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Atlanta United no longer favored to win Supporters Shield

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Can a soccer team really control its own destiny?

Toronto FC v Atlanta United FC Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the beginning of October, Atlanta United was 73% likely to win the Supporters Shield according to both Five Thirty Eight and American Soccer Analysis. They “controlled” their own destiny, up a point with three games remaining. They then went ahead and defeated New England 2-1 in Atlanta on October 6 and Chicago 2-1 on October 21, collecting 6 out of a possible 6 points. This means a win on Sunday clinches the shield for the Five Stripes, yet according to these same authorities, Atlanta’s odds of winning the Shield are now a “less than likely” 46% with New York Red Bulls favored just slightly to lift the silverware.

To understand how this has come to pass requires us to question what it means to control one’s own destiny. But first, let’s understand what specifically has changed at Five Thirty Eight. Essentially, the past percentages that favored Atlanta were based on simulations of all of the remaining matches, and in 73% of the simulations, Atlanta United ended on top. Buried in there were all the remote chances that Red Bulls might drop points against San Jose on the road and all of the modest but not insignificant chances that Red Bulls might drop points against Philadelphia on the road. Atlanta held up their end of the deal at home, and so did New York away. And what we’re left with are the following two matches (with Atlanta leading by a point). You can see Five Thirty Eight’s win/loss/draw percentages for each below:

According to the experts, the two most likely single outcomes of the matches are a NYRB win coupled with an Atlanta win. This would give Atlanta the Shield of course. The problem is there are three possible outcomes to each match, not two. Atlanta is 42% likely to beat Toronto on the road, but 24% likely to draw. That means they are 58% likely to not win the match. And not winning this match will just about destroy this team’s chances of winning the shield, given how easy it should be for Red Bulls to host and defeat a miserable Orlando team in New Jersey.

And herein lies the problem with “destiny” or at least the problem with “controlling” it. The game begins as a draw, and you have no right to it not ending that way. You cannot simply prevent your opponent from defeating you. You have to actively go out and change the score of the game that gives no promises that it will change. You may run into freezing rain (insert weather forecast). You may run into a playing surface that is barely playable. You may run into an opponent who wants simply to disrupt you, to disrupt the game, to keep the scoreline the same throughout the 90 minutes. Lastly, soccer is hard and most shots are missed. Sometimes, you rattle one off the bar. Other times you’re just playing a cross, and suddenly the ball becomes both sentient and goal hungry, seeking the upper 90 by way of humiliating defender deflections.

The best you can do as a team is to go out there and stamp your identity on the match, put into motion a timeline in which you create more chances than your opponent and better chances at that. With a bit of luck and a bit of skill, on the road sometimes you’ll score more goals. And other times, you just won’t. But scoring more goals here will clinch the Supporters Shield. I’m desperate for the team to finish strong and bring home the hardware this weekend. But if they don’t, it would be irresponsible to call it a choke or to talk about the whole “Atlanta sports thing.” Atlanta United has tied the all time MLS points record with one game to play in a league where they’re not even the strongest team. It’s been a hell of a season, and it should be a wild ride in Toronto Sunday afternoon.

If the game is currently best quantified as a coin flip, it’s a coin flip I’ll be delighted to watch over the 90 plus minutes on Sunday, with everything on the line.

No injuries please.