With the recent run of good form under interim head coach John Hackworth, talks have re-emerged of the possibility of the Philadelphia Union making the playoffs. However, there may be some doubt in the back of people's mind that the poor run of form under the now departed Peter Nowak may have put the Union in too big of a hole to bounce back. So, the question becomes, do the Philadelphia Union have a realistic shot at qualifying for this year's playoffs? And if so, what do they need to do to ensure qualification?
To start this, note the difference in the playoffs format this season. Last season and in years past, the final teams in the playoffs were wild cards that came from combining the conferences. Teams not in the top three of each conference were grouped together and the top four of those teams, regardless of conference, qualified for the playoffs. This year, that is changed to the much more easy to understand "top five teams in each conference advance to the playoffs."
To start with, let's take a look at the fifth place team in each conference last season and the number of points per match (PPM) they earned.
New York Red Bulls: 46 points (1.35 PPM)
Colorado Rapids: 49 points (1.44 PPM)
Now let's take a look at the current 5th place teams in 2012. The point values written below are the points expected from each team at the end of the season should they continue their current pace. These are found by multiplying their current PPM by the number of matches in the 2012 MLS Season, 34 (only decimals .5 and higher get rounded up).
Houston Dynamo: 47 points (1.38 PPM)
Los Angeles Galaxy: 41 points (1.21 PPM)
The number worth paying attention to here is the Houston Dynamo's projected 47 points, as that is what the Union are chasing. The others are given mainly for context. If 47 is the current expected point value of the 5th place team in a 9-10 team conference with 34 matches, then it is reasonable to expect that to be the bench mark the Union needs to reach this season in order to qualify for the playoffs. While this is only the second season that satisfies the above requirements, 47 in no way looks like an unreasonable bench mark.
Currently, the Philadelphia Union sit at 17 points having played 16 games, or 1.06 PPM. 1.06 PPM over a 34 game season translates to 36 points in a season. Obviously, this would not be good enough to qualify for the playoffs.
Now let's forget about the Nowak tenure and focus on what the Union have done under John Hackworth. Under Hackworth, the Union have accumulated 9 points in 5 matches good for 1.8 PPM. Extend that rate to an entire season, and the Union would end the season with 61 points, 13 more points than last season. Obviously, this would qualify easily for the playoffs. But, the Union are not starting at that.
Let's assume this current run of form is for real, and the Union continue earning 1.8 points per match for the rest of the season. Should this be the case, the Union would end the season with 49 points. This probably is good enough to get the Union into the playoffs. In order to match the Houston Dynamo's 47 point pace directly, the Philadelphia Union would need to earn 30 points in their final 18 matches, or 1.67 points per match for the rest of the season. This may be good enough to get the Union into the playoffs.
But, just how good do you have to be to earn 1.67 points per match? Let's take a look at the first place finishers in each conference last season and the current pace of first place in each conference this season.
2011 Los Angeles Galaxy: 1.97 PPM
2011 Sporting Kansas City: 1.5 PPM
2012 San Jose Earthquakes: 1.94 PPM
2012 Sporting Kansas City: 1.83 PPM
The average here is 1.81 PPM for first place, but it is clear these numbers are a bit all over the place. Data from seasons where the season set up is different in terms of number of teams is a bit suspect, but if they stabilize in the same general area, they might not be totally useless. The average PPM of the six first place teams prior to 2011 is 1.74 PPM. If you combine the eight points per match totals of each of the last eight first place teams and the current pace of the two first place teams this season and average them together, it comes out to first place teams in MLS averaging 1.78 points per match in five seasons. This number, however, should be taken with a huge grain of salt with the range above in mind.
The point of calculating this is to determine if points per match required of the Union from here on out is a possibility in MLS over the course of a long sample size. Four first place teams finished with over 1.9 points per match. The Union probably need to earn somewhere in the range of 1.67 to 1.8 PPM from here on out to qualify. In a bubble, this is mathematically possible in MLS over a large sample. As a general guideline, no team averaged over 2 points per match in each of the last five MLS seasons.
If the Union want the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, they will need to consistently earn points at a rate as high some of the best teams in MLS while hoping fifth place in the Eastern Conference continues at its current pace. While the latter is a mathematically reasonable as explained above, expecting simply a coaching change and a few transfers to transform one of the worst teams in MLS* into one of the strongest teams in MLS should be met with some skepticism moving forward.
*Make no mistake about it. 2-7-2 with a -6 goal differential on June 13 made the Union a legitimate bottom 5 team in MLS at the time.
While the point total the Union need to reach is attainable, the Union making the playoffs hinges on being one of the best teams in MLS for the final 23 games after being among of the worst in the first 11. This is possible. The Philadelphia Union can qualify for the MLS Cup in 2012. But in order to do so, the Philadelphia Union need to continue being great after being legitimately terrible, and it is not yet reasonable to conclude that this current run of form from the Union is sustainable for the long term after only a five game sample.
The dream of an incredible comeback to qualify for the playoffs is fun, but expectations should remain tempered for now. Barring an unlikely long-term continuation over the final 18 games of this current run of form that sees them as among the top teams in MLS, the Union will very likely see themselves fall short of a MLS Cup berth in 2012.