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Five vie for final three playoff spots
by Ridge Mahoney, October 20th, 2008 7AM

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[MLS] Three playoff spots remain up for grabs as MLS enters its final week of play. Five teams -- Kansas City, New York, D.C. United, Real Salt Lake and Colorado - vie to join Columbus, Chicago, New England, Houston and Chivas USA in postseason play. Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney explains the scenario.

Seven games remain in the MLS season: three have no bearing on the playoff race, three do, and the very last game on the last day might be relevant, or it might not, depending on results preceding it.

Three Eastern Conference teams are vying for two wild-card spots, and with several head-to-head series - the first tiebreaker in case teams are even on points - having finished all square, goal difference could decide who gets in and who doesn't.

Crucial wins by Kansas City, New York, Colorado, D.C. United and Real Salt Lake last week kept those five teams squarely in the hunt and eliminated four others, including Toronto FC, which beat Chicago, 3-2, Saturday afternoon, yet by that evening had been knocked out.

Also out of contention are Los Angeles, San Jose and FC Dallas.

In order the playoff-relevant matches are:

Chicago-New York (Thursday)
New England-Kansas City (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Colorado-Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 9:30 p.m.)
Columbus-D.C. United (Sunday, 5 p.m.).

See how the tension builds and builds? The system is far from perfect, but it makes for a smashing final weekend. Both wild-card teams will come from the Eastern Conference as was the case last year when slots were guaranteed to only the top two teams in each conference, rather than the top three.

Toronto at San Jose is a last-place battle of English coaches.

Houston at Chivas USA could be a Western Conference final preview, albeit in the wrong venue, and FC Dallas at Los Angeles is the Scapegoat Cup.

Here's the rundown on the final five, listed in order of points and/or priority, and the head-to-head tiebreaker, or by goal difference, if applicable. Note that all but the Rapids play on the road, where teams have won only 22.6 percent of games this season.

6. Real Salt Lake, 39 points (Western Conference #3). @ Colorado.
7. Kansas City, 39 points (wins tiebreaker vs. NY). @ New England.
8. New York, 39 points (minus-3). @ Chicago
9. D.C. United, 37 points (minus-7). @ Columbus
10. Colorado, 37 points. Real Salt Lake.
The third tiebreaker is total goals, but let's not go there just yet.

Real Salt Lake at Colorado (good scheduling!) is a knockout game, as the only slot available is the Western Conference third-place finisher. RSL loses tiebreakers head-to-head with Eastern teams New York and Kansas City and is eliminated if all three teams lose.

It's a classic soccer scenario by which the visitor can benefit with a tie, but the home team must win, period. They've split their two meetings this season, of course, and each scored two goals and conceded two. It could be the advantage of playing two of three games against RSL at home that edges the Rapids into the playoffs.

Bottom line: If the Rapids win, they finish third, and RSL is out. RSL needs only a tie to qualify.

If New York and Kansas City both lose or tie, Kansas City holds the edge by having won the season series with a win and a tie in their two meetings. New York can put pressure on the Wizards by winning, or even tying, the Fire on Thursday; Kansas City faces the Revs Saturday.

Bottom line: New York and Kansas City qualify by winning. If both teams win, D.C. is eliminated.

D.C. United must not only win in Columbus Sunday, it needs either New York or Kansas City not to win, and even then could face long odds. Of the remaining contenders, D.C. has by far the worst goal difference (KC is minus-4), so it would need to thump the Crew by several goals if it finishes tied with Kansas City and/or New York with 40 points.

Bottom line: If either the Red Bulls or Wizards lose, D.C. gets in with a win. If one team ties and the other wins, or both tie, D.C. needs a big win to qualify on goal difference.


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