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Playoff Implications – Part 2; NASL Split Season Projections

2012 November 19
by Jesse Erdmann

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Jesse Erdmann’s blog Screaming at Pigeons. Jesse is a long time friend and technical consultant to IMSoccer and du Nord futbol.  He is also a board member for the Dark Clouds, supporters of pro soccer in Minnesota. After reading this post it will become clear that Jesse loves soccer and loves numbers and particularly enjoys it when he can mix the two.
Brian Quarstad

The NASL has announced a change in format to split their season and have the champions of the two halves play for the Soccer Bowl. After hearing about an article at Triangle Offense on the IMS NASL podcast, I decided to take a closer look into the changes. Part I can be found here.

In this edition, the focus is on how long teams are eligible through each half of the season and the number of games without bearing on the playoffs we can expect in coming seasons under the 2013 format.  We’ll also take a look at how adding teams to the postseason can extend the eligibility of poorer performing teams and the reduce the number of games with no bearing on the post season.

Number of Teams

The simulations were run with several different league configurations, from an eight team league representing this year (and possibly the 2013 apertura if you subscribe to the rumors about the Cosmos not being ready) up to fourteen teams. Why so many?  2013 is expected to have nine teams competing, but when the data was initially being generated ten seemed possible. For 2014, 11 teams are announced including Ottawa and Loudoun County with Indianapolis seeming to be a strong contender for number 12. There is always the possibility of another team or two being announced between now and then so the simulations were run with up to 14. In a double round robin this means that each team in an eight-team league will play 14 games, while in a 14-team league each team will play a 26-game schedule.

Team Profiles

To estimate the outcomes we simulated seasons with varying parameters.  Each simulated season generates a random profile for each team that includes an expected home and road win, loss and tie percentage.  The randomly generated profiles don’t resemble real results, but if we were to generate a season with team profiles from 2012 (see standings) the team profiles would look something like this:

Team Home win Home draw Home loss Away win Away draw Away loss
San Antonio 57% 21% 21% 36% 36% 29%
Tampa Bay 50% 43% 7% 36% 21% 43%
Puerto Rico 57% 29% 14% 21% 29% 50%
Carolina 43% 43% 14% 29% 29% 43%
Fort Lauderdale 57% 29% 14% 7% 36% 57%
Minnesota 43% 29% 29% 14% 50% 36%
Atlanta 29% 29% 43% 21% 36% 43%
Edmonton 21% 43% 36% 14% 29% 57%

Game Simulation

When simulating Edmonton at San Antonio, Edmonton’s road loss expectation is averaged with San Antonio’s home win expectation for the odds of a San Antonio win and vice versa for an Edmonton win.  Edmonton’s road draw and San Antonio’s home draw expectations are also averaged for the odds of a draw.  In this example, the odds of San Antonio winning would be 57%, a draw 25% and an Edmonton win 18%.  A random number from 1-100 is generated to determine the outcome with 1-57 representing the San Antonio win, 58-82 a draw and 83-100 an Edmonton win.

Season Simulation

Each season, in addition to randomized team profiles, generates a randomized double round robin schedule.  One of the aspects of the simulation that varies from reality is that each round has all teams playing one game per round at the same time.  So in an eight-team season it is like every Saturday all eight teams play at the exact same time for the entire season. Seasons with an odd number of teams are slightly different in that each round one team has a bye week, but the schedule doesn’t balance this out so one team might start the season with two bye weeks in some cases.

The order the rounds are played in is randomized each season so that it is more likely that some seasons will have good teams starting the season on a home stand against bad teams, others will have good teams start on the road against other good teams and everything in between. Over many seasons this will present a good idea of what the average season will look like as well as what the best and the worst case scenarios look like.

Number of Seasons Simulated

For each number of teams, from eight to 14, 10,000 seasons were simulated.  This reduced the variability from simulation to season to almost zero and still completes in about ten seconds with the software as written.  Originally, 1,000 was the planned target, but rerunning the same configuration produced noticeably different results and reproducibility seemed a good goal.

Eligible Teams per Round

In the figure, you can see that for the eight team league, teams begin to be eliminated in round 9 of 14 with round 10 being the most common round for the worst team to be eliminated.  On average of the 10,000 seasons, the final round saw 1.9 teams still eligible.  In the worst case scenario, the championship is locked up with five rounds remaining, but the most common result is that the top two teams entered the final round vying for the half season championship.

Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, teams start being eliminated as early as round 15 of 26 with round 18 being the most common round for the first elimination. In the final round, the average number of teams eligible was 1.6. The most common outcome was that the championship was locked up in round 25, leaving one round to be played with the title already being decided.

One thing that the graph reveals is that in a league with an odd number of teams, the byes extend the length of time teams remain eligible for the post season and increases the number of teams eligible for the post-season in the final week of the season overall. With that in mind, let’s look at the expected nine team outcomes for 2013.  Round 10 of 16 is the earliest elimination with round 11 being the most common. On average, 2.6 teams are still in contention during the final round thanks to bye weeks. The most common outcome was that the top two teams still had it all to play for in the final week.

Preview 2013

For a closer look at next season, let’s examine the 10,000 simulated outcomes for the last place team in a nine team league.  The histogram to the right shows how many of the 10,000 outcomes had each possible outcome. In 2,760 of the seasons the eventual last place finisher eliminated with three games remaining in the half season.  Another 3,005 saw the last place team eliminated with four to go. That means if you are an unlucky fan of team nine in the apertura, 25-30% of your season, a.k.a, June or October, will be played after your team is eliminated. In the absolute worst case, 43 seasons saw the last place team eliminated with seven games to play. On the flip side, the last place team was still mathematically involved on the last day of the season 31 times.

Another way of displaying the histogram above is called a box plot.  This condenses the
information above to a single column in a graph allowing us to see all teams in the nine team format in a single image.  The ninth place team in the graph to the left is still colored red and shows exactly the same information as the above histogram.  Obviously the first place finisher in all 10,000 seasons never suffered having to play a game after being eliminated, but every other team did.  Over all seasons, fourth place or lower was eliminated with eight games remaining, fully half of the season, at least one time (exactly once for the fourth place finisher) and even the second place finisher was eliminated as early as with six games remaining.

For comparison’s sake, this is what 10,000 seasons with two playoff teams looks like.  As you can see, no teams were eliminated until there were seven games left in their season. In 2% of the seasons, all teams were still eligible for the championship heading into the final round.  The total number of games played between two teams that had already been eliminated from the season championship dropped from six to three.  The total number of games where at least one of the two teams had been eliminated dropped from 22 to 15.  These numbers aren’t really that dramatic of a difference for a nine team league, so let’s look a little further down the road…

2014 Preview

In addition to saving the Stars and adding the Cosmos in 2013, Ottawa and Loudoun County, VA have already been confirmed for 2014.  It seems a reasonable bet that true hero, Peter Wilt, will deliver Indianapolis unto NASL as well that season.  That would give us 12 teams for the season. It also seems reasonable to expect that the league would want to continue with the broad outlines of the new format for two seasons before making major modifications.  Here are the one and two playoff spot per half season simulation results:

With regards to games where both teams have been eliminated, adding a second playoff spot drops the per season average from 13 to 7.  All games with featuring at least one team that has been eliminated would drop from 43 to 31.  As it turns out, ratio of teams to games remaining after elimination is fairly linear.


No matter what, there will be more games played after a team is eliminated from a shot at the championship in 2013 over 2012.  The more teams that are added, the more those games increase as well as one would expect.  In the end, the crux of the matter will come down to how much that chance at the championship drives attendance versus perceived performance.  Had the new format been in place in 2012, we might have had a good sample as to whether playoff contention affects attendance in Atlanta.  The Silverbacks would have been eliminated fairly early, but with the Wynalda revolution they started winning games.  Would attendance have stayed at the same level after the team was eliminated even if the team started playing well?  We might have a chance to put this question to the test in 2013.

38 Responses
  1. WSW permalink
    November 19, 2012

    I think the format will be great.

    The only way I see playoffs really working is if any league in US implements instant replay.

    Crowning a league champion thru playoffs is risky especially since we have ref’s that blow calls or don’t whistle fouls.

    Any US sport that have bad calls is not detrimental to the game except for soccer. If a team gets awarded a PK by a ref mistake/bad call it’s almost over for that team.

    Example: Seattle vs LA last night.

  2. BrazilYinzer permalink
    November 19, 2012

    Nice work. I think you laid out the implications nicely.

    Has there been any talk of implementing “secondary motivations” to keep games late in the season compelling? I can’t imagine many options exist – preferential treatment in the US Open is one option, but it does not strike me as tremendously feasible. I know the conventional wisdom in Brazil as to why the single-table was successful once implemented is the number of additional motivators in the table – promotion, relegation, copa sudamericana qualifier, copa libertadores qualifier, championship; and then just to keep everyone bloodthirsty, derbies are saved for the last 1-2 fixtures.

  3. doug permalink
    November 19, 2012

    With the amount of time that the NASL and MLS have been “conversating”… Is this possibly a sign that MLS is also considering moving to a split season? The MLS already breaks for 2 weeks in June for the International Calendar.

    Yinzer… I agree with you in this aspect, that there is not enough encentive for teams to be competitive through the long season. In a long season, 20 (soon) teams vying for 10 cup spots is viable, but why would any team care otherwise? Having tiered competitions, “europa” or a second tier competition is needed in CONCACAF, and pro/rel is needed to add spice to the bottom of the table.

    I have been vocal with my support of NASL expansion in part due to the “need” of a successful D2… a D2 that has 2 “conferences” (east/west) that can begin pro/rel with MLS when they are required to by USSF/FIFA. You’ll notice all of the new teams are on the east coast, I would imagine the league needs some middle of the country teams before any more “west” teams will join.

    I’m rooting for cities like TULSA, OK City, St LOUIS, NASHVILLE, OTTOWA, LAS VEGAS. If the MLS is going to freeze it’s size, this is a HUGE opportunity for NASL to expand its boot print on the rest of the USA/CANADA. 24-32 total teams would be fantastic and would force a partnership between NASL & MLS.

  4. doug permalink
    November 19, 2012

    Ooops… please replace OMAHA for Ottowa…. lol


    Once owners understand the investment could soon (5 -8yrs) result in promotion into D1, then the minimal investment at the D2 level seems quite viable.

  5. Fotbalist permalink
    November 20, 2012

    @ doug
    I like your direction. It’s a little overly optimistic (which is a fault I share with you) but truly a good direction for North American Soccer.

    I think El Paso and Spokane might be a bit overreaching, but there are others that could come on board: Milwaukee, Tucson, Phoenix, Colorado Springs, Austin, Des Moines. Then in Canada in addition to Calgary (which is a surprise silence) we could have: Victoria and Winnipeg. Okay, now I’m getting ahead of myself.

  6. Fotbalist permalink
    November 20, 2012

    @ BrazilYinzer
    I like your suggestion of increasing incentives. I want pro/rel and I truly hope that FIFA just comes out and says ‘….you have to have pro/rel…’ because I don’t see it happening otherwise.

  7. Michael permalink
    November 20, 2012

    If anybody is interested, the Northwoods League (a summer collegiate baseball league) has used a split season format since 1995. It has done exceedingly well over its existence, with strong growth. You might be able to take some information from that league.

  8. Armando Diaz permalink
    November 20, 2012

    Although games may not matter players still have the motivation to perform well in hopes of securing a contract with an MLS club or moving overseas.

    I don’t see players “taking it easy” just because they are no longer in contention for the half-season championship.

  9. Fotbalist permalink
    November 20, 2012

    @ Armando Diaz
    I completely agree. Players play their hardest; we, fans, just have to get out there and support them.

  10. Strikers Return permalink
    November 20, 2012

    @Jesse – Very good second part to your article. I think your numbers are a far better tool to use in trying to forecast what might happen next season then what a lot of other people seem to be doing which is just lay the new format over top of previous seasons and see “what would have happened if…” I am strongly of the belief that this format is going to damage attendance for most teams overall. Every team has it’s hard core group of fans and supporters that will always show up. But those aren’t enough to make it work when it comes to the bottom line. You need to do more to keep casuals coming back, and a team with nothing to play for already at the halfway or 2/3 point isn’t a positive, it’s a negative.

    @WSW – Man… just keep spouting nonsense everywhere. Instant replay is the lynchpin to successful playoffs?!? What?!? It really is simple, no matter how much you try to turn away or hold your hands over your ears and go lalalalalala not to hear. This is America. We DO playoffs in America. We’re ALL used to it. We ALL believe it’s good that an underdog has a chance to win a championship. If we didn’t, we would just emulate leagues that all soccer fans here already know like England or Germany. Not frakkin Guatemala. This format is idiotic. It creates new problems we didn’t have. It gets rid of the excitement we saw in the playoffs the last two years. Or am I mistaken and the playoffs were a big bummer up there in Tampa this year? Be your way of thinking your team SHOULDN’T be champs today.

  11. Strikers Return permalink
    November 20, 2012

    @Armando – I don’t think anyone is questioning the players here. What we’re talking about mainly is the fans interest in games that are “meaningless” ie. – they are being played when their team no longer has any chance of making it to the Soccer Bowl. Also, if you think the coach and organization of the team that wins the first “half season” securing the not only a spot in the Soccer Bowl, but also the hosting rights, if you think you’re going to attend that teams games and see their first team every game, or even most of the time, I think you’ll be very disappointed. Teams are in it to win championships. Not get their spot hosting the final match and then allow their players to get worn down, or hurt in a second “half season” that has absolutely no meaning for them at all.

  12. WSW permalink
    November 20, 2012


    Tampa would be in the Soccer Bowl without playoffs.

    Tell me when was the last time you saw a penalty in NHL?

  13. Edward permalink
    November 20, 2012

    Spokane is tiny compared to many other available markets. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at population figures, but even adding the Cour d’Alene metropolitan area across the state line in Idaho, you only get to about 500k or so. The surrounding counties in eastern Washington/northern Idaho aren’t very populous, and all the other regional population centers (Yakima, Tri-Cities, WA; Missoula, MT) are an hour-and-a-half to two hour drive away. USSF sanctioning requirements don’t absolutely forbid markets with a less than 750k metropolitan area, but with so many available markets above that threshold, I don’t see why you’d reach for a market a couple hundred thousand under that line.

  14. Bart permalink
    November 20, 2012

    Boring! A lot of what if’s and maybe’s at this point.

  15. Strikers Return permalink
    November 21, 2012

    @Bart – Pretty rude man. Jesse wrote a nice article, and as I recall, you are in agreement with what his findings seem to point at – that this format is stupid, and creates problems while solving nothing except knowing where the Soccer Bowl will be played months in advance. Unfortunately this is one you will wind up being right on in that it will end up being a bad idea by the league in the end.

    @WSW – Why don’t you ever address the points made to you? Why is your reaction always to ignore and then say something just as dumb, or dumber? Tampa wouldn’t be in anything. They didn’t finish in first. You have said in multiple places, multiple times that the only fair way to decide a champion is single table, points champion. When did Tampa finish in first place?!? And I haven’t seen a penalty in the NHL in about 5 months, and neither has anyone else. I guess soccer isn’t the only thing you have a hard time understanding. Any other non-sensical questions?

  16. Bart permalink
    November 21, 2012

    @Strikers Return

    I should have been more clear, it was not the article I was commenting on, it was the comments…..

  17. Kevthegerman permalink
    November 21, 2012

    I hate the new format.. That being said, i purchased my new season drunk seat tickets, section 114 row 13 seat 1 and 2 at the new scorpions stadium..

  18. WSW permalink
    November 22, 2012


    I like your snarky remark now tell me how frequent penalties are in NHL? the one were the player takes the puck 1 -on-1 with goalie?

    Your right we live in America so make playoffs with instant replay like other US leagues.

  19. bullsear permalink
    November 23, 2012

    Last season there were 69 penalty shots taken in the NHL. The season before it was 78.

    And as far as 1-on-1, skater vs goalie, that scenario is far more common. It’s called a shootout, and it happens any time two teams are still tied at the end of a “golden-goal” overtime.

    In addition, there is no league in any sport that I know of which has instant replay applied to fouls or penalty calls–not even in the playoffs. A penalty/foul once called cannot be taken back, and it cannot be reviewed. It would undermine the authority of referees.

    The only time this is not the case is when replay must be used to adjudicate fines, suspensions, or ejections for involvement in flagrant fowls, brawls/unsportsman-like behavior. These decisions are almost always made well after the fact.

    Replay is only used for decisions that cannot be made by the human eye in real time, and they are never–to my knowledge–used to overturn the judgment of an official as to whether a foul/penalty is to be given.

  20. Soccer Boy permalink
    November 23, 2012

    The split season is going to lead to the demise of the NASL. Everyone loves it when the last team to make the play-offs wins the championship (or at least making the championship series.) The early start and late season is also going to kill attendance numbers. That is how teams make money, right?

  21. Fotbalist permalink
    November 23, 2012

    Hold judgment on the new format of the season, please. I believe it will work. If you claim to be fans of the game and your local team, GO TO THE GAMES!

    It’ll be very exciting to see where on each team will finish on the table in the Spring Championship and then in the Fall Championship.

  22. Bart permalink
    November 23, 2012

    What I am reading are the writings of a bunch of overfed, after Thanksgiving, couch potatoes that are speculating on an issue outside of their control and with little ability to accurately forecast the future.

    As long as Traffic provides the bling, there can be zero fans at the game, whatever the format is, and the season will open and close with the games played as scheduled.

    The hard core fans will continue to bitch about the format, yet still attend the games. The newbie vampires will watch a game or two as an entertainment event, and not really care about the standings, as long as they can feast on some human blood.

    Life will go on, and those that engage in that slave trading game called player contracts have set up a format that makes it easier for them to blow the whistle and proceed.

  23. Tom permalink
    November 23, 2012

    Bart always cracks me up.

  24. Fotbalist permalink
    November 23, 2012

    @ Bart,
    Does your intro paragraph also apply to you?

  25. WSW permalink
    November 23, 2012


    In field hockey instant replay allows the match umpire to request the opinion of a video umpire as to whether or not a goal has been validly scored, and whether there was a violation in the build-up to a goal.

  26. November 23, 2012

    I think a good idea to keep fans interested if their team is out of it in the second “season”, and I think it would be a cool idea in general, would be for the USSF, NASL and USL Pro to come together and form a lower tier cup competition, like the J. Paint Trophy in England which is contested by only League 1 & 2 teams.

    The top 8 teams from the NASL spring championship and USL Pro each year get in(you would then know the 16 teams when the USL regular season ends in early August). Play it over 4 weeks starting the week after the USL championship in September. Have a random draw for each round, perhaps sorting the initial 2 “pots” by league or region.

    Creates interest for NASL fans beyond the Fall “title” race, gives USL Pro fans a few more potential weeks of action.

    You could also base qualification on the previous year’s results, and play in April/early May, before USOC gets going, but that would erase the late season interest benefit for NASL teams.

    Just an idea.

  27. WSW permalink
    November 23, 2012


    I like your idea, but also what about NASL Soccer Bowl champion gets a bye to semi-finals of USOC.

  28. Bart permalink
    November 24, 2012

    How about we hand out lollipops and sit around the campfire, singing Kum-by-yah? There is no advantage to USL Pro for considering something like this, and for Davidson’s crew, in their opinion, it would be slumming.

    NASL made a decision, let’s see how it all plays out.

  29. Dave permalink
    November 24, 2012

    @ F19 – Money would be the problem. I just don’t see the money or interest there for anything like that. More games means more chances to lose money.

    @ WSW – Um what? The MLS champs don’t get a bye into the USOC semis. Why the hell would a minor league champ get that? MLS teams enter in the 3th round. NASL and USL-Pro teams in the 2rd round. Do you ever think before you write anything? Don’t answer that.

    @ doug and Fotbalist – Can we please for all that is sacred not cram pro/rel into everything? It is not going to happen. We barely have a functioning D2. For the 1000th time, MLS is not going to pro/rel with anything that it doesn’t own and control. FIFA can sit on a tack.

    Could MLS start a MLS2 one day? And could MLS getting involved with NASL eventuality see it become MLS2? Maybe, but we are talking decades from now.

  30. Fotbalist permalink
    November 24, 2012

    @ F19 – that’s a superb idea. In fact, almost every national federation has a couple of different competitions available to lower level leagues. Fabulous idea!

    @ WSW – Interesting thought, though the Open Cup concept is to move up the ladder. In that case, I guess the D3 league champion should also get a bye to at least the quarter finals. I’m not so sure, it would work, even though the idea has merit.

    @ Bart – the idea of a different competition for D2 & D3 has great merit irrespective of the NASL regular season format. Be nice!

  31. Fotbalist permalink
    November 24, 2012

    @ Dave – you are correct that in the current state the MLS would have to be silly to accept pro/rel however, instituting pro/rel would bring up the quality (every aspect) of each club very rapidly. I do agree that if MLS were to become involved in the NASL, it would help turn it into a de facto MLS2.

  32. WSW permalink
    November 24, 2012

    I think it’s a great idea for USL champion gets a bye into quarter-finals and NASL champion gets a bye to semi-finals.

    MLS champion gets a automatic spot in CCL. so what do they need to be in USOC for anyway?

    It would make the pyramid of soccer here more interesting since we will not have pro/rel anytime soon.

  33. Bart permalink
    November 24, 2012


    Or to look outside the box, using your logic, if MLS were to become involved in USL Pro, it would help turn it into a de facto MLS2.

    The Open Cup creates the platform for all the divisions playing each other, and works wonderfully.

  34. Mike permalink
    November 24, 2012

    As much as I didn’t want to get involved in this circular conundrum, I just have to ask Fotbalist to elaborate on this comment: “instituting pro/rel would bring up the quality (every aspect) of each club very rapidly”. Exactly what aspects of MLS clubs would have superior quality, and how would pro/rel bring these about? I realize this is way off the thread topic, but since the door was opened, I’m walking through it. I await with baited breath to be enlightened.

  35. Mike permalink
    November 24, 2012

    Correction, that would be “bated” breath minus the ‘i’. Proper grammar is important!

  36. WSW permalink
    November 25, 2012


    I will try a shot at it:

    If Pro/rel was instituted and for arguments sake every team has stable ownership and SSS.

    1. MLS would have to have a “light” or no salary cap, every owner would pump money into their team so they don’t get relegated resulting in better players and better quality.

    2. Of course that means one team would have to be relegated, well you would have a situation where either the owner fires everybody and starts from scratch, unlike what’s been happening in MLS now, last place team gets first round MLS draft and that really makes a difference look at Toronto.

    3. or the relegated team’s owner sells the team to another investor and that owner rebuilds the team.

    4. The lower leagues quality would improve because every owner knows that if they win they get promoted.

  37. Edward permalink
    November 25, 2012

    Yeah, and then we can have a few elite teams monopolizing the title, a bunch of would-bes spending themselves into crippling debt trying to keep up with those elite clubs, and a bunch of yo-yo teams that bounce back and forth between divisions and spend themselves into administration trying to stay up…just like Europe!

    WOW, you’re right…pro/rel would totally “fix” US soccer!

  38. WSW permalink
    November 25, 2012


    Ok debt…I hope you know that for billionaires buying a team is just another toy in their world.

    and aren’t teams trying to keep up with LA and NY already.

    The new NASL has no salary cap so tell me why they haven’t gone bankrupt?

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