In M.L.S., the Pandemic Changes the Playoff Math

Major League Soccer’s reworked regular season is, at last, racing to a conclusion. Many of the league’s teams have only two games left to play of this year’s truncated, 23-game schedule. Several others must squeeze in three matches in the next 11 days.

The Colorado Rapids, who missed a month because of a coronavirus outbreak that affected more than a dozen players and staff members, are eight games short.

And that is changing the playoff calculus.

Traditionally, total points determine the standings in soccer. Every team plays the same number of games, and teams are ranked by the points they accumulate. But with the mismatch in games played in M.L.S. this year — Colorado has played only 15 games, while rivals like San Jose and Vancouver are already at 21 — the league will decide its playoff field by a different metric: points per game.

“In the event that all 26 teams do not end the season with the same number of matches played,” the league’s competition rules state, qualification for the 2020 M.L.S. Cup playoffs will be determined “by points earned on a per match basis, or points per game.” (In the case of ties on that metric, goal difference — also determined on a per-game basis — will be the tiebreaker.)

Seeking to avoid any confusion among its teams or fans in the season’s final days, the league on Thursday confirmed the (hopefully) one-time changes for playoff qualification in effect this year. A result was immediate for at least one team: Minnesota United mathematically clinched a playoff spot on a day when no teams played a game.

Several other clubs also temporarily shifted into, or out of, playoff places. None of M.L.S.’s 26 teams, in fact, have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The difference between total points and points per game is not merely a hypothetical one. Since it is clear that Colorado will not be able to make up all of its games before the regular season ends on Nov. 8, its playoff hopes are alive solely because points per game will be used to set the field.

The Rapids currently have 19 points, good for only 11th place in the West, which gets eight playoff berths this year. Under a points-per-game calculation, however, the Rapids now stand eighth, at 1.27, good enough (at the moment) for a playoff spot.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, who would be in the postseason field on points but are currently just outside it on points per game, may have the most to lose. Vancouver has faced the additional handicap of playing its “home” games down the stretch in Portland, Ore., because of strict Canadian quarantine rules.

“Don’t ask somebody from a Canadian team about if everything is balanced and fair!” Vancouver’s chief executive, Axel Schuster, told ESPN this month. “I haven’t seen my family in a month. So let us not speak if everything is balanced and everything is equal at the end.

“Was everybody able to perform on the same level as everybody else? No, of course not. But I have never seen a pandemic before. I think that the only thing we can do is to go on and play and find the best solution. And to accept that the world is crazy.”

There are a few other teams that will end the regular season without a full complement of results, although their deficits are much smaller than Colorado’s. The defending champion Seattle Sounders, for example, are scheduled to complete 22 of their 23 games. They stand second in the West in points, but first in points per game, and their seeding — like every other team’s — could mean the difference between a favorable matchup and a more difficult path to the league’s championship game on Dec. 12.

It has been a strange season for M.L.S., which played two games to start the season, spent four months on the sideline, then played a tournament at Disney World before resuming with a shortened season in home markets. In certain cities, teams have even been allowed to play in front of fans.

To account for the impact of an abbreviated season, M.L.S. expanded its postseason to include 10 teams from the 14-team Eastern Conference and eight from the 12-team West. More than half of those spots have been claimed to date: the Red Bulls, New York City F.C. and Los Angeles F.C. were among the half-dozen clubs that punched their tickets this week.

The imbalance in the schedule could repeat itself on a much grander scale if the N.F.L. has to postpone more games because of coronavirus positives. Many N.F.L. teams have little flexibility after using their bye weeks, and teams playing 14 or 15 games instead of 16 has become a possibility. The league has considered adding an 18th week to its schedule to account for makeup games, but for now that remains only an option.

This year’s Women’s Super League in England faced a similar problem in the spring when its season was abruptly halted by the coronavirus. The league opted to decide its champion by points per game, meaning Chelsea won the title, despite having fewer total points than Manchester City, an outcome that City accepted far more readily than its fans did.

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