Shaken And Stirred: The Muddled MLS Playoff Cocktail

This piece contributed by John Nyen.

It’s all to play for at the end of the season.

Deride the league and the format for the MLS play-offs as much as you want, but the fact remains that with five to seven matches left for most teams, there are still 13 teams trying to climb over one-another to make the playoffs with only one, the mightly 2002-USMNT-Los Angeles Galaxy, having clinched. The MLS may not have a relegation battle but to those eight teams battling for the four positions, and accompanying playoff revenue bounty, in the wild card portion of the league this is very much do or die time.

A refresher….

"I root for two teams. The Los Angeles Galaxy and whoever is playing Seattle....oh and not a foul against Rosales...."

Clinched – LA Galaxy

Not Clinched – Everyone except the Whitecaps

Mathematically out…uh almostWhitecaps (The Whitecaps look like a team out of this past Saturday when they treated HDC as the local pick-up game and allowed the Galaxy waltz where they may en route to a 3-0 win. With six games left for the expansion club, they’ll basically need to run the table with the top teams losing to have a shot. Goodnight sleepy Vancouver, may Omar Salgado make bionic strikeds in the offseason)


In the next month and a half we will have numerous upsets, improbable draws, wins and as much controversy as you can stomach, all of which will have an impact on the playoffs. In the thick of this particularly fun part of torture lie the wild card teams and the Eastern Conference teams.

Here are the way things stand right now heading into next weekend:

Teams that have to be worried but are currently in the play-offs – points currently:

Philadelphia Union – 39 (games played 29)

Houston Dynamo – 39 (games played 30)

New York Red Bulls – 36 (games played 28)

Teams that are chasing:

Portland Timbers – 36 (28 games played)

DC United – 34 (*26 games played)

CD Chivas USA – 31 (29 games played)

The Fire and Earthquakes are perilously close to the edge....

Teams almost out:

Chicago Fire – 30 (28 games played)

San Jose Earthquakes – 29 (28 games played)

Of course there is another wrinkle in the playoff picture, that of the “qualify because of position in the conference” kind. That particular issue actually effects ALL of the members in the “teams that have to be worried but are currently in the playoffs” section directly. For example:

Currently Philly are in the #3 hole in the East, but only barely because of tiebreakers.

Hot on their heals are the NYRB who went on the road to feel loved and knocked off Dallas this past weekend 1-0 and the Houston Dynamo who went they want to feel love recoil to their home lair as they did in putting down the Earthquakes 2-1 on Saturday.


It is very easy to get all twirly-whirly over all the information overload and get to the point of not understanding, but know this… All the above teams next home games are must wins and all of them need at least a point on the road.

So how do we differentiate to try to predict who is going to the play-offs? Well let’s try to break that down…

Let’s look at the following table:

As it stands...

(For abbreviation sake GAPT stands for Games Against Playoff Teams, and when I say Playoff Teams, I mean these seven teams right here that would directly impact any teams playoff chances, IE if Union play NYRB.)

So, from our initial look at numbers we can see a few things.

Buckle your seatbelts United fans, the ride without Pontius jut got a little rougher....

#* We’ve dropped Chivas USA, the Chicago Fire and San Jose from our review. There’s essentially three spots up for grabs amongst five teams. DC United’s got some room to play with although that Chris Pontius injury looks to be at the worst possible time for them now. More on that in a minute…

#1 Houston only has four games left in which to obtain points with half on the road. With a road record of 0 – 6 – 2, if numbers pan out and Houston wins all their home games and ties their road games they would be at 47 points, the point total that got you in last year was 46. One problem is that just like San Jose they only have two more games against the above teams–so they’re not playing musical chairs in the right circle so to speak.

#2 Philadelphia appears to have things in hand, with 6 games left, 2 home games, 4 road games and 2 Games against play-off teams, they should be able to push their way into the play-offs. Their away record is 3 – 6 – 4 and they have only lost once at home. If they win their remaining home games–they closed the door on Columbus this weekend–that already puts them at 45 points, needing only a few ties or one win on the road to pass Houston. Bank on that happening. They just have more firepower.

#3 NY Red Bulls are listless, un-motivated, and needing a spark… according to press and some fans. However mind boggling it is that Thierry and company wouldn’t make it into the playoffs, their current form of T-L-T-T-T-W is not very inspiring. If you add in the fact that they only play two more games against the 7 collected here… well…

Will P-Town ride the Perlaza Megabus to a 1st year playoff birth?

#4 Portland has the same number of points as NYRB having played the same amount of games. With horrid road form only eclipsed by Houstons inability to win on the road at all this year, Portland HAS to take advantage of their home games in full. Portland’s one advantage over New York is that four of their seven games left are against these seven teams with New York and DC being the two that they play on the road. At the beginning of the year, raise your hand–don’t be shy–if you had a New York-Portland as major showdown at the end of the season. Moving on…

#5 DC United has quite a few games in hand and those two extra games are at home. In theory this should be to their advantage. The odd thing is that DC had played better on the road than at home this year, until they ran into a reaper named Seattle this weekend.

They’ve now got a a 5 – 5 – 4 record on the road, but just 3 wins at home. With the ability to play two more games than any of the above teams that is an extra six points waiting to be taken, but the home results must get better. DC’s current form shows that they were on the upswing but the loss of Pontius for the season collapses much of their offensive game so a rather porous defense needs to be stout at home to make it to the dance. I don’t see it happening. Do you?


So if we start boiling things down we have to look at 3 playoff spots for 7 teams (providing that Colorado doesn’t completely slip up for some reason).


The Eastern conference third place will decide one of the three spots, with that being battled between Houston, Philadelphia, DC, and the Red Bulls. The thing is that one of these teams is going to implode at some point. I’m picking that team as the Red Bulls. Their final run of games is pretty brutal, with them playing Dallas, RSL, the Union, LA, and Sporting in KC. Although if you look at Houston, the Union and the DC’s schedule, realistically none of them have easy games left. So that leaves DC… right? Well they DO have games in hand, they COULD make up points, but it remains to be seen how they cope with losing Pontius.

Their Seattle “statement of intent” this weekend fizzled the most recent debt plan.

A big game could come at home against Portland in the rescheduled game on Wednesday before the final game of the regular season.

Of course DC’s benefit of having games comes with the downside having quite a few of them quickly. They have five games in October with four of the games in the last two weeks going… Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday. Three of these four are at home, so as I said above, they will need to fix their home record to make it in.

The last two positions are a complete and utter coin toss.

Out of the teams that we have left (Houston, Philadelphia, NYRB, Portland, okay and Chivas) Houston and Portland have the best home records.

I tend to think that Philadelphia will pull out of their Tailspin, and Rescue Ranger their way to the 3rd spot in the East, based on good home and not terrible away form. They got healthy at least temporarily against the front-running Crew this weekend.

If they win out at home that puts Houston at 45 points and Portland at 42 points. So it will come down to Portland’s 1 – 8 – 4 away record vs Houston’s 0 – 6 – 9 record. If we take into account that Houston plays Portland IN Portland then that may be a very big decider right there.

Big match-up right there between John Spencer and his mentor Dom Kinnear, not to mention all the players that have been interchanged. The MLS–yes even with the Seattle Grungefest–may not get better than this one all season.

And THAT is the reason why the MLS is great around this time is year….

Are there too many teams in the playoffs? Probably, but it does make it exciting for now.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dth on 2011/09/19 at 1:52 PM

    One of the interesting things this season is despite the suspicions that the regular season would be watered down, the intensity in many of these games is ramped WELL up. Can only be a good thing in the short term.


  2. Nice Disney Afternoon reference.


    • Phew!

      Next time I am working in a Darkwing Duck reference.

      you know…. for the kids.


      • Posted by timlandrum on 2011/09/19 at 9:02 PM

        Kenny Cooper could stand in for Launchpad McQuack.

        I’m pulling for Portland to make the playoffs. The post-season needs teams that can fill their stadium. It was majorly disappointing a couple years ago to see Columbus playing in Crew Stadium with at least a third of the seats empty.


        • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/09/19 at 10:02 PM

          I consider right this moment that TSG “has made it.”

          A successful use of Launchpad McQuack.


  3. Posted by Kevin on 2011/09/19 at 6:55 PM

    Well if this was a poll I’d vote for Houston, but if it was a bet I’d go with Philly for that third spot in the east. Possibly an overlooked fact is that out of the 3 away games left for Houston one is against Dallas. An argument could be made that the game against Dallas is pretty much a home game. Regardless I can’t see the dynamo showing as little interest in that game as they have in other away games


  4. I think as time goes on, the supporter’s shield will start meaning as much and/or more as the MLS cup. Tough to imagine it won’t.


  5. […] Shin Guardian offers up a wonderful breakdown of the current MLS playoff picture. They expect the Union to get in, but only if they keep winning at home and grab a point or two on […]


  6. Posted by Geess on 2011/09/20 at 7:05 AM

    Philly has only played 28 games. Still has to play KC, DC, Chivas, Seattle, Toronto and NY


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