Okay, Portland or Real Salt Lake or San Jose or Houston to make the playoffs: Who do you like?
This is a question that should be front and center amongst MLS fans as the league enters its final month of play, but aside from the followers of those teams in those cities, how closely are other fans watching their fates?
Probably not too many, which is one of the dilemmas MLS must confront. Signing more star players increases the league’s allure across the board, but even a parity-driven league must be rooted in intense competition that draws an audience beyond that of, in this case, the Timbers Army and the Royal Army, which is one of many RSL fan groups formed since the team started up in 2005.
By expanding its playoff field from five teams per conference to six, MLS obviously intended to keep more teams, and thus more fan bases, engaged in the process. Just getting into the playoffs is, of course, the primary goal, and once teams clinch they will focus on finishing as high in the standings as possible, since within each sextet there are subdivisions: the top two, which receive a first-round bye; the third- and fourth-place finishers, which will host knockout games; and the stragglers that must win a wild-card game on the road to reach the conference semifinals.
But not here will we delve into that netherworld known as “If The Playoffs Started Today,” because they don’t. Instead we focus on what could be a memorable battle for spots that seem up for grabs.
(Though no team has clinched, for the purposes of this discussion we are acknowledging that the top three -- Vancouver, the Galaxy, and FC Dallas -- are going to get in. In an amazing quirk of scheduling, the Whitecaps play FCD twice in the next three weeks, and the Galaxy hosts FCD this Sunday, so the picture could look drastically different on Oct. 18 with one week of play to go.)
The surging Sounders and SKC are not guaranteed of postseason play, either, and a bad run of form could drag them below the playoff line. It’s possible but not likely that both Portland and RSL can squeeze in, since the sixth-place Timbers are three points back of fifth-place Sporting Kansas City, and RSL is three points behind Portland.
RSL must also vault over San Jose, in seventh place, and Houston (eighth). San Jose and Houston have played one more game, and are very much in the chase, so RSL may need a few results beyond its control unless it can run the table.
In any case, putting the spotlight on Portland -- which is in the playoff tier, but barely -- and RSL -- a perennial contender since winning the title in 2009 but all the way down in ninth place -- gives perspective on the other candidates as well.
Western Conference stretch run
4. Seattle (14-13-3), 45 points, 4 games to play.
Remaining games: @Sporting KC; Galaxy; @Houston; RSL.
5. Sporting Kansas City (12-9-8), 44 points), 5 games to play.
Remaining games: Seattle; @Portland; @ San Jose; Colorado; Galaxy.
(Also: Open Cup final at Philadelphia)
6. Portland (11-10-8), 41 points, 5 games to play.
Remaining games: @Columbus, Sporting KC; @RSL; @ Galaxy; Colorado.
7. San Jose (11-12-7), 40 points, 4 games to play.
Remaining games: RSL; Vancouver; Sporting KC; @FC Dallas.
8. Houston (10-12-8), 38 points, 4 games to play.
Remaining games: Colorado; @FC Dallas; Seattle; @Vancouver.
9. RSL (10-11-8), 38 points, 5 games to play.
Remaining games: @San Jose; Colorado; Portland; FC Dallas; @ Seattle.
10. Colorado (8-11-10), 34 points, 5 games to play.
Remaining games: at Houston; RSL; Montreal; @SKC; @Portland.
Both RSL and San Jose play three straight home games and thus for the Quakes their showdown this Sunday is especially crucial. Even a point for RSL takes away two possible points for San Jose, which in its last three home games has lost once and tied twice. Good results against the Quakes and Rapids would provide a solid foundation when RSL hosts Portland Oct. 14. On the other hand, the Quakes can boost their chances and seriously dent those of RSL by prevailing at Avaya Stadium.
Sporting Kansas City-Seattle (ESPN), 5 p.m. ET
San Jose-Real Salt Lake (Fox Sports 1), 7 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy-FC Dallas (Fox Sports 1), 9:30 p.m. ET
This weekend there’s a juicy, Western-Conference triple-decker on national television: Quakes-RSL is preceded by SKC-Sounders and followed by Galaxy-FCD. All three games are rife with storylines and playoff implications, which in the business that is professional sports, are utterly essential, and make for good television. But who will be watching?
Portland occupies the last playoff slot, but has only two of its last five at home, and in addition to RSL, must play Crew SC (this Saturday) and the Galaxy on the road. Colorado plays four of the five teams directly above them (San Jose is the exception) and so is still a fringe contender as well as a spoiler. On the final day of the season, Oct. 25, Portland hosts Colorado, which could by then be eliminated.
MLS has scheduled all five Western Conference games on the final day to be played simultaneously but they will be shadowed by a cloud of anticlimax if playoff slots have already been decided. (The same is true of the five Eastern Conference matchups.) Jostling for slots within the playoff tier isn’t nearly as riveting to a neutral audience as watching games by which teams will either clinch a postseason spot or fall agonizingly short.
Unfortunately, the RSL-Portland game is to be played on a Wednesday and thus is only to be televised regionally. Yet though by itself it probably won’t determine the playoff fates of those teams -- although it might -- it’s one of many upcoming games that will shape the playoff race and merits attention from all MLS fans, regardless of their loyalties.