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Doing the math on the MLS postseason prospects
by Ridge Mahoney, September 15th, 2011 7:57PM

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[MLS PLAYOFF WATCH] The numbers game that is the MLS playoff chase heads into the final five weeks of the season, and the pertinent figures are these ...

IMBALANCE PERSISTS. While it’s possible that five teams from each conference will make the playoffs, the points imbalance is glaring. Eastern leader Columbus has the same number of points (41) as the fifth-place team in the West, Colorado.

Under its expanded, revised playoff format, the top three teams in each conference qualify for the two-leg quarterfinals, with the next four teams ranked on points claiming wild-card slots. The wild-card playoffs – No. 10 at No. 7, No, 9 at No. 8 – will be played midweek a few days after the end of the regular season to determine the last two teams in the quarterfinal field of eight.

The conference winner with the most points plays the lowest-seeded survivor, with higher-seeded wild-card winner playing the other conference winner. Within each conference, the No. 2 and No. 3 finishers also play off to make up the final four. The higher-ranking teams host the one-game conference finals and the winners advance to MLS Cup at Home Depot Center Nov. 20.

Last year, only the top two teams in each conference were guaranteed playoff spots, which resulted in six Western teams joining two Eastern representatives in the playoffs. The Rapids and San Jose were the No. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively, with 46 points (the Rapids took the higher seed on a tiebreaker). Both teams “crossed over” to the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket, and eliminated Columbus and New York, respectively. Colorado then beat San Jose, and topped another Western Conference team, FC Dallas, 2-1, in MLS Cup 2010.

By contrast, Kansas City finished third in the Eastern Conference (and ninth overall) last season with only 39 points (in 30 games). With four additional games played by the teams in 2011, the No. 10 seed will probably finish with around 43 points.

GAMES IN HAND. On the bubble is D.C. United, with 34 points, but its nine games in hand means it could easily finish among the top three Eastern teams and avoid the wild-card scramble from which four – eight are currently in contention – will qualify. On the down side, those nine games fall during a span of just 39 days, and most of them are toughies: road trips to Seattle (this weekend), Columbus, Philadelphia and Vancouver, and home games against Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, Chicago, Portland, and Sporting Kansas City.

Those last three home games are the final three of the season, so there’s some cushion for United if it needs to rally late. However, the Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday (Oct. 15-19-22) scheduling will put a strain on the roster, which has been weakened by the loss of attacker Chris Pontius, who suffered a fractured tibia in a 3-0 win at Chivas USA last weekend.

SIX OF THE BEST. The automatic slots to the top three teams in each conference are currently occupied thusly:

E1 – Columbus, 41 pts.; E2 – Sporting Kansas City, 40; E3 – Philadelphia, 36 (wins tiebreaker vs. Houston);

W1 – Los Angeles, 55 pts.; W2 – Seattle, 48; W3 – FC Dallas, 46.

Philly’s precarious hold on third place renders its home game against Columbus as perhaps the weekend’s most important match of teams currently in the playoff positions. Just slightly less significant is RSL’s home game against Sporting Kansas City, which would take over the conference lead with a victory if the Crew doesn’t win at PPL Park. For its part, RSL can grab third place by beating SKC if Dallas ties or loses to New York.

WILD TIMES. Here are the four teams that occupy the wild-card slots heading into this weekend’s action:

WC7 – Real Salt Lake, 45 pts.; WC8 – Colorado, 41; WC9 -- Houston, 36; WC10 -- D.C. United, 34.

Close behind are: Portland, 33; New York, 33; Chivas USA, 31; San Jose, 29.

Houston’s situation typifies how important it is to finish at least third in the conference, and how disastrous it was for the Dynamo to blow a 1-0 lead with a man advantage Wednesday in Columbus and come away with a 2-2 tie rather than a three-point victory. With only five games remaining, the Dynamo could be tied with Portland in the points race when it hosts San Jose Saturday, if the Timbers beat New England at Jeld-Wen Field on Friday.

The reeling Red Bulls have a tough assignment this weekend; they play at Dallas, which is seething in the wake of a 1-1 Concacaf Champions League result with Tauro FC that it led after just 23 seconds but couldn’t finish off. Without defenders Jan Gunnar Solli and Rafael Marquez (both suspended) and Roy Miller (injured), New York needs big games from Luke Rodgers, who has recovered from a foot injury following a two-month layoff, and Teemu Tainio, absent last week because of suspension.

LAGGING BEHIND. Three Eastern teams – Chicago, New England, Toronto FC – a bit further back are in deep trouble, and probably need to pick up points in each remaining game to have any chance at the postseason. They all have 27 points, with the Fire holding a slight edge because of games remaining (seven). The Revs have six, TFC only five.

Those remaining games won’t mean much if Chicago can’t win them, and its home record (3-2-8) mitigates the fact the Fire plays four of them at home. On Saturday it hosts an equally desperate Chivas USA, stalled in a three-game losing streak during which it has been outscored, 5-0.

The Revs attack, dormant for most of the season, has awakened to score nine goals in the last four games (one victory, three ties). Portland has lost at home four times this season, and that’s the only outcome that can realistically keep New England’s hopes alive. TFC hosts Colorado; legs and spirits could be heavy after both teams were blown out in CCL losses during the week.

TOP AND BOTTOM
. The overall leader, Los Angeles, hosts bottom-feeder Vancouver (22 points). The Whitecaps are playing for pride, as well as next year’s paychecks, and could be a real pain for a Galaxy team coming off a draining, disappointing 2-1 loss to Morelia on Tuesday. David Beckham and Juninho did not make the trip to Mexico, however, so they may exploit Vancouver’s chronic inability to contain opponents in midfield.



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