Portland, Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake, Seattle battle for three playoff spots
This season, the Decision Day drama will be focused entirely on the Western Conference.
OK, technically there is one playoff spot up for grabs in the East, with the New England Revolution still having a chance of catching the Philadelphia Union. But it's orders of magnitude worse than a Lloyd in "Dumb and Dumber" kind of chance. The Union would need to lose at home to the New York Red Bulls while the Revs would have to win at home against the Montreal Impact and since the two teams would then end up with the same number of victories (the first tiebreaker), the Revs would have to make up what is currently a 12-goal deficit in terms of goal differential. That ain't happening.
Granted, some jockeying of positions will take place Sunday with New York City FC and Toronto FC trying to finish second in the East and secure a first-round bye. D.C. United and the Impact will be attempting to grab home-field advantage in the knockout round. It will also be interesting to see what disciplinary action the Impact take against Didier Drogba for refusing to accept a substitute's role in last weekend's 2-2 tie against Toronto FC. Drogba is a legend, but that doesn't excuse his decision to walk out on his team before what at that point was the biggest game of the year.
All that said, the Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers have basically been decided. Fortunately, there is plenty of intrigue to be had in the West, where four teams -- Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers -- are vying for three spots. All four teams control their own destiny, and each team faces a scenario in which it could miss out on the postseason.
Of the four, Portland looks to have the toughest task. A team that hasn't won on the road all year will likely need to claim victory at Vancouver. A tie could conceivably be enough if Sporting Kansas City somehow manages to lose at home to already-eliminated San Jose, but a win will see the Timbers book their place. And they'll have to do it without two vital contributors in center back Liam Ridgewell and holding midfielder Diego Chara, both suspended because of yellow card accumulation. They'll also be coming off a must-win CONCACAF Champions League match against Saprissa in midweek. It makes for a tricky balancing act for coach Caleb Porter in terms of managing minutes, even if he can play Ridgewell and Chara with a clear conscience on Wednesday.
The game with the biggest impact will be RSL's away tilt against Seattle. A draw will be enough for Jeff Cassar's side to get through, but it's squeaky bum time along the Wasatch Front. RSL is in the throes of a six-game winless streak; it squandered a chance to wrap things up at home last weekend against SKC, able to muster up only a 0-0 draw. The match was the latest sign that RSL's attack has gone missing, with the team getting shut out four times over that span. The chances have been there but the finishing touch hasn't, and it's clear that Yura Movsisyan's injured heel is affecting his game. Expect RSL to try to keep things very tight in the back this weekend at CenturyLink Field.
Seattle, meanwhile, has claimed 13 of a possible 18 points from its past six games, though the sight of defender Chad Marshall leaving Sunday's game against FC Dallas early will give Sounders fans pause. Still, the onus will be on Seattle to carry the game to RSL, something the Sounders have become more adept at ever since Nicolas Lodeiro arrived in late July. Win and the Sounders are in. Anything less than that and Seattle will need to hope that both Kansas City and Portland don't go above it in the standings.
SKC's task looks the simplest. Sure, Kansas City has won once in its past six outings, including a pair of home draws. But that one victory was a 2-1 away win over the Quakes back on Sept. 24, which should provide a boost of confidence. It is one game, granted, but given how qualifying for the playoffs often defines success and failure, Kansas City will need to remain wary of an Earthquakes side that would like nothing better than to upend SKC's season. At least goalkeeper Tim Melia is in sparkling form.
Plenty of attention will be focused on the top of the Western Conference table, as well, as FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids play out their final act to see which team will claim the Supporters' Shield. Colorado's 1-0 defeat last weekend to Portland and Dallas' dramatic 2-1 over Seattle saw Dallas regain control of the Shield race; Oscar Pareja's side is now two points in front of Colorado. To claim the Shield, Colorado must defeat Houston while hoping Dallas loses at Los Angeles. The Rapids' match will not be a walkover. Colorado's style is such that it doesn't blow teams out, and Houston has made life tough on some playoff hopefuls in recent weeks, having taken points off Portland, RSL and Seattle.
The problem for Dallas is that it paid a heavy price for beating the Sounders. It's feared that playmaker Mauro Diaz, the man who makes FCD's attack go, will miss considerable time with what is feared to be an Achilles injury suffered late in Sunday's encounter. Kellyn Acosta also was injured in the match, although his hip injury appears to be less severe and he might still play a part in this weekend's game. Victor Ulloa should be able to deputize for Acosta in the center of midfield if it comes to that, but Diaz is irreplaceable, likely a mortal blow to FCD's MLS Cup hopes.
Dallas also has a midweek CCL assignment of its own against Suchitepequez down in Guatemala on Thursday. Manager Pareja has been magnificent in leading Dallas all season, but the upcoming matches will be his biggest tests yet.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.