Mad dash for final playoff spots continues
Lots of fans weaned on soccer beyond U.S. borders (and plenty of homegrown supporters, too) like to raise the occasional fuss about how Major League Soccer simply must adopt a promotion-relegation model.
Well they may as well wish for bottomless free ice cream while they're at it. It won't happen. The modern U.S. sports structure, braced strategically by TV contracts and pricey sponsorships, simply isn't set up that way.
But fret not, ye promotion-relegation advocates: This week, beginning Thursday, MLS delivers the closest thing possible to the tension-filled wonder of the relegation battle.
Playoff dreams will rise and fall dramatically for four teams still chasing two remaining playoff spots.
The postseason chase comes down to the final week, the 30th round of MLS regular-season play for this foursome. Seven matches remain following the odd-duck Monday nighter between Real Salt Lake and Houston, which closes out Round 29.
Here's the scorecard from the just-completed weekend: Six teams are in. All six had already qualified going into the weekend, so not much new there.
Five clubs went into the weekend with hopes alive; only Columbus was eliminated. Eddie Gaven's continued late-season surge and Guillermo Barros Schelotto's second-half introduction -- proving once again how dependent the team is on him -- helped the Crew beat New England on the road. Unfortunately for Columbus, Chicago earned a point in a draw with D.C. United, which eliminated the Crew.
So, Los Angeles, Chicago, Kansas City and Colorado remain eligible. The scenarios are complicated, but the bottom line is L.A., Chicago and Kansas City all control their own fates (which is possible because the Galaxy and Fire meet to close out the season). Fernando Clavijo's Rapids still need a little help. In fact, the Rapids were perched oh-so-precariously upon elimination on Sunday evening.
Chicago and Los Angeles have the best positions in terms of the dizzying myriad of potential tiebreakers.
That Colorado remains alive is just this side of shocking. The Rapids needed a win at the Home Depot Center against Chivas USA, which was bidding to become the second team in MLS history to go undefeated all year at home. Plus, the Rapids were without starting central midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Mehdi Ballouchy (both ejected last week in reckless moves that hurt their team).
So, needing a win to remain alive in the race, but down a man at the Home Depot Center following Brandon Prideaux's 46th-minute ejection, the Rapids somehow concocted two goals. Omar Cummings (who?) finished Conor Casey's big effort in stoppage time to provide Colorado the improbable 2-1 win.
It keeps the Rapids alive, but barely. They face Real Salt Lake at DSG Park outside Denver with a chance to finish at 38 points. That's the good news. But Clavijo's team needs help. Condensing several scenarios, the Rapids probably need Kansas City and L.A. to lose this week.
In one other potential scenario, the Rapids would need to defeat RSL by three goals. So, that one could get exciting.
Chicago has the best positioning overall. Juan Carlos Osorio's men have one match remaining, a potential dandy Sunday at Toyota Park against the resilient David Beckham-less Galaxy. That match closes out the MLS regular season.
If a battle for the lone remaining spot comes down to that contest -- and it well may -- the point Chicago just claimed in a 0-0 draw with D.C. United will be massive. Thanks to that point, a tie Sunday may be enough for the Fire, and there are even scenarios where Chicago can reach the playoffs with a loss Sunday.
It's quite possible that both the Fire and Galaxy earn postseason berths. That scenario is now real because Kansas City keeps sliding. Curt Onalfo's men started with such a flourish but are just 2-7-2 since July. That's only eight points from a possible 33, leaving the Wizards with one foot on the proverbial banana peel.
Kansas City's finale is at Pizza Hut Park against FC Dallas, and the Wizards may need a win. With a win, they clinch. A draw leaves then counting on a combination of results and perhaps even goal difference in other matches.
This marks the third consecutive season that the Wizards' playoff chase is coming down to the last day, and the club doesn't have good memories of the previous two. A tie at FC Dallas two years ago and a loss last year to Red Bull New York left the Wizards on the outside looking in. Kansas City has three wins in 14 road matches this year, so the odds of victory won't be great at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday night. (Although Dallas is assured of third place, so Steve Morrow's team has little incentive.)
That brings us to the Galaxy, which have won five in a row. Frank Yallop's team has 33 points, and there is a chance that four additional points could be enough to complete the amazing playoff dash.
Colorado's win Sunday has complicated that scenario. The Galaxy's best chance is to grab all six points still available. (FYI: That would mean the Galaxy finished on a seven-game winning streak. How rare is that? It hasn't happened in MLS since 1999.)
The Galaxy remained alive with a win over Toronto on Saturday, although it should have been easier against a depleted TFC side. The Galaxy hit the game-winner with a man-advantage for the third time during the streak, as referee Terry Vaughn ejected Toronto defender Marco Reda for grabbing Gavin Glinton as the Galaxy forward sped into the penalty area. It also meant a spot kick for the Galaxy, breaking open a tightly contested match.
Toronto was so shorthanded it had rookie defender Adam Braz was playing central midfield. Still, the Galaxy needed a 78th-minute game-winner.
"It wasn't the greatest of games, but I think at this point we know that we need three points, and we got three points," Yallop said. "That's all that matters, to be honest."
Indeed. Well, that and perhaps two more just like it. That quest begins Thursday as Red Bull New York visits the Home Depot Center, with increasing speculation that Beckham could stage a heroic return. If the Galaxy can beat Bruce Arena's side, which can't alter its playoff positioning either way, then the stage is set for the Toyota Park doozy on Sunday.
If the Galaxy win Thursday, then a tie would suffice on Sunday if Real Salt Lake ties Colorado or if FC Dallas beats Kansas City.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.