Hardest and Easiest Paths to MLS Cup Glory

With the Crew, Covid-willing, set to face the New England Revolution in Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final, it dawned on me that Columbus will have faced the conference’s number six, seven, and eight seeds on their way to a potential MLS Cup berth. All three teams finished at 1.39 points per game in 2020.

It made me wonder about the easiest and hardest paths ever taken by an MLS Cup champion. If the Crew do manage to advance, Covid-willing, they would face a mathematically stiffer test in MLS Cup 2020 against either Kansas City (1.86), Seattle (1.77), Minnesota (1.62), or Dallas (1.55), so any scenario in which the Crew win MLS Cup wouldn’t put them at the bottom of the barrel playoff competition-wise. In fact, the competition they have faced so far already puts them above that threshold.

After the crunching numbers on a spreadsheet to satisfy my own curiosity, here are some findings. This is just the average PPG of playoff opponents faced by each MLS Cup champion. Obviously, great teams may see this number fall because, well, they have all the points, so their opponents will have fewer points. At the other end of the spectrum, Cinderella champions will have gone through a much tougher playoff field as they were underdogs the whole way. In the end, the goal is to beat whichever team lines up against you. If some favorites get knocked out and you have to play an underdog, then that underdog is good enough to beat a good team and you still need to make sure you’re not their next victim.

Also, in the interest of making apples to apples comparisons, I counted shootouts from 1996-1999 as ties, otherwise the PPG totals from those years would be artificially depressed when compared to 2000-2020, as the loser of the postgame shootout got zero points.

Here are some findings…

The toughest path for an MLS Cup champion:

2001 San Jose Earthquakes (Average opponent PPG of 1.86)

San Jose had to open against Columbus, who earned 1.73 PPG, and that was as easy as it got. Then they had to knock off Miami (2.04) and the LA Galaxy (1.81) to claim the title.

Runner up: 1998 Chicago Fire, who vanquished Colorado (1.44), LA Galaxy (2.19), and D.C. United (1.91) for an average opponent PPG of 1.84, when adjusted for shootouts.

The easiest path for an MLS Cup champion:

1997 D.C. United (Average opponent PPG of 1.30, adjusted for shootouts)

A great team for sure, but they didn’t have to test themselves much to lift MLS Cup. New England (1.28), Columbus (1.34), and Colorado (1.28) were the shootout-adjusted competition. Every single match-up was below the Crew’s current 2020 opponents that prompted this research in the first place.

Runner-up: 2004 D.C. United, who beat MetroStars (1.33), New England (1.10), and Kansas City (1.63) for an average opponent PPG of 1.36.

MLS Cup champions that faced ONLY teams with 1.50 PPG or MORE:

This is a tough gauntlet because it’s one quality opponent after another. No “easy” rounds along the way.

* 2001 San Jose Earthquakes: CLB (1.73), MIA (2.04), LAG (1.81)

* 2009 Real Salt Lake: CLB (1.63), CHI (1.50), LAG (1.60)

* 2010 Colorado Rapids: CLB (1.67), SJ (1.53), DAL (1.67)

* 2013 Sporting Kansas City: NE (1.50), HOU (1.50), RSL (1.65)

* 2014 LA Galaxy: RSL (1.65), SEA (1.88), NE (1.62)

* 2015 Portland Timbers: KC (1.50), VAN (1.56), DAL (1.76), CLB (1.56)

* 2018 Atlanta United: NYC (1.65), NYRB (2.09), POR (1.59)

MLS Cup champions that faced ONLY teams of 1.50 PPG or FEWER:

These were easier paths because they never had to face a huge challenge along the way.

* 1997 D.C. United: NE (1.28), CLB (1.34), COL (1.28) [PPG adjusted for shootouts]

* 2006 Houston Dynamo: CHV (1.34), COL (1.28), NE (1.50)

Highest minimum single-opponent PPG in an MLS Cup title run:

2001 San Jose Earthquakes: 1.73 (CLB)

Highest maximum single-opponent PPG in an MLS Cup title run:

1998 Chicago Fire: 2.19 (LAG) [Adjusted for shootouts]

Lowest maximum single-opponent PPG in an MLS Cup title run:

1997 D.C. United: 1.34 (CLB) [Adjusted for shootouts]

Lowest minimum single-opponent PPG in an MLS Cup title run:

1999 D.C. United: 1.03 (MIA) [Adjusted for shootouts]

And here are all the MLS Cup champions ranked by the PPG average of their playoff opponents. Again, this has nothing to do with the greatness of the specific championship teams, as they cannot control who advances to play them, only whether they beat the teams they play. For example, it’s not the 2008 Crew’s fault that the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo lost to the New York Red Bulls. It was the Crew’s job to do what Houston couldn’t.

PPG is rounded at two decimal places. In the case where two PPG totals appear identical and the ranking is not tied, it’s because they appear tied only because of rounding.

MLS CUP CHAMPS’ PLAYOFF OPPONENTS’ AVERAGE POINTS PER GAME

(1996-99 adjusted for shootouts)

RANKYEARMLS CUP CHAMPPLAYOFF OPP PPG
12001San Jose Earthquakes1.86
21998Chicago Fire1.84
32018Atlanta United1.77
42005LA Galaxy1.75
52014LA Galaxy1.72
62019Seattle Sounders1.64
72010Colorado Rapids1.62
81996D.C. United1.61
t-92016Seattle Sounders1.60
t-92012LA Galaxy1.60
112015Portland Timbers1.60
122009Real Salt Lake1.58
132000Kansas City Wizards1.56
t-142013Sporting Kansas City1.55
t-142017Toronto FC1.55
162007Houston Dynamo1.49
171999D.C. United1.46
182003San Jose Earthquakes1.46
192011LA Galaxy1.45
202008Columbus Crew1.41
212002LA Galaxy1.39
222006Houston Dynamo1.38
232004D.C. United1.36
241997D.C. United1.37

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