Of the myriad postseason possibilities facing many of the MLS teams that play on Sunday, a few teams are in the most dire straits: that of falling so far down the standings they miss the playoffs altogether.
New England lost in last year’s MLS Cup final and Sporting Kansas City captured the title in 2013, yet both are clinging to the final spot of sixth place in their respective conferences. The good news is that both control their own destiny, in that a victory Sunday assures them of a playoff spot regardless of other results. The bad news is such a result would contravene their current form.
Forget relegation, which in most leagues could be the ultimate consequence of Decision Day. For SKC and New England and Seattle, most notably, not making the postseason will trigger recrimination enough.
New England, which leads seventh-place Orlando City by three points, is in a much stronger position. It can clinch by getting at least a tie in Yankee Stadium against New York City FC and even it loses and OCSC wins in Philadelphia, the Lions would need to make up a difference of eight in goal difference to pip the Revs on the third tiebreaker, goals scored.
Yet four games without a win has clouded the prospects of New England advancing very far if it does qualify. “Going into the playoffs, it’s not necessarily how you’ve done in your last five games, but your last game, how are you doing?” said defender Andrew Farrell told revolutionsoccer.net. “You want to get that momentum going. “It’s a really important game for us. We’ve got to take care of business.”
For the past month, the Revs have seldom resembled the 2014 version that won nine of its last 11 regular-season games, and in the playoffs crushed Columbus (7-3 aggregate) and edged the Red Bulls (4-3) en route to the final, which they lost to the Galaxy, 2-1. They disappointed a record crowd of 42,947 at Gillette Stadium last weekend in a 1-0 defeat that instead secured a playoff spot for visiting Montreal.
After capturing the 2013 crown at Sporting Park in a penalty-kick shootout against Real Salt Lake, SKC struggled last year and scraped into the playoffs as the lowest-seeded Eastern Conference team. It lost in the knockout round to the Red Bulls, 2-1, yet much of the troubles were blamed on post-World Cup fatigue that affected Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, and the unsettled goalkeeping situation that followed the retirement of Jimmy Nielsen.
How it would fare in the tougher Western Conference raised some concerns. Chilean international keeper Luis Marin was brought in to solve that problem, and the return of midfielder Roger Espinoza bolstered what was already believed to be one of the team’s strong points.
Marin didn’t work out but former pool goalie Tim Melia jumped in with a string of strong games that temporarily righted the ship. As late as August, SKC boasted the best points-per-game average in MLS and once it caught up with the rest of the league in games played, so went the theory, it would probably cement a spot sooner rather than later.
Instead, a discouraging 2-0 home loss to last-place Colorado -- SKC’s seventh defeat in the last 11 matches -- has fans fearing a repeat of 2014 and early elimination even if it does get in. If it doesn’t reach the postseason, the post-mortems will be all that more intense.
A Zusi shot hit the crossbar and Krisztian Nemeth sent a close-range volley over the top on a bitterly disappointing night at Sporting Park that ratcheted up the stakes for Sunday. And guess who SKC gets for the biggest game of the season? The Galaxy, which last week suffered a 5-2 thrashing at StubHub Center inflicted by Portland. And LA has something at stake as well. It is in second place, but as many four teams could pass it in the standings -- including SKC -- if they win and LA loses.
That’s right: The Galaxy could drop all the way to sixth, so it’s not likely head coach Bruce Arena will rest too many of his starters as he’s done a few times in the past on the final day of play. He used a lot of backups in a 1-1 tie in Guatemala with Comunicaciones that closed out its group play in the Concacaf Champions League.
So tight is the middle of the Western Conference that SKC can finish as high as third if it wins and several other teams lose. It could squeak in with a tie even if the pursuing Quakes win if Seattle, a point ahead in fifth place, loses at home to Real Salt Lake.
Two straight home defeats eliminated RSL, but the contrarian characteristics of MLS at this stage of the season could befall the Sounders as much as SKC or any other team. The Quakes have been a playoff longshot for much of the season and a season-ending road game at conference champion FC Dallas does them no favors, so they are playing with house money.
All the other teams on the bubble, however, will face an excruciating inquest if they fall short. Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid might get the boot if Seattle doesn't reach the final; choking at home in the season finale would trigger a major upheaval.
SKC head coach Peter Vermes isn't under the same pressure as Schmid but a desperate playoff scrap wasn't forecast for SKC back in March. Yet that's how the season has unfolded. After stubbing its toes at home against the conference bottom-feeder, SKC knows that Sunday is the first step to redemption.
“I expect us to play well,” said centerback and captain Besler. “I think everybody is disappointed with how [the loss to Colorado] went. We have enough guys that have been around long enough where we have to come out on Sunday with more energy and more urgency.
“We can talk about it all we want, but at this time of the year it's all wasted energy. There's one game left, so it's do or die right now.”