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Projecting the USL Playoffs Using Strength of Schedule.

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There are five weeks to go in the season and the playoffs are almost upon us. Who will be in the hunt for the Championship and who will be staying home?

Indomitable City Soccer/Alex Leguizamo

With the playoffs quickly approaching, it is time to start looking at who will make the cut and who will be left out. Since this is something that interests me, I have been occasionally posting what the playoffs would look like if teams continued to pick up points at their average rate.  For example, a team that gains 1.55 points per game would continue to gain 1.55 points per game for the rest of the season.

However, this ignores one very important part of projecting how teams will do: who the team plays. If a team has gained 1.55 points per game while playing a harder-than-normal schedule and they end the season playing weaker teams, you would expect them to gain more than 1.55 points per game. The same theory applies in reverse. If a team plays a tougher schedule down the stretch they would be expected to gain fewer points per game.

By taking strength of schedule into account, we try to form a better prediction of what will happen. Without accounting for the strength of the opposition, a team would be expected to gain the exact same number of points if they played one of the elite teams or if they played one of the weaker teams.  Simple logic says that this is not true. You will gain more points against poor teams and fewer points against good teams.

I have created a formula which takes this into account by adjusting the extrapolation of points gained per game and weighing that with strength of schedule.

First, you must calculate each team's strength of schedule that they have played, the strength of schedule that they will play, and know their current record.  By dividing their points gained by number of games played, you can calculate a team's points gained per game.

Once that information is obtained, you divide the remaining strength of schedule by the current strength of schedule.  This ratio is multiplied by the team's current points gained per game to give what is expected for the remainder of the season.

For example, if a team has played a team with an average of 1.38 points per game, and their remaining opponents have an average of 1.31 points gained per game, the ratio is 1.05.  This means that they would be expected to gain 1.05 times their current points per game to finish the season, which can have a major impact on a team.

If you took a team that gained 1.55 points per game through their first 22 games and did not adjust their points gained per game to factor in strength of schedule, they would finish with a projected 46.4 points after the 30 game season.  If you adjusted to reflect an end of the season where you play an easier opponent, they will now be expected to end the season gaining 1.63 points per game over their last eight, and ending with 47.1 points gained.  Adding in this strength of schedule gives the team in question almost a full expected extra point.

The following are the current projected full standings in both the West and the East, using this strength of schedule adjusted system as opposed to simply extrapolating the current points gained per game.  Points gained per game are shown to the tenth for additional clarity.

For additional information, and to highlight potential areas where using strength of schedule is impactful to the projected playoff pictures, I have included each team's rank using the simple extrapolation of points gained per game without considering strength of schedule as reference. Those are the numbers in italics.

    Western Conference Strength of Schedule Projected Standings

    1. (2 - Extrapolation) Oklahoma City Energy -- 49.8 points

    2. (4) Sacramento Republic -- 48.3 points

    3. (1) Los Angeles Galaxy II -- 48.1 points

    4. (5) Vancouver Whitecaps 2 -- 47.8 points

    5. (3) Colorado Springs Switchbacks -- 47.5 points

    6. (6) Rio Grande Valley Toros -- 44.7 points

    7. (7) Arizona United -- 41.4 points

    8. (8) Swope Park Rangers -- 40.2 points

    9. (9) Orange County Blues -- 38.1 points

    10. (11) San Antonio FC -- 37.2 points

    11. (13) Real Monarchs -- 36.3 points

    12. (10) Saint Louis FC -- 35.6 points

    13. (12) Seattle Sounders 2 -- 34.9 points

    14. (14) Portland Timbers 2 -- 33.8 points

    15. (15) Tulsa Roughnecks -- 24.2 points

    Eastern Conference Strength of Schedule Projected Standings

    1. (1 - Extrapolation) New York Red Bulls II -- 63.3 points

    2. (2) Louisville City FC -- 58.3 points

    3. (3) FC Cincinnati -- 57.6 points

    4. (5) Charleston Battery -- 49.6 points

    5. (4) Richmond Kickers -- 48.9 points

    6. (6) Charlotte Independence -- 48.7 points

    7. (7) Rochester Rhinos -- 45.8 points

    8. (8) Orlando City B -- 42.9 points

    9. (9) Bethlehem Steel -- 34.6 points

    10. (10) Wilmington Hammerheads -- 33.9 points

    11. (12) Toronto FC 2 -- 28.8 points

    12. (11) Harrisburg City Islander -- 28.7 points

    13. (13) Pittsburgh Riverhounds -- 21.7 points

    14. (14) FC Montreal -- 17.1 points

    Notable


    Easiest strength of schedule to date: New York Red Bulls II (1.27 points gained per game by opponent)

    Easiest strength of schedule in future: Oklahoma City Energy (1.21 points gained per game by opponent)

    Easiest strength of schedule for the entire season: Oklahoma City Energy (1.28 points gained per game by opponent)

    Hardest strength of schedule to date: Wilmington Hammerheads (1.48 points gained per game by opponent)

    Hardest strength of schedule in future: Richmond Kickers (1.56 points gained per game by opponent)

    Hardest strength of schedule entire season: Montreal FC (1.45 points gained per game by opponent)

    Final Thoughts

    While this may not be a perfect method of projecting the playoffs, it at least gives us a clearer picture of what might happen.

    It also helps to point out teams that have either a particularly easy or difficult end to the season ahead of them. Two teams currently in key positions that have it tough down the stretch are the Richmond Kickers and Saint Louis FC.

    In the East, Richmond is currently ahead of Charleston Battery in points gained per game.  Ignoring strength of schedule, they would be expected to finish barely ahead of the Battery and only just take fourth place. However, the Kickers have the most difficult remaining strength of schedule out of the entire USL as of the writing of this piece. Their only opponent in their final seven games that is not almost assured of seeing the playoffs is their final match: a road game in Wilmington. That more difficult schedule to end the season sees them drop down to fifth in this projection.

    In the West, a very tight playoff race has Saint Louis sitting in 10th when only looking at points gained per game.  With the second hardest strength of schedule to finish the USL season however, at 1.43 points gained per game by opponents, they fall all the way back to 12th, expected to finish nearly an entire point back of what a simple extrapolation of points gained per game would be.

    What are your thoughts on this method?  Do you feel that these projections make sense?  What type of factors are being ignored, or should be included in future iterations?  Let us know in the comments below!