Since the beginning of Major League Soccer's existence, the league has been faced with criticism for a playoff structure that saw all but a few teams make the playoffs. In years when eight teams would qualify out of a field of 10 or 12, teams that had endured awful regular seasons could still sneak into the playoffs and potentially win an MLS title (like the 2005 Los Angeles Galaxy).
Expansion has helped ease the problem, and the arrival of a strong expansion Seattle Sounders team has helped turn the 2009 playoff race into the toughest in league history, with six teams heading into the final weekend battling for two remaining playoff spots. Four of those teams (Toronto FC, New England, D.C. United and FC Dallas) have the same point total going into the last game.
The Chicago Fire clinched the sixth playoff spot Thursday night with its 1-0 victory against Chivas USA, a win that helped the Fire secure the No. 2 seed in the East playoffs.
Whether the East has any more playoff teams aside from Chicago and reigning MLS Cup champion Columbus will be determined this weekend, with the Western Conference having a chance to potentially place an unprecedented six teams in the playoffs.
More than playoff berths are on the line this weekend. A handful of coaches could have their employment fates determined by the weekend's results, with Toronto FC's Chris Cummins, D.C. United's Tom Soehn and Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis being in serious danger of losing their coaching jobs if their teams don't qualify for the playoffs.
Here is a closer look at the games that will ultimately determine which eight teams will battle for the 2009 MLS Cup title.
Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls. The final soccer game to be played at Giants Stadium could have even more historical significance if Toronto FC can win and secure the first playoff berth in the team's three-year history. Toronto added Designated Player signing midfielder Julian de Guzman to help get the club over the top, and a win Saturday would accomplish that as long as Colorado or FC Dallas fails to win. A tie would be enough to get TFC in as well if Colorado ties RSL or if FC Dallas loses.
Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake. The only one of the six playoff contenders that controls its own fate, the Rapids once had a strong grip on a playoff spot before a six-match winless skid. Now the Rapids are on the ropes, and Gary Smith's team must beat a Real Salt Lake team with its own slim playoff hopes. Winning at Rio Tinto Stadium won't be easy for a Colorado squad that hasn't won on the road in eight matches, a drought that goes back to May. RSL needs a win and multiple results to fall its way to have any chance of a playoff berth.
FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders. The hottest team in MLS will try to win its sixth of seven matches, but will be facing a Seattle team with an outside chance of grabbing the No. 1 seed in the West. Jeff Cunningham has been the most unstoppable force in the league over the past two months and will look to put the finishing touches on his MVP credentials with a big game at Qwest Field. FC Dallas is in with a win if two of the following teams fail to win: New England, D.C. United or Colorado. FC Dallas holds tiebreaker advantages against New England and Toronto FC.
D.C. United at Kansas City Wizards. D.C. United has had worse seasons as a club, but there may have never been a more frustrating campaign in the club's illustrious history than 2009, with inconsistent results and underperforming veterans turning a once-promising season into a year that could end miserably. D.C. needs a win and needs two of the following three teams to fail to win: Toronto FC, New England or Colorado. Anything less than that and D.C. will miss the playoffs again, which will very likely set up an offseason of major turnover for a club five years removed from having won the last of its four MLS Cup titles.
New England Revolution at Columbus Crew. Last year's MLS regular season ended with D.C. United trying and failing to win in Columbus against a Crew team that had nothing to play for. New England will try to avoid that same fate, though it could already be eliminated by the time these teams meet Sunday. The Revs' reign as the top team in the East seems so long ago, and an uncertain offseason awaits if the Revs can't qualify for the postseason. With just one win in eight matches, New England doesn't look like a team that would do much even if it qualifies. That said, New England also makes the playoffs with a win if Colorado or Toronto FC fails to win.
New England vs. Columbus
6 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.