“I believe Toronto's already the champions.”
"I think all the other teams are going to fight for the second spot and Toronto will win the league.”
“I think you see it [Saturday] night, they are quite really strong and I don't think anybody will catch them."
So said New York City FC’s gaffer at the end of a weekend that saw his Boys in Blue complete a cracking fightback against New England a day after first-place Toronto FC handily worked over the suddenly ragged Chicago Fire.
To be fair, if we’re playing the smart money, the big man is probably right. Not only does Toronto have the best record in Major League Soccer; they’ve also thoroughly outclassed New York City on the year, stealing a point at Yankee Stadium on July 19th before a 4-0 disemboweling in Ontario eleven days later.
Yes, Toronto is a better team than second-place NYCFC. They’re just better.
That means the good guys can’t win the Supporters’ Shield, right?
WRONG. Of course they can. And through his deftly-crafted statements, Patrick Vieira is a complete managerial mastermind for taking every last bit of pressure off his team at the best possible time: with 9 games to go and the wind at their backs.
And yet, at the same time, his words form the perfect challenge to this squad to keep its mojo working.
To keep taking three when lesser teams — including past versions of this one — would have been happy with a draw.
To keep feeding Jonathan Lewis and stepping the fuck back.
OK. Let’s be clear. Toronto is a seriously strong favorite to win the Shield, and a noticeable favorite to win the MLS Cup. But a look at some recent projections tells a story of some interest to NYCFC fans. Let’s start with how FiveThirtyEight sees the league’s playoff picture:
Additionally, let’s look at Ken Roberts’ model at SportsClubStats.com:
A few interesting things here: yes, both projections place Toronto head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, but each model gives second-place NYCFC a better chance to win the Shield than the next 20 teams combined. What that means? If the good guys keep winning and, say, TFC slips up against red-hot Montreal on Sunday, those odds only get prettier. Down the stretch, Vieira’s boys can still own their fate.
(Interestingly, Roberts’ methodology barely gives the Reds any advantage over New York City or Sporting KC in the race for the MLS Cup. But that’s for another column.)
So, as long as we’re dreaming— just how good would New York City have to be over these last nine games of the regular season in order to have a real shot at the Supporters’ Shield? Let’s look at another one of Roberts’ charts:
The math is simple enough to understand:
If NYCFC, currently on 46 points, can take at least 20 out of a possible 27 down the stretch, they’re suddenly the odds-on favorite to finish in first and hoist the big, shiny dinner plate.
That requires winning at least six games and losing fewer than two. Is this doable? Well, that’s 2.22 points per match, which is absolutely filthy. But if Toronto could manage 50 points in 25 games to date, how crazy would it really be for the Blues to stay hot as hell down the stretch?
After all, we’re talking about a team that hasn’t lost at home since April, yet also leads MLS in total road wins since Vieira took the helm last year.
Just for kicks, let’s go through these final nine games and see if we can’t scrounge up 20 points:
- 8/25 @ Red Bulls — WIN. Duh.
- 9/6 vs. Sporting KC — DRAW. The Wiz are stingy as hell, but our guys do NOT lose at home.
- 9/9 vs. Portland — DRAW. The good guys will be playing on awfully short rest and will have to rotate, while the Timbers will be coming off an extended break.
- 9/16 @ Colorado — WIN. The Rapids are not good.
- 9/23 vs. Houston — WIN. H-Town boys won’t be able to slow NYC’s attack. Most can’t.
- 9/27 @ Montreal — LOSS. Something’s gotta give. Blerim Dzemaili has been a revelation and Nacho Piatti is playing out of his fucking skull.
- 9/30 @ Chicago — DRAW. I’m tempted to give the Fire a win against a New York City squad playing their third match in eight days, but Paunovic’s side has fallen back to earth... and the Boys in Blue haven’t lost back-to-back games in 2017.
- 10/15 @ New England — WIN. NYCFC’s Revs hex is over because Jonathan Lewis decided that it was. End of story.
- 10/22 vs. Columbus — WIN. Wanna beat the Boys in Blue at home? You need better players than Crew SC has.
THE GRAND TOTAL: 64 points in 34 regular season games; 18 from the final nine. According to Roberts’ model, that gives NYCFC a 33.9% to win the Supporters’ Shield. If one of our draws turns into a win, the odds increase to 55.6%. If a loss becomes a draw, 45%. If a loss becomes a win, just under 67%.
If you’d prefer, go ahead and forget our own predictions and focus on the nerds from FiveThirtyEight and Sports Club Stats. The numbers plainly state that the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup ain’t much of a likelihood for New York City in 2017. But both, despite whatever the pundits or your own everloving heart might be screaming, actually are within reach.
Really, it may just come down to how far Jonathan Lewis is willing to stretch in order to grab ‘em.
But if he manages to accomplish that goal, credit the assist to a certain cunning managerial linguist.