With the preseason games completed and the start of the MLS regular season just days away, predictions as to how the league’s 23 teams will finish 2018 are beginning to make the rounds. One of the most analytical of these forecasts shows no love for the San Jose Earthquakes, while another preview has the Quakes has the number one team in the land. So, what gives?
Along with dishing out weekly Power Rankings to an ever hungry audience of MLS fans, those in the analysis business like to provide a smorgasbord of preseason predictions as to how the final conference standings will appear. It’s a fun exercise that, for many, provides a good talking point — like this article! — and for others it becomes a mark by which to measure success come October. Obviously, the players still have to play the games.
But with that in mind, it is interesting to see the two wildly different rankings given the Earthquakes by two different methods. Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, the analytics-driven website started up by statistician Nate Silver, the newly published 2018 MLS Club Soccer Predictions have San Jose ranked 22 out of 23 teams. The silver lining: Just below the Quakes is Minnesota United, their season opener opponent this Saturday at Avaya Stadium.
The hypothetical season-ending table from FiveThirtyEight is generated from running numerous simulations on all 34 games on the schedule using data on offensive and defensive rankings, primarily centered around expected and actual goals scored and conceded. For their 2018 predictions, data from last season was incorporated into the model. The Earthquakes, while a playoff team in 2017, had the worst goal differential of any team to make the postseason. The simulation run to get the standings above do not take into account roster changes and preseason results, so they must be taken with a grain of salt.
A curious twist to the 2018 predictions? The Earthquakes simulated 2017 season saw them finish second to last as well, but their breakdown of predicted offensive and defensive results were the opposite of this year’s rankings.
Last season, San Jose was expected to have a better than league-average defense (the range spanned from 1.4 to 2.2) — thanks, Dom-ball! — but it’s offensive rating was worst in MLS (1.4 to 0.5). For 2018, the FiveThirtyEight computers were much more harsh to the Earthquakes, predicting both their offense and defense results to be at the bottom of the league. These data-driven simulations do not take into account the coaching and player changes that have gone on in San Jose, but it is interesting to see how lowly the team from Silicon Valley is considered.
Are the Earthquakes, then, the favorites to win their fourth all-time Wooden Spoon? Well, when put to the eye test, the team looks much better than the computers would suggest. Changes to the coaching staff with the hiring of Mikael Stahre as head coach, as well as fellow Europeans Alex de Crook as an assistant and Jyri Nieminen as goalkeepers coach, have brought a different vision to this year’s preseason preparations. The addition of new Designated Player Magnus Eriksson and the permanent transfer of Danny Hoesen have improved the attacking ranks, while the return of Harold Cummings and improvement of Nick Lima upgrade the defensive line. The Quakes went undefeated through their preseason slate of friendlies and scrimmages, something that can’t be ignored.
Well, somebody noticed. On the same day that the FiveThirtyEight simulated season was posted, writer Rapids Rabbi over at fellow SB Nation blog Burgundy Wave bestowed his number one ranking on the Earthquakes. Mind you, this is for top of the Western Conference — no one can argue that defending MLS Cup champions Toronto FC aren’t still the best team in the league — but that’s some lofty predicting. The Rabbi’s making a gut-call with this preview, but what’s not to like about imagining the Quakes as best in the West entering the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs.
Are the Earthquakes, as the data predicts, the worst team in the league? Or is San Jose, when all the personnel changes are taken into account, a Supporters’ Shield candidate? Rational minds will peg the Quakes right on the red line for making the postseason — a team that has the firepower to finish in the top-six in the Western Conference, but better get its defensive shape determined to avoid too many losses. Be sure to check in 34 games from now to see just how well the pundits predicted the San Jose Earthquakes 2018 season.