Playoff puzzle won't be solved until the final game

[MLS PREVIEW: Week 35] So tight are the playoff races in each conference that only one of the nine games this weekend will have no bearing on the postseason.

Unless, of course, San Jose scores at least 13 more goals while beating FC Dallas Saturday than the Rapids do by losing in Vancouver Sunday. Only by that scenario can the Quakes tie Colorado for fifth place on points and advance on the second tiebreaker, goals scored. Still, dismissing that outcome leaves every other match except San Jose-FC Dallas in the mix.

The three remaining games Saturday can add at most one more playoff qualifier to the six teams that have already clinched, and could also eliminate at most one team. On Sunday, three of the bubble teams play, the fifth-place Rapids could take the field with the possibility of finishing as high as second (if Portland loses Saturday), and the Galaxy tangles with Seattle at CenturyLink Field in the final game of the season that will decide where they finish.

DAY ONE. The most crucial game kicks off the Saturday trio when Philadelphia hosts Sporting Kansas City (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The Union must win and hope the fifth-place Revs lose Sunday in Columbus to pass them in the standings. Philly can tie Montreal and Chicago on points if those teams lose, but it can’t match those teams in wins, which is the first tiebreaker.

The away team has won both meetings this season: the Union took a 1-0 decision Sept. 28 on a Conor Casey goal scored from a scramble. SKC pasted Philly, 3-1, in the season opener March 2 at PPL Park, rallying with goals by Graham Zusi, Ori Rosell and Claudio Bieler after Sebastien Le Toux scored in the 17th minute.

Philly midfield destroyer Brian Carroll is suspended, so Coach John Hackworth needs to shore up the middle to contain Rosell and Zusi and perhaps Benny Feilhaber. SKC can still win the Supporters’ Shield by winning and in blanking D.C. United, 1-0, last weekend extended its shutout streak to 324 minutes.

The final weekend of play features a Canadian rivalry game in Toronto (MLS Direct Kick, 4 p.m. ET). A tie might not be enough to guarantee Montreal a playoff spot, and a victory would all but eliminate its chances of playing a wild-card game, so expect the Impact – which came back last weekend to beat the Union, 2-1, on goals by Marco Di Vaio and academy product Karl Ouimette – to press the issue at opportune moments. Di Vaio is tied with Chicago’s Mike Magee for the scoring lead with 20 goals.

When the teams played at BMO Field in early July, TFC scored three goals in the first 24 minutes yet ended up tied, 3-3. Montreal won, 2-1, at the Olympic Stadium March 16.

Portland wins the Western Conference if it beats Chivas USA (MLS Live, 10:30 p.m. ET) at StubHub Center. But because it has so few wins (13), it could slip all the way down to fourth place if it loses, the Rapids win, and Seattle and the Galaxy don’t play a tie.

Chivas USA held Portland to a 1-1 tie at StubHub Center six weeks ago, but since then have lost four straight while being outscored, 13-2. Eric Avila and Julio Morales are the only players to score during the losing streak. The Timbers posted their league-high 14th shutout of the season last week in a 0-0 tie with Real Salt Lake at Jeld-Wen Field, yet have given up twice as many goals, 22, on the road than they have at home.

DAY TWO. A busy Sunday of five games – all of which clash with NFL telecasts – starts at 1:30 p.m. ET when lowly D.C. United hosts desperate Houston on NBC. Unless the Barra Brava turn out in force to say “Adios” to the worst season in league history, the only spectacle will be whether the losing team in the last two MLS Cups will squeak into the playoffs.

Houston can win and still finish sixth if Montreal, Chicago and New England also win. Yet a tie by any of those teams would be enough, assuming the Dynamo can beat D.C., which given Houston’s sporadic form this season is far from guaranteed. A stunning 3-0 loss at home to New York last weekend and a long trip to Washington, D.C., following a 1-0 Concacaf Champions League loss in Panama to Arabe Unido Thursday will stretch the roster and coaching staff.

Next up is Columbus-New England (MLS Live, 4 p.m. ET), and the Revs will take the field knowing the Houston result as well as that of Philly’s game on Saturday. New England rallied to beat and eliminate the Crew, 3-2, last weekend, and take a five-game unbeaten streak for the return match in Columbus. No matter the result of other games, a Revs’ win guarantees a playoff spot and its 5-6-5 road record is fourth-best in MLS.

An hour later, the Fire and New York kick off at Red Bull Arena (UniMas, 5 p.m. ET). By halftime, Chicago will know all the relevant results. So will New York, which will start the weekend tied with idle Real Salt Lake for the overall points lead but could be third if Portland and SKC both won. It would also need to beat Chicago to take back the conference crown from SKC.

Chicago has won the only 2013 match between the teams, posting a 3-1 win at Toyota Park April 7, and also won the last meeting at Red Bull Arena, 2-0, Oct. 6 of last year. The Fire has won three in a row, the Red Bulls have won four and tied two in their last six games. This could be the most fascinating of the weekend’s games, with both teams in excellent form and most likely anxious for a victory.

The Whitecaps, eliminated last weekend when they lost, 3-2, at Colorado, host the Rapids in a return game (MLS Live, 8 p.m. ET) that could well be the swan song of head coach Martin Rennie. Team president Bob Lenarduzzi said his status could be decided as early as next week, and that usually means bon voyage. A late-season fizzle – the ‘Caps have won just two of their last 10 – that follows a staggering finish and wild-card elimination in 2012 has probably sealed his departure.

Gabriel Torres hit an equalizer and the winner against Vancouver, which produced a superb goal by Kekuta Manneh and a Camilo penalty kick but couldn’t cope with Torres and the other goalscorer, Deshorn Brown. By beating Vancouver, the Rapids can assure themselves of finishing no lower than fourth.

The day and the season end, predictably, with another Sunday night nationally televised Galaxy game, this time at slumping Seattle (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). The Colorado game will be at halftime when they kick off, and they will know the Portland result, yet these teams don’t like each other and the coaches will be hard-pressed to keep emotions in check.

Seattle’s chemistry and camaraderie is in shambles after a four-game losing streak, yet the Galaxy looked a bit flat last weekend during a 0-0 tie with San Jose. Both meetings so far this season have been played in Southern California; Los Angeles won the first game, 4-0, and the teams played a 1-1 tie five weeks ago.

A squad of mostly Galaxy reserves played Thursday in a 4-0 Concacaf Champions League loss to Isidro Metapan in El Salvador, though Juninho started in midfield and defender A.J. DeLaGarza made his first appearance since suffering a dislocated left elbow nearly six weeks ago.

These bitter rivals could be playing for second place or avoiding a road wild-card game. Regardless, the postseason picture won’t be clear until the final whistle blows on the 323rd and final game of 2013.

MLS WEEK 35, Schedule:
Saturday, October 26
3 pm ET
Philadelphia vs. Sporting KC NBCSN
4 pm ET
Toronto FC vs. Montreal Univision Dep.
5:30 pm ET
San Jose vs. FC Dallas NBCSN
10:30 pm ET
Chivas USA vs. Portland

Sunday, October 27
1:30 pm ET
D.C. United vs. Houston NBC
4 pm ET
Columbus vs. New England
5 pm ET
New York vs. Chicago UniMas
8 pm ET
Vancouver vs. Colorado
9 pm ET
Seattle vs. LA Galaxy ESPN

MLS WEEK 35, Results:
Wednesday, October 23
Real Salt Lake 2 Chivas USA 1.
RSL: Alvaro Saborio 49.
RSL: Joao Plata 52.
CHV: Julio Morales (Carlo Chueca) 77.
Att.: 20,447.
Eastern Conference:

56 (33) *New York 16-9-8 53/39
55 (33) *Sporting KC 16-10-7 45/29
49 (33) Montreal 14-12-7 50/48
49 (33) Chicago 14-12-7 45/47
48 (33) New England 13-11-9 48/38
48 (33) Houston 13-11-9 39/40
46 (33) Philadelphia 12-11-10 41/42
41 (33) Columbus 12-16-5 42/45
26 (33) Toronto FC 5-17-11 29/47
16 (33) D.C. United 3-23-7 21/57
*Clinched playoff berth.

Western Conference:
56 (34) *Real Salt Lake 16-10-8 57/41
54 (33) *Portland 13-5-15 49/33
52 (33) *LA Galaxy 15-11-7 52/37
51 (33) *Seattle 15-12-6 41/41
51 (33) Colorado 14-10-9 45/35
48 (33) San Jose 13-11-9 33/41
45 (33) Vancouver 12-12-9 50/45
44 (33) FC Dallas 11-11-11 47/50
26 (33) Chivas USA 6-19-8 30/62
*Clinched playoff berth.
20 Marco Di Vaio (Montreal)
20 Mike Magee (LA Galaxy/Chicago)
19 Camilo (Vancouver)
15 Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
13 Diego Fagundez (New England)
13 Dominic Oduro (Columbus)
12+1 Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake)
11 Jack McInerney (Philadelphia)
11 Federico Higuain (Columbus)
11 Blas Perez (FC Dallas)
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