My monthly quantification of the MLS table ran on The Shin Guardian yesterday. While writing, one question kept popping up. How likely is it that FC Dallas could ride this strong start all the way to the Supporters Shield?
Sports Club Stats' MLS page gives pretty favorable odds to a Dallas run at the Shield. That site uses Monte Carlo simulations to give probabilities for full season outcomes. As of today, FCD is 26.8% to win the Shield, approximately 88% to secure a top 3 seed in the West (and the bye that comes with it), and 97.4% to make the playoffs.
These projections aren't guarantees, and there are some concerns here. As the site's What is This? page says, "The algorithm does not know about things like trades, injuries, and matchups. It does not know that a team has started believing in themselves." It also doesn't know about luck, suspensions, and how all of these factors have affected their opponents, thus potentially throwing off the weighting.
It's a good start to the conversation, though. Most strikingly, alongside the 26.8% for the Shield, SCS only gives Dallas an 11.7% chance of winning MLS Cup. Seem low? That's the highest figure in the league, and just goes to show what kind of a crap shoot the playoffs are going to be.
This is why the Supporters Shield should be FC Dallas' number one priority from this point on. They have to prioritize the silverware that is more within their control, and too many odd things can happen in MLS Cup playoffs and US Open Cup to prioritize either of those competitions over the Shield.
Let the 12 clubs who've had not-so-great starts fight over playoff spots. FC Dallas missing the playoffs this year would require a huge collapse after this start (1 point per game from here would get them to usually-enough 45 points). The Shield is the goal for the regular season, and failing that they need to secure a top 3 seed and its accompanying bye.
Starters should only risk injury or exhaustion in friendlies or USOC matches if they need the minutes for rehab or to boost form and fitness during a lull in the league schedule.
Some say that the Shield is less important because the schedule is no longer "balanced." While I get that, yes, every club doesn't play home-and-away against everyone else, the schedule we have now has its own balance. As I illustrated during preseason for The Shin Guardian, the West schedule in perfectly balanced in its own way, and the East is very close.
The Shield's validity should only come under fire if/when a club from the clearly weaker conference secures a narrow victory over a runner-up from the stronger conference.
How have previous Supporters Shield winners performed this far into the season, and how many points should FCD shoot for in order to lift that trophy? I thought you'd never ask. Here's a graph of every post-contraction Shield winner, with their PPG at end of season, 26% through the season (the equivalent of 9 games in a 34 match year), and the number of points they needed to pass the 2nd place club:
As you can see, the bar has been noticeably higher over the last 3 season than it was before, with only San Jose's 2005 team having a higher PPG than 2011-12 LA and the 2013 Earthquakes. Will this new standard last, or is it just a short-term trend? I lean toward the former, partially because some of the older low-PPG winners looking so odd, with Columbus having the best record in 2009 after starting with 8 points through 8 matches, or winning via tiebreak in 2004, thus having a lower PPG than the runner-up's point total +1.
Unless someone else goes on a run soon, we're headed for a 3-team race between FC Dallas, Montreal Impact, and LA Galaxy. All three will likely come down to earth a bit, but complete collapse from all 3 is improbable.So, the Houston Dynamo (whose hardest part of their schedule lies ahead), or the further-back trio of Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, and Columbus Crew will need to get going very soon if any of them will put up a challenge.
Dallas needs to keep the pressure on their competitors, because it is still early, but they fit the profile of an eventual Supporters Shield winner, as do Montreal and LA, and they need to avoid giving any advantage to the others.