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The Truth about Atlanta United and the ‘Red Line’

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It’s confusing, but perhaps by looking backward we can change the conversation going forward

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Previously on...

Six out of the eleven teams in the East will make the playoffs. Accordingly, many have referred to sixth place as the “red line,” and just about all season long the mainstream discussion shortly before or after a match will hit upon whether Atlanta United remain below the red line (most games), or whether they are climbing above it (just very recently).

Because MLS features an unusually unbalanced schedule both in terms of how many games any given team has played at any given time, and also how many of those games were crammed into long road trips or home stands (and we know homefield advantage is king in MLS), I’ve been quite direct about my opinions on the utility of the official MLS standings.

In past posts here at DirtySouthSoccer, I’ve introduced alternative ways to gauge a team’s progress towards the postseason, accounting for both games played and home and away splits. The resulting outputs present a clearer picture of where everyone stands without introducing subjective things into the results like power rankings or form. In short, as the season progresses towards its conclusion, these calculations, which I’ve named PACE1 and PACE2, may or may not have predictive value, but they will necessarily converge with the actual MLS table as the schedule naturally works its way towards the final balanced standings (when every team has played 34 games, 17 at home).

The Pace at 17

We now find ourselves at the midway point of the regular season, and so I thought in this post, we’d look back at Atlanta’s (and the rest of the East’s) progress when viewed through the PACE lens, and it might just change our overall mindset as it relates to the RED LINE, or as I’ve depicted it further below, the RED SEA.

So here we go. First the PACE 1 standings (each team’s points compared to a “win at home, draw away” measuring stick) after 17 games (2 teams have played 18 but the PACE standings balance this out naturally):

When viewed through this lens (which holds teams to a high standard at home), Atlanta is putting real space between itself and the red line

Atlanta is cruising based on this metric. Are they on pace for a Supporter’s Shield? No, that’s Toronto or Chicago, but 4th place is legit.

And now, for the first time on the web, I present PACE-1 graphed across the first half of the 2017 MLS regular season by week. 6th place is illustrated by way of an ominous red ocean of excel chart background.

The crashing red tidal wave that is a 6th place pace

In case it’s difficult to see, Atlanta is that black line safely afloat ever since the first week’s loss to NYRB. So, sure — in the past 72 hours, Atlanta has “risen above the red line” in the official MLS table, but a realistic view as measured by PACE-1 shows Atlanta has been above the wave for a long, long time. Despite the poor away form, the team is doing exactly what you should be doing if you want to slide into the playoffs in the winter: some combination of winning at home and ...showing up away. For a somewhat easier to read graphic, below are Atlanta and the other Eastern teams not named Toronto, Chicago, or NYC (who look to be solidly on the way to the postseason). In short, here’s the 8-way street fight for the final 3 playoff spots in the East based on how closely each team holds to a “win at home, draw away” trend. Atlanta are winning.

A quick look at the above reveals Philadelphia, DC, and New England have been drowning for most of the season, and Orlando and NYRB have only recently submerged themselves into the muck.

PACE-2

While PACE-1 is an easy tool for trying to quickly understand the state of the conference (and should do well to dispel the idea that Atlanta are somehow occasional bottom dwellers in the East), it may be an overly harsh standard to measure most teams against. After all, it’s not mathematically possible for every team to win at home and draw away (they play each other). Enter PACE-2, a close cousin to PACE-1, but it measures each team against the historical MLS average home points per game and away points per game. This one is calculated by comparing the actual points a team has earned to how an average MLS team would’ve done based purely on the number of home and away games played. Without further ado:

ATLUTD, still 4th (that’s a playoff game at the Benz)

If we pull together the same type of red sea graphic as above, we get this:

Again, a busy chart. We can clearly see Toronto, Chicago, and NYC pulling away from everyone else, but Atlanta looks like it’s the best of the rest. Let’s zoom in by eliminating those front-runners from the sea race:

I think this is some good perspective. Sure the margins are small, but Atlanta has been perhaps the most consistently above water team of all the mortal Eastern Conference teams. Orlando appeared to ascend early, but they have plunged as of late, only narrowly outpacing an average MLS team after this week’s matches. By this view, sure. There was a brief moment (after the loss to NYC and draw to Portland) where Atlanta was swimming below the surface, but compared to their wildly inconsistent and off the pace Eastern Conference competition, United are doing just fine, and for the most part always have been. It is interesting that Orlando looks a little better by this metric than by PACE-1, but still worse than Atlanta under each at the midway point.

To summarize, Atlanta versus the red wave in 2 charts:

Conclusion

It’s helpful to use each of the PACE metrics when assessing a team’s place in the playoff hunt. Importantly, Atlanta are both a) above the red line, and b) have been for most of the season. Predicting the final standings involves variables much more complex and subjective than what I’ve done here. So don’t mistake the two. To make a good prediction you might start with what PACE shows you through 17, and then you would need to consider (at a minimum): upcoming fixture congestion (lots of home games back to back), player health (Martinez back is massive, but was Atlanta otherwise lucky with injuries in the first 17 games?), strength of schedule (who haven’t ATL played yet), transfers (will we see another Schweinsteiger like signing alter the Eastern landscape?), chemistry/gelling, opposition tactics (will teams park the bus in Atlanta and find some ugly draws?), the Benz (will this big change take away some natural HF advantage? turf?).

Hypotheticals

Lastly, Rob posed the question: how would things look if Atlanta United won every home match and lost every away match from here on out? While unlikely, given their most recent run of form it’s worth figuring out. The answer is 54 points (Atlanta currently sitting on 24 with 10 home matches remaining). As a frame of reference, 54 points is normally good for 3rd in the East, occasionally 2nd, would’ve been the top seed in 2011, and 5th in 2012. In short, I will take this very good scenario all day long.

On the other hand, if Atlanta performed perfectly equal to the average historical MLS team’s home and away results from here on out, they would pick up 24 more points and double their current total to 48. This has been good for a playoff spot 3 out of the last 6 years. OK, now everyone go outside and run around for an hour.

I post weekly match analyses and other stats/tactics type pieces here. Check it out some time.