SEATTLE - MAY 01: Head coach Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders FC (R) talks with head coach Robert Warzycha of the Columbus Crew prior to the game on May 1, 2010 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

As the MLS regular season enters its final fortnight, the top eight teams in the current league table are virtually assured qualification to the post-season MLS Cup tournament. The bottom three of those eight — Seattle Sounders FC, the Colorado Rapids, and the San Jose Earthquakes — now face an interesting choice as to where they target their playoff seedings.

Since all three clubs are members of the Western Conference, and the rules dictate that the playoff bracket include four teams from each conference, the bottom two finishers of the regular season will be moved over to the Eastern Conference playoffs and face either the New York Red Bulls or the Columbus Crew. The third is left with a very difficult draw as they must challenge the top seed in the West.

Yes, for the sake of this discussion I am discounting the chance that the three next playoff hopefuls have of qualifying. Seriously, only the Kansas City Wizards have a chance to sneak into the top eight, and their current form does not suggest such an outcome. The Chicago Fire and Toronto FC are simply waiting for the official announcement that their season is done. The limb on which I sit with these predictions is in no danger of breaking.

In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas will spend their remaining games fighting for the top seed in the West, and possibly the top of the table Supporters Shield award. The Galaxy, by virtue of their victory against Philadelphia, have the inside track on that honor, but RSL still strikes me as the best team running in MLS right now. No slight on Dallas, and their soon to be MLS record unbeaten streak, but Jason Kreis has his team poised to storm the playoffs and defend their MLS Cup in Toronto November 21st. The question of whether LA or RSL finish first or second in the conference — with FC Dallas third — remains the only uncertainty at the top of the West.

So which team finishes fourth in the West? More importantly, does any of the three teams really want to finish in fourth and have to face one of Salt Lake and Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs, with another tricky away match for the conference crown in the small chance that they should advance? Because of the MLS playoff format there is an easier way to postseason success. For Seattle, Colorado, and San Jose, the path to the MLS Cup final looks much more inviting over in the East.

02 August 2009: Earthquakes' coach Frank Yallop argues with a sideline referee about a bad call during the second half of the game at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Earthquakes defeated Sounders FC, 4-0. Photo via Newscom

It took all summer and into fall, but the Red Bulls have finally caught and passed the Crew at the top of the Eastern Conference. Factor in the high-priced player signings made available to New York head coach Hans Backe, and the apparent effect of schedule congestion for Columbus, and that flip-flop in the standings at the top of the East is no surprise to anyone. In fact, New York is riding a nice 5-2-1 record over their last eight MLS matches, while Columbus has struggled to a 2-4-2 record in all competitions over that same period. The Red Bulls appear to be a fairly tough post-season opponent for a Western Conference wildcard, but the Crew seem vulnerable to a first round upset. Supporting that assertion is the fact that Columbus have the worst record of all eight playoff eligible teams over the past 8 weeks — not a mark you want to have going into the postseason.

So back to the West and those three teams at the bottom of the playoff standings jockeying for their seedings. As it stands today, the team that finishes fifth in the West would be assigned the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and a likely opponent in Columbus. Clearly, if you are the Quakes, the Sounders, or the Rapids, getting the opportunity to face the fading Crew in the first round must be very enticing.

Seattle is playing out of their minds over their last twelve league matches, gaining 27 points out a possible 36 — a fabulous 75% conversion rate. They tied the Crew earlier this season at Qwest Field, but then went into Crew Stadium in September and dismantled the two-time defending Supporters Shield winners 4-0. Tack on an impressive 2-1 victory this week over Columbus to capture the 2010 U.S. Open Cup championship, and it is clear that coach Sigi Schmid has his former club’s number this season. The Sounders are riding high right now, and sitting fourth in the West, but they might want to consider easing off on the gas in order to slide down into the fifth position and earn a first round playoff date with the Crew.

Crazy talk, you say? Why would a team want to risk disrupting their winning momentum with a late season tank-job? I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the Sounders purposely throw a game or two as the season winds to a close, but I bet the idea has occurred to the powers to do such a thing since a deep playoff run may be easier in the East.

The San Jose Earthquakes have also matched up well with the Crew this season — with both match-ups home and away resulting in draws. Crew Stadium has been a friendly place for the Quakes on the road, and they have earned a 1-1-1 record over the last three seasons. The scoreless draw between the clubs this last weekend revealed the blueprint for how San Jose can compete with the men in yellow. Good shape defensively, tight marking on Guillermo Barros Schelotto, disrupting runs on the wings, and physical challenges on set-pieces in the attacking third. The Quakes have proven all season, especially in road matches, that they are more than capable of administering such a tactical plan against a seemingly superior opponent. Throw in the late season ascension of striker Eduardo and designated player Geovanni, along with team scoring leader Chris Wondolowski, and San Jose has the offensive pieces to back up their solid defense and goalkeeping.

COLUMBUS, OH - AUGUST 21: Head coach Robert Warzycha of the Columbus Crew shakes hands with Head coach Gary Smith of the Colorado Rapids before their game on August 21, 2010 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The Colorado Rapids have been the least successful of the three clubs competing for the fifth spot in the West against Columbus in recent seasons. However, given the choice of a match-up with the Crew versus one with either the Galaxy or RSL — true also for Seattle and San Jose, of course — the wildcard into the East must looks very attractive to the Claret and Blue. Barring a late season renaissance by Columbus, New York looks like the only team in the East that matters.

Jim Morrison’s lyrics ring true for the 2010 MLS regular season — “The west is the best” — and the playoff match-ups in the Western Conference bracket will be very difficult. But that won’t matter to two of the conference postseason participants at the conclusion of the upcoming fortnight; they’ll happily be heading cross country for some playoff soccer. And for one lucky team, they’ll have a chance to feast on the reeling Columbus Crew.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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