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Handicapping the MLS Supporters' Shield race

Alan Gordon and the San Jose Earthquakes try to fend off Sporting Kansas City in the race for the 2012 MLS Supporters' Shield.

With the MLS calendar reaching the midpoint of September, and the end of the season seven weeks away, the Supporters’ Shield race is starting to heat up. While the playoff picture in each of the Western and Eastern Conferences is coming into focus, the ramifications from both postseason chases will loom large over determining which team finishes atop the MLS single table standings.

Currently leading the race are the San Jose Earthquakes, who with 53 points stand 3 points ahead of their nearest competitor, Sporting Kansas City. The Quakes outpace the rest of the league — naturally, as they are top the table — in points per game (1.96 PPG) and appear in a comfortable position to capture their second Supporters’ Shield in franchise history, 2005 being the other season.

The next few teams on the PPG list are Sporting KC (1.85), Seattle Sounders (1.74), Chicago Fire (1.74), and Red Bull New York (1.70). The top five teams in the PPG standings all have the same number of matches remaining in the regular season, so determining the Shield winner seems a straightforward back-of-the-envelope calculation in favor of the Earthquakes.

However, a simple extrapolation of PPG through the end of the season is not sufficient, as a comparison of the schedules of the five teams left in the race suggests a much more complicated outcome…

San Jose Earthquakes (16W-6L-5T, 53 points, 1.96 PPG)
At Chivas USA (7-12-7)
Portland
Timbers (7-14-6)
At Seattle Sounders (13-6-8)
FC Dallas (8-12-9)

At Colorado Rapids (9-17-2)
Los Angeles
Galaxy (13-11-4)
At Portland Timbers (7-14-6)
(3 Home games,
4 away games)
Average opponents’ record (9.14-12.29-6.00, 33.42 points, 1.22 PPG)

Sporting Kansas City (15-7-5, 50 points, 1.85 PPG)
Houston
Dynamo (12-7-9)
At New York Red Bulls (13-7-7)
At Montreal Impact (12-14-3)
Chicago
Fire (14-8-5)
At Columbus Crew (12-9-6)
At New York Red Bulls (13-7-7)
Philadelphia
Union (7-13-5)
(3 Home games,
4 away games)
Average opponents’ record (11.86-9.29-6.00, 41.58 points, 1.53 PPG)

Seattle Sounders (13-6-8, 47 points, 1.74 PPG)
At Portland Timbers (7-14-6)
San Jose
Earthquakes (16-6-5)
At Vancouver Whitecaps (10-11-7)
Portland
Timbers (7-14-6)
Real
Salt Lake (14-11-4)
FC Dallas (8-12-9)

At Los Angeles Galaxy (13-11-4)
(4 Home games,
3 away games)
Average opponents’ record (10.71-11.29-5.86, 37.99 points, 1.36 PPG)

Chicago Fire (14-8-5, 47 points, 1.74 PPG)
Montreal
Impact (12-14-3)
Columbus
Crew (12-9-6)
At Sporting Kansas City (15-7-5)
Philadelphia
Union (7-13-5)
At New York Red Bulls (13-7-7)
At New England Revolution (7-14-7)
DC United (12-10-5)

(4 Home games,
3 away games)
Average opponents’ record (11.14-10.57-5.43, 38.85 points, 1.43 PPG)

New York Red Bulls (13-7-7, 46 points, 1.70 PPG)
Columbus
Crew (12-9-6)
Sporting Kansas City (15-7-5)

At New England Revolution (7-14-7)
Toronto
FC (5-17-6)
Chicago
Fire (14-8-5)
Sporting Kansas City (15-7-5)

At Philadelphia Union (7-13-5)
(5 Home games,
2 away games)
Average opponents’ record (10.71-10.71-5.57, 37.70 points, 1.40 PPG)

A look at the averaged records and PPG shows that the Earthquakes have the overall worst average opponent of the five Shield contestants while Sporting Kansas City has the best. On the surface, this suggests an easy path to the top of the 2012 regular season standings for the Earthquakes, but those numbers do not take into account the additional factor of home versus road games.

The Red Bulls have a very favorable schedule in terms of home and away games. New York has five games remaining at Red Bull Arena, including three proverbial "six-pointers" against fellow Shield-chasers Sporting KC and Chicago. In fact of the three Eastern teams still realistically in the race for the top spot, New York appears to have the easiest task, especially given their season-long unbeaten streak at their Harrison, NJ home.

If home games are weighted 2 to 1 over away games — a simplistic representation of the historical league average that shows that team’s typically have just over a 1 PPG difference between the two — then in the East, New York should earn 13.6 points, Chicago should earn 12.8 points, and Sporting should earn 12.3 points. Out west, San Jose should collect 13.1 points and Seattle should collect 12.8 points. The updated end-of-season standings for the Shield contenders looks like the following:

San Jose Earthquakes — 66.1 points, 1.94 PPG
Sporting Kansas City — 62.3 points, 1.83 PPG
Seattle Sounders — 59.8 points, 1.76 PPG
Chicago Fire — 59.8 points, 1.76 PPG
New York Red Bulls — 59.6 points, 1.75 PPG

A lot can happen in seven games, and the danger of using averages for such a small sample size is that potential bigger swings in points gained are not realized. A Red Bulls team that takes care of business at home would severely dent the hopes of Sporting to catch San Jose. A Seattle side that beats the Quakes at the CLink later this month would close the gap at the top of the West and make San Jose vulnerable to the Sounders in the race for the Shield.

But, that’s why they play the games. The numbers suggest the Earthquakes will capture the 2012 Supporters’ Shield; the players will determine it.

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