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Wild West Battles Highlight Playoff Race
by Ridge Mahoney, October 10th, 2008 5:30PM



Of the six MLS matches to be played this weekend, the head-to-head Western Conference matchups offer the most intrigue.

Yes, FC Dallas hosts Toronto FC in an interconference game, and by losing TFC would be all but eliminated, but that would hardly be news and in the long run can only add luster to the playoff field, since no team plays a cruder version of the beautiful game. FCD, on the other hand, is locked in a five-team scrap for playoff slots, with nobody knowing how many might be claimed by Western teams.

The second- and third-place finishers behind Houston are assured of slots and depending on how the total points shake out, two or one or zero Western teams might accompany the top three. The MLS playoff structure takes fierce criticism and in some cases, rightly so. But how the playoffs boil down eight teams to two is the primary flaw, since luck and/or a brief spurt of form can scuttle or overturn seven months of results.

On the other hand, the process to decide those eight slots is splendidly constructed. Races in each conference to determine the top three, and another race within those races to determine slots seven and eight, the exact distribution to be determined.

In the West this week are the following matchups: San Jose, with a game in hand, hosts Chivas USA on Saturday, and the rapidly-dimming Galaxy faces the Rapids at Home Depot Center Sunday.

Houston can clinch the conference title by beating D.C. United when they meet on Sunday, if Chivas USA loses in San Jose. The game at Buck Shaw Stadium is critical to both teams yet the host Quakes (7-10-9, 30 points) can't move out of sixth place even if they win, since FC Dallas and Colorado are tied in fourth with 34 points. They can, however, make up some ground both in the conference and the overall race, and with a makeup game to be played in Houston next Wednesday, set themselves up to sneak into the playoffs.

Chivas USA (11-10-6, 39 points) is still chasing Houston (11-5-10, 43 points) for the conference title, but what Coach Preki and his men really need to do is clinch second, which they can do by winning. A victory would move them six points ahead of RSL (9-10-9, 36 points) and secure the runner-up spot, since Chivas USA won two of the three regular-season meetings between the teams.

Runner-up teams host the second games in the conference semifinals and more often than not prevail. Because RSL could do no better than tie Chivas USA in the final standings on 42 points, it couldn't finish second, as it has already lost the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results.

If San Jose wins and Houston clinches the conference title by beating D.C. United Sunday, the Quakes can go to Houston more confident of getting at least a tie, since the Dynamo - in the midst of a five-game homestand of league and Concacaf Champions' Cup matches - would probably rest a few regulars.

United rested many of its regulars yet came away with a 2-2 tie in Costa Rica against Deportivo Saprissa Thursday in the Concacaf Champions' League. It will need a boost of confidence and some luck to keep its playoff chances alive. Playing another good game wouldn't hurt, either.

The game at Buck Shaw figures to be fierce, brimming with the intensity that is sometimes lacking at MLS regular-season games but this season, because of more competition within teams for playing spots and a tight playoff race, has increased.

Last-place Los Angeles (7-12-8, 29 points) showed few glimmers of passion, intensity or ability while losing, 1-0, in Columbus last weekend and this is absolutely its acid test to come up with a determined professional effort, with Landon Donovan, presumably, and David Beckham absent due to international commitments. A Galaxy loss Sunday to Colorado eliminates Los Angeles. Even if the Galaxy wins its last three games, it might not get into the playoffs with 38 points. For inspiration, it need only look to Colorado (10-13-4, 34 points), which prior to a 3-1 home loss to Houston last weekend, had fought its way out of the conference cellar by grabbing 10 points in four games.

Had the Galaxy done that at any point in this dismal season, it's playoff prospects would look brighter. Now it needs a miracle finish to have any chance of postseason play, and with Donovan and Beckham absent, the HDC might be half-full and half-interested despite the magnitude of this match.

That's why this weekend and probably the rest of the season, will be wild in the West.

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