, max 56)
- 8. New York City FC (40, max 55)
- 8. New York Red Bulls (40, max 55)
- 10. Columbus Crew (37, max 52)
For magic-number purposes, we will assume these teams win every game against the teams that are no longer in Nashville’s range (12 games). That is either a reasonable – but not safe – assumption when it comes to the bottom four, but a pretty insane one when it comes to the Revs (but we’re looking at Magic Number-type calculations, not “most likely”-type scenarios). We will also assume wins over any Western Conference teams (two).
For now, let’s disregard games Nashville participates in (four against playoff contenders, one against FC Cincinnati) to simplify matters. We’ll also assume that Nashville loses any tiebreakers – teams will have to win games to catch up to the Boys in Gold, and that will mean passing NSC in the first tiebreaker (which is indeed wins*).
The top seven teams in the East make the playoffs.
There are 11 games left to be contested between pairs of teams in the 3-10 positions in the Eastern Conference. That means before we get into how Nashville directly impacts the remaining table there are 3^11 permutations of how those games play out. That’s right, only… 177,147 total possible outcomes.
In 87,144 of those permutations, at least six teams in the sample reach or eclipse the 48-point mark (i.e., added to New England, leave Nashville in eighth or worse, and out of the playoffs entirely) based on their games against each other and with the assumption they go perfect against the teams outside of the sample. That means Nashville still hits the playoff mark (before considering the games against Columbus, Philly, Orlando, Cincinnati, and NYRB) in 90,003 scenarios.
Based on the sheer scale of the numbers we’re talkin’ here, it’s easy to see there’s still too much soccer to be played before we can really know (with the limitations of Google Sheets, at least!) what the full situation is. However, a Nashville win over Columbus Crew Wednesday evening would simplify matters greatly. It would ensure a Nashville finish ahead of Columbus, and knock the relevant number of “head-to-head” games down to eight (total permutations: 6,561), with two of those games – Orlando hosting Montreal and Atlanta hosting NYC – actually beginning an hour before Nashville’s Wednesday kickoff.
That’s a lot of typing – and a lot of spreadsheetin’ – to say that we don’t have quite enough information to come up with a “magic number” for Nashville SC yet, at least not within the capabilities of (admittedly limited) Google Sheets computing power.
From a practical perspective, Nashville SC is effectively a single draw away from locking up a playoff spot. Losing to both Columbus and NYRB (the two teams close to the line) would complicate matters to an extent, but probably still not cost Nashville a playoff spot. Winning against Columbus on Wednesday should lock it up. To feel comfortable in a second-place finish, Nashville needs to not lose ground (i.e. lose) to either Philadelphia or Orlando – with a caveat that poor results for either of them might make even that nice, but unnecessary.
Wednesday’s results will provide more clarity, but if they don’t include a Nashville win over Columbus, the amount of clarity they can provide is limited.
* This is a stupid tiebreaker: wins are already more valuable than draws, and to reach the same point total with more wins and fewer draws, you actually have to make your record worse! 1-2-0 (.333) is the exchange rate for 0-0-3 (.500).