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San Jose slides into pole position for final playoff place as MLS races tighten

The San Jose Earthquakes are proving that there is a benefit to simply hanging around. Since Aug. 1, their record is a pedestrian 4-5-2. Yet thanks to FC Dallas' collapse -- which continued with a 4-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders on Sunday -- and Real Salt Lake's 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids, the Quakes have shoehorned their way into the sixth and final playoff spot going into the final weekend of the season.

The Earthquakes did so thanks to a 1-1 tie against the Vancouver Whitecaps, which was down mostly to goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell's spectacular showing and a moment of brilliance from Vako, who bagged a precious second-half equalizer. San Jose is level on points with Dallas, but is ahead on the total wins tiebreaker, and is one point ahead of RSL.

Among San Jose, Dallas and Real Salt Lake, RSL has looked the most like a playoff team lately. Since Aug. 1, RSL has been accumulating points at an average of 1.7 per game, good for sixth-best in the league. San Jose is tied for 11th with 1.27 points per game. Dallas has been abysmal, with a league-worst mark of 0.69.

Of course, it's the whole season that matters, and RSL will rue its missed opportunity on Sunday if the club misses out on the playoffs. Sure, as with most rivalries, records matter little when RSL plays the Rapids. But RSL's matchup was the only one among the three sixth-place contenders against a team lower in the standings. But RSL still couldn't get a result to create some breathing room between itself and its rivals.

Dallas' implosion is still breathtaking to behold, even though it's been going on for months now. This team seems to be reacting to everything rather than taking the initiative.

So now San Jose is in prime position -- despite a minus-22 goal differential that is tied for worst in the Western Conference -- and has a favorable home matchup next weekend versus Minnesota United. Meanwhile, Dallas hosts the LA Galaxy and RSL has a difficult tilt at home against Sporting Kansas City.

San Jose Earthquakes
After Sunday's draw vs. Vancouver, San Jose sits in the final playoff place in the Western Conference.

At the top of the West, matters are still ridiculously tight. Vancouver's draw means its lead atop the conference is down to two points thanks to the Portland Timbers' 4-0 victory over D.C. United, as well as the Seattle Sounders' win over Dallas. Portland is second over the Sounders on the total wins tiebreaker. Sporting KC slipped to fourth after its 0-0 draw with the Houston Dynamo -- a result that saw both teams clinch playoff places.

The drama has been drained out of the race for playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The six playoff teams are set, and only the final positioning has yet to be determined. In that regard, the Chicago Fire made the most headway thanks to their come-from-behind 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union. Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic netted a hat trick to give him the inside track on the Golden Boot with 24 goals, but the game also reinforced the importance of Fire midfielder David Accam.

Accam has been hobbled by a hip injury of late, but his entrance into the game at halftime proved instrumental, as he won the penalty that pulled Chicago even in the second half. He also was involved in the buildup to Nikolic's game winner. Since Michael de Leeuw is sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, Accam's contribution will be even more important come playoff time.

Columbus Crew SC also helped itself with a 1-0 win at Orlando City, spoiling Kaká's final home match with the Lions. Columbus' Federico Higuain remains the master of patience; he danced on the ball before laying on a defense-splitting pass for Hector Jimenez, whose low cross allowed Ola Kamara to finish from close range.

Those two results gained more importance due to New York City FC's 2-1 loss at New England. NYCFC's Jack Harrison was red-carded in the 26th minute. Heading into the final weekend, the Fire and the Crew trail NYCFC by one point and three points, respectively, so they can still catch the Citizens, with Columbus traveling to take NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, while the Fire travel to Houston.

Atlanta United remains in the hunt for second place after its thoroughly entertaining 0-0 tie with the New York Red Bulls. The teams traded great chances, though Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan's save from Bradley Wright-Philips had to be seen to be believed, as he denied the Englishman's close-range effort. Atlanta sits in fourth place, two points behind NYCFC. To finish second, Atlanta must win its season finale at home versus Toronto FC while also getting help from Houston and Columbus. Toronto celebrated its Supporters' Shield triumph with a 1-0 win Sunday over its Canadian rival, the Montreal Impact. As for the Red Bulls, their position is now fixed; they will finish sixth in the Eastern Conference regardless of the results next weekend.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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