Looking Towards the Playoffs: Who’s In, Out, and In-Between?

by Eliza Pugh

Friday, May 31. Heading into week seven, it is safe to say Medellín Revolution and Atlanta Soul will be in the PUL playoffs at the end of June. Medellín (5-0) remains the only undefeated team and sits comfortably in first place in the standings. Atlanta, as the host city, will receive an auto-bid to the playoffs. That leaves two spots still up for grabs that currently Raleigh Radiance (1-1) and New York Gridlock (2-1) will seek to hold on to as the final games play out.

The PUL playoff structure is a four-team playoff (the other four teams are out) with both semi-final games set to take place on Friday, June 28 and the finals on Saturday, June 29, all at Silverback Park in Atlanta, GA.

PUL mostly follows the standard USAU ranking system. At the end of each game, each team earns a certain number of points, which is called a game rating. That rating is based on the opponent’s rating plus or minus a numerical differential based on the margin of victory or loss of that game. Put more simply, the better your opponent is (the higher your opponent’s rating going into the game), the more points that can be gained by your team. Each team’s ratings are averaged across all of the games the team plays.

“Basically, you want the team you beat to do really well down the line,” PUL Commissioner Bonesaw Kepner said of how the algorithm works.

However, there are two adjustments to the ranking algorithm that PUL has made. USAU’s rankings take into account time decay, where games that were played longer ago count for less. PUL removed that feature because their games are happening on a short time frame. For instance, Medellín has already played all of their games at the time of this article, while no other team has.

USAU’s rankings also employ a “blowout rule” which takes effect when a team that is ranked a certain number of points higher than its opponent wins by more than double the points of its opponent. The game is then dropped from their set and their opponent’s set and not factored into the algorithm when each team’s ratings are averaged. With USAU rankings, the blowout rule can only apply when the team already has five games that count towards the algorithm. Since each PUL team is only playing five games total, PUL is using a blowout threshold of four games. So far, the only game that has met the “blowout rule” criteria has been the Medellín versus Indianapolis game in week four.

Since Raleigh beat New York handily in week five and played Medellín closely in week three, they seem likely to hold onto one of the two playoff spots still up in the air.

“So it’s really down to three teams for that one spot,” Kepner said, referring to the spot that New York currently holds. The three teams in contention are New York, Austin, and Columbus. With no wins under their belt, Nashville (0-3) is unlikely to make it to the semi-finals. Despite beating Nashville last weekend, Indianapolis (1-3) is likely out as well.

In order to stay in the top three, New York needs to beat Austin this Saturday and play Atlanta to a close game next weekend—which would be the expected outcomes of their games given their season.

New York cannot get too comfortable however, as Austin also has control of its playoff destiny. Austin needs one upset out of the next two games to propel them into the top half of the standings. If they can upset New York on Saturday, they would not need to upset Raleigh in their subsequent game. New York is probably the easier team to upset, given that Raleigh beat New York by a fair amount two weeks ago with both teams at near full strength.

The other team in contention, Columbus, has only partial control over their fate. They would need to beat Raleigh and then get help with an Austin win over New York.  It seems unlikely Columbus will upsets Raleigh, but they will have the advantage of playing just one game that weekend on home turf in Ohio, while it will be Raleigh’s second away game of the weekend. If Columbus does beat Raleigh, the playoffs could come down to nitty-gritty details in the algorithm that take into account goals-for and goals-against.

PUL Board Treasurer and Atlanta Soul co-owner and player Angela Lin says PUL has been working closely on the rankings system with Cody Mills, who runs frisbee-rankings.com and has collaborated with USAU on past rankings projects. Mills runs the algorithm every week for PUL.

Lin admitted there are shortcomings to this way of ranking, most notably because of the small sample size of teams and compressed time frame of the season. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” Lin said of the structure. “Not every team gets to play every team.”

But still, Lin said, “Other [ranking] options seemed arbitrary. A lot of people are familiar with USAU’s ranking system. Most people know how it works.” She said even if people aren’t plugged in to the math, many players intuitively understand it by now.

Lin and two other board members created a dummy dataset in early Board meetings and used a combination of real scores from last year as well as made-up scores for games to create essentially a three-way tie and see how that would shake up. The Board seemed to think it worked out reasonably well, and agreed to use the USAU algorithm.

Tim Kepner