MLS playoff hunt goes down to the wire
If Major League Soccer is searching for another marketing opportunity (and with David Beckham apparently heading to AC Milan on loan, they just might), the league ought to consider finding a sponsor for the final weekend of the regular season, because for the seventh year in a row, the MLS playoff race is going down to the final weekend.
Think of the possibilities: The Pepcid Push for the Playoffs, or the Maalox March to the Postseason. OK, perhaps not, but with five teams still competing for three postseason berths, fans of those sides will need to keep a vat of antacid tablets nearby. Then again, given the myriad possibilities, a supercomputer or two will come in handy, as well. So with some serious gigahertz at the ready, here's the breakdown of who needs to do what.
The Wizards are blessed with a clear mission: Win and they're in. The only problem is that Kansas City will need to travel to New England to get such a result, and let's just say that their road record of 1-8-5 -- which is tied for worst in the league -- inspires about as much confidence as the S&P 500. Worse, they'll be taking on a Revolution side that may still be playing for home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, depending on how Chicago does on Thursday against New York.
If Kansas City doesn't win, then it's time to break out the HAL 9000. There are even two scenarios in which a migraine-inducing three-way tie for the two wild-card spots could occur. The first involves the Wizards and Red Bulls tying, with D.C. United winning. The second occurs if Kansas City, New York and Real Salt Lake all lose. Fortunately for the Wizards, they own all of the tiebreakers in these scenarios based on head-to-head-to-head competition.
K.C. also owns the advantage in individual matchups against New York and Real Salt Lake. The tiebreaker against D.C. United is a bit more complicated. Since both teams split the season series, it would currently go to the Wizards based on a three-goal edge in overall goal difference, but that is subject to change based on this weekend's results. If the unthinkable happens, and Kansas City ties while D.C. wins by three goals, then it goes down to total goals scored, and United has the edge.
The result of all this is that a tie likely will be enough for Curt Onalfo's side, and a loss against the Revs might not be fatal.
The Red Bulls also control their own destiny. A win at Chicago on Thursday will put them in the postseason and allow head coach Juan Carlos Osorio to match Bruce Arena's modest feat from last year. But New York's road haul of nine points this season is only one better than Kansas City, and they'll need to fashion some kind of result against a team whose fans would love nothing better than to dump the Red Bulls and former boss Osorio out of the playoff race. Not an easy task for New York, especially since Chicago is still gunning for home-field advantage.
New York's tiebreaker edge against D.C. United is similar to that of Kansas City's. With the head-to-head record all even, goal difference from the entire slate of games will be used to determine the winner. At present the Red Bulls own a four-goal advantage over United. If New York ties while DCU wins by four goals, then it goes down to total goals scored in all games. Unless the Red Bulls and the Fire tie their match 7-7 (just a tad unlikely), United would get the edge here.
The Black-and-Red not only need to win, but they need help. While divine intervention might not be necessary, United's horrid road mark of just eight points all year means a little help from the soccer deities would be most welcome. If both Kansas City and New York win, United are out of the running, and head coach Tom Soehn will need to sharpen up his résumé. As far as tiebreakers are concerned, unless United can conjure up a blowout miracle at Crew Stadium on Sunday against Columbus, the Black-and-Red lose out to both Kansas City and New York.
As unlikely as that sounds, there are some factors, however minor, in United's favor. The Crew will be keen to avoid injuries prior to the playoffs, and while Columbus coach Sigi Schmid has said he'll field most of his first-choice lineup, the players who do take the field will probably be decked out in full body armor. Of course, if either New York or Kansas City loses, all United needs is a win by any margin. In any event, with D.C. playing on Sunday, it will have the benefit of knowing exactly what is required.
Real Salt Lake
Remember all the fuss over how the East was dominating the West earlier in the season? You can bet Real head coach Jason Kreis does, as RSL's poor head-to-head record against New York and Kansas City means that a wild-card spot is out of reach for Real. That means that unlike the endless permutations out East, RSL's path is mercifully simple. If Real garners at least a draw on the road against Colorado this weekend, they'll make the playoffs for the first time in their history. Otherwise, they'll end up watching the postseason at home for the fourth year running.
This team is tougher to kill than James Bond, Freddy Krueger and Rasputin combined. Left for dead numerous times during the season, a gritty 2-1 road win this past weekend over Chivas USA kept Colorado in the race. A similar result this coming weekend will see the Rapids leap over RSL and snag the final guaranteed spot in the West.
The Rapids are certainly capable of getting a win this weekend, but they'll need to shed the memory of last year's season finale against RSL, when Real beat Colorado at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and dumped the Rapids out of the playoff race.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.