The math of qualifying: are draws enough?

With just five matches left in the 2021 season, the playoffs are almost here. Nashville SC find themselves in second place with 48 points, two points ahead of Philadelphia Union. They are well on track to finish in playoff position, with FiveThirtyEight giving them a 51% chance of finishing second, 23% chance of finishing third, and a 13% chance of finishing fourth.

The race for the top four is tight, aside from New England Revolution, who have already clinched the top spot in the East with 66 points. Only eight points separate Nashville in second from New York City FC in eighth, and aside from Chicago, Toronto and Cincinnati, every Eastern Conference team is still firmly in the playoff mix.

So what are the scenarios for Nashville’s postseason seeding?

Qualifying for the playoffs

Nashville’s 48 points line up directly with the projected playoff line, meaning that they could theoretically lose their remaining five matches and still qualify for the playoffs, but they’d need a lot of outside help and would run the risk of being passed by New York Red Bulls for seventh place.

While it would be a significant dip in form and raise a host of questions heading into the playoffs, a single point from their remaining five matches would theoretically be enough to secure a playoff berth. One win should be more than enough to earn qualify for the postseason.

Not getting passed

A complicating factor is that Nashville still have to play two of their most difficult matches of the season, playing on the road in Philadelphia and Orlando. Both teams are directly competing with Nashville for second place, and as helpful as three points in both matches would be, Gary Smith has prioritized not losing in matches against teams in similar positions. Like this:

“The real importance tonight was, I felt, with an Orlando side that have been on a tough run, coming into what is an opportunity for them to try and squeeze that gap on us, it was absolutely imperative that we do not lose that game.”

Gary Smith after the 2-2 draw with Orlando City

And this:

“Tonight it was important after a break that we didn’t get beat. It would have been great to have won, but you know I’m happy with the performance and the platform we have… We’ve worked incredibly hard to get ourselves into a good position in the table. And to maintain that position, or one of strength going into what we hope is going to be a postseason and a successful one, will mean we need to add a particular amount of points to the board. It’s irrelevant who we play or where we play. We need a particular amount of points.

Gary Smith after the 0-0 draw at DC United

I take a couple things from those quotes. One, Smith has a specific point tally in mind for the remaining games. The first part isn’t surprising. Smith said last week that he had a target for their remaining games, and general manager Mike Jacobs has talked about assigning point values to each match.

Second, it ultimately doesn’t matter which games the points come from as long as you get them. If you need three points, you can get them with a single win, or you can get three draws. Obviously, wins are preferable, but from a simple math standpoint, you can make either work.

And most importantly, it seems that Smith really values not letting competing teams gain ground on Nashville by beating Nashville. I think we’ve seen evidence of this against New York City FC, Orlando City and DC United. There were chances to open things up and risk more in an attempt to get three points in each match, and Nashville opted to play with caution and take the point. Yes, it means less points for Nashville, but it also means they limit their opponents movement in the table. It’s a classic case of addition by limitation.

So where does this leave Nashville?

You’ve all heard the old adage that good teams win at home and draw on the road. While it doesn’t always work, especially with the quirkiness of the MLS format, it looks like it’s Nashville’s strategy for their remaining five matches.

Nashville have two difficult but win-able home matches against Columbus and New York Red Bulls. While both will come to Nissan Stadium needing points to keep their own playoff hopes alive, they’re both matches that Nashville should target for three points.

Winning their final two home matches and drawing Philadelphia, Orlando and Cincinnati on the road would leave Nashville with 57 points. It’s still not emphatically ahead of Philadelphia, but it should give them a four point buffer in second place. (It would also mean they tie the single-season record for draws, which is pretty poetic if you ask me).

A saving grace for Nashville is a very win-able road match against Cincinnati, who are already out of playoff contention and on track for their third consecutive Wooden Spoon. Perhaps the best outcome for Nashville is to continue their goal of not losing to close competitors on the road, going hard for wins at home and taking advantage of a very favorable matchup in Cincinnati.

This would net Nashville a total of 11 points from their remaining five matches, and would be a nearly perfect return. Perfection rarely happens in MLS, though. And Gary Smith is well aware of that.

“What is vitally important as we go into the final five games in a hugely tight group is that there are going to be situations where teams falter and it doesn’t go according to plan. I would fully expect in the next five games that we will see some results that will make us shudder and say “how did that happen?” But it does, because there’s pressure.”

We’re going to see a result or two that doesn’t make sense on paper, and we shouldn’t be surprised because that’s how the league is designed. Nashville have set a point total they’re shooting for, and while I don’t know what they’ve determined internally, here’s my best guess.

Nashville should target a minimum eight points from their final five games. This would include a win and a draw in their home matches against Columbus and Red Bulls, as well as a win, a draw and a loss in their road matches against Philadelphia, Orlando and Cincinnati. The total is in keeping with their season average of 2.07 points per game at home and 1.21 points on the road, and should give them a good bit of wiggle room ahead of Philadelphia and Orlando.

Target: 8 points from remaining 5 games

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