By Andrew Villegas
Take a second to look at the up-to-the-moment playoff standings for MLS. What strikes you?
If you’re anything like most people, it’s that the New York Red Bulls – is it wrong that I automatically think to add “machine” to the end of NYRB whenever I refer to them? – find themselves teetering precariously on the ledge of not making the playoffs. Disaster looms. NYRB not making the playoffs would be like the Galaxy not making the playoffs: No Thierry Henry, like no Landon Donovan, would mean legions would come out armed with “You spent how much money to miss the playoffs? The league MUST BE BROKEN.”
Or is what strikes you about the playoff table that dang near five teams from the Western Conference have as many points as the Eastern Conference-leading Columbus Crew? Real Salt Lake – fifth place in the West – has games in hand and resides one point below Columbus.
Great examples all, but along with those thoughts on the playoff race, thick with only 10 game weeks remaining, here are some other quick reactions on the MLS playoffs, who will end where and what we can expect from the rest of the season.
1. Goal Differential between the conferences: Western +24, Eastern -24. If there was ever the talk of a gulf between leagues, that’d surely be one of the first and most oft-referred to stats. But …
2. The West has 12 designated players (on seven teams), while the east has 11 (on only six teams). There’s little discrepancy in talent there to account for the goal differential, so what’s the difference? Seriously, I’ve wracked my brain. Maybe it’s just the underachieving NYRB coupled with the stinking goal diff for Toronto FC and New England Rev? Together Toronto and the Rev combine for a -36 goal diff. Ouch.
3. But, speaking of NYRB, how loud will the screams be to kick out Hans Backe if the Portland Timbers, who are currently tied with the NYRB for the last playoff spot but behind on goal differential, beat the behemoth for the last spot?
4. How sweet is that move from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference for the Houston Dynamo looking? In the East, they’re in third place and five points from the top, in the West, they’d be 6th, a wild card team and 16 points from the top.
5. Can D.C. United turn it around and shock a fair amount of people by grabbing a spot? They’ve played the fewest number of games in MLS and are one point back for the last playoff spot. Despite a tough trip to Columbus in early October, their remaining games are all completely winnable. Don’t be surprised to see them playing in November.
6. What happened to the San Jose Earthquakes? This is the team that shocked the NYRB in the first round of the playoffs last year, which in hindsight was not all that surprising. Now they’ve taken 26 points from 26 games? Chris Wondolowski has 9 goals in 22 games. Last year he had 18 from 28. Yep. That’ll do it.
7. The deal MLS has made with NBC has Commissioner Don Garber’s eyes big with the potential that it can bring more fans to the game. That said, dumping Fox Soccer for Versus (an NBC network that is available in more homes around America than Fox Soccer and is the network that will show the majority of 45 MLS games NBC has agreed to air) is undoubtedly a step up for the league in terms of reach, the spotlight of which will ultimately be the playoffs – next year.
September will also see a lot of pushing and shoving as teams try to settle their playoffs spots during matches with other playoff teams. Real Salt Lake play the Philly Union Saturday and Sporting KC plays LA Galaxy Monday, Sept. 5., before the Galaxy host the Colorado Rapids Sept. 9. That game weekend also sees RSL take on the Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia host the Portland Timbers. And that’s just the first 10 days of the month.
Finally, Here’s a question that should be on everyone’s mind: How will the MLS change the playoff format next year?
They seem to make a stupefying habit of changing the rules, seeding and format of the playoffs each year. And that certainly doesn’t quiet the cries from fans at smaller market teams that the playoffs benefit bigger market teams by giving teams like NYRB a chance at hoisting the cup, even if they’re in 10th place in the table. This year two more teams will make playoffs than will miss them.
So who do you think makes the playoffs in the end and how will they shake out? Here’s my take by conference and seed:
WEST: Seattle Sounders (1W), LA Galaxy (2W), FC Dallas (3W), Real Salt Lake (1 Wild Card), Colorado Rapids (2 Wild Card)
EAST: Columbus Crew (1E), Houston Dynamo (2E), New York Red Bulls (3E), Sporting Kansas City (3 Wild Card), Philadelphia Union (4 Wild Card)
Playoffs runs are so heavily based on form (COUGH, COUGH RAPIDS), that I can’t (won’t) venture a guess on who will win the MLS Cup, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. So let’s have it.