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Western leaders secure in playoff chase
by Ridge Mahoney, July 25th, 2011 6:17PM

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[MLS PLAYOFF WATCH] The urgency of accumulating points is intensifying as most teams move into the final third of their schedules, despite a busy schedule of friendlies, the advent of Concacaf Champions League play this week, and the All-Star Game at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday. Ridge Mahoney looks at the playoff chances of all 18 teams.

Under its revised format, MLS will include 10 teams in the 2011 playoffs. The top three in each conference qualify directly to the quarterfinal stage; four more teams, decided on overall points, qualify as wild-cards, with the survivors of one-game playoffs advancing to the final eight.

At this point, we’re not concerned with tiebreakers between teams with the same number of points. Here is how the playoff race looks heading into the All-Star break (which isn’t much of a break at all, since league games resume Friday):

WESTERN CONFERENCE (top three qualify automatically)
W1 -- Los Angeles, 42 pts.; W2 -- FC Dallas, 39: W3 -- Seattle, 38.

All three teams have 12 games to play and all three may be able to clinch a spot by Labor Day, so far removed are they from those on the bubble. FC Dallas has done an amazing job adjusting to the injury absence of David Ferreira. A recent surge by Seattle – four wins in the last five games -- has solidified its spot in the top three and those points are also keeping Real Salt Lake at bay (see below).

EASTERN CONFERENCE (top three qualify automatically)
E1 -- Philadelphia -- 31 pts.; E2 -- Columbus, 31; E3 – New York, 30.

The reeling Red Bulls, heavily laden with ties (12, tied for most in the league with Chicago), are scoring a lot of goals (37, most in the league) while sinking into the bottom third of most goals allowed (30). The tighter defenses of the Union (16 goals allowed) and Crew (20) give them an edge heading into the final run.

WILD CARDS (ranked by overall points, four will qualify)
7 – Real Salt Lake, 33 pts.; 8 – Colorado, 31; T9 – Sporting Kansas City/Chivas USA, 26.

With four games in hand on each of the three Western teams in front of it, Real Salt Lake has ample opportunity to make up ground. Despite hammering the Red Bulls, 4-1, Wednesday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the Colorado Rapids will be stuck in the wild-card morass, at best, if their home record (4-2-6) doesn’t fatten up in the ‘W’ column. Speaking of home, SKC has yet to lose (3-0-3) in its new stadium and has played three fewer games than New York. A 3-0 dismantling of Houston Saturday jumped Chivas USA ahead of the Dynamo.

ALMOST THERE (ranked by overall points)
T11 – Houston/San Jose, 24 pts.; 13 -- D.C. United, 23.

Linked by the old Quakes’ move to Texas 5 ½ years ago, both teams suffered bad losses over the weekend; Chivas USA crunched the Houston Dynamo, 3-0, and some rough refereeing doomed the San Jose Earthquakes to a 4-0 loss at RSL. By losing at home to the Revs, 1-0, last Wednesday, United lost some momentum. But with the fewest games played (19) of this trio, United has more hope.

BARELY IN THE HUNT
(overall points): 14 – Portland, 21 pts.; 15 -- New England, 20; T16 -- Chicago/Toronto FC, 18.

The Portlaand Timbers’ bright start has gone dark; and their recent moves have a trace of panic about them. Revs’ fans got excited with a four-point road week: a 1-0 win in D.C. and 2-2 tie in Colorado but they still have a lot of ground to make up and are scoring less than a goal per game (19 goals in 21 games). The Chicago Fire has three more games to play than TFC, for what that’s worth.

DONE.
18 – Vancouver, 15 pts.

Bad as this inaugural season has been, the Whitecaps could have salvaged something by beating Toronto FC in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and qualifying for the CCL. They instead have a much longer process of renovation for 2012.



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