MLS Playoff Race All But Over

Tuesday, October 05, 2010 | View Comments
HARRISON, NJ - OCTOBER 02: Roger Espinoza  of the Kansas City Wizards challenges Dane Richards  of the New York Red Bulls for the ball on October 2, 2010 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

by Dan Barkley

With just over a month left in the season, the playoff race is essentially dead. The top eight teams have a stranglehold over those spots, although the seeding will probably shift with every game played here on out. For teams on the outside looking in, however, only three have even a mathematical shot at making the playoffs, the Wizards, Fire and Toronto FC. For the Fire and TFC, however, their chances are virtually nil, even if either won all of their remaining games, the Rapids and Earthquakes need only gain a point or two each to eliminate them both.

So only Kansas City's hopes have a pulse, and it is still pretty faint. They need to make up eight points on the Rapids or seven on the Earthquakes, with four games remaining (the Rapids only have three). They probably have the best shot at the 'Quakes as they face them in their season finale. Let's assume the Wizards win the finale, just to look at their chances. They would probably win a tie-breaker against San Jose, if they got that far, so we'll say they need to gain another four points in the remaining three games. But San Jose plays DC United, Chivas and the Dynamo to finish the season, if they picked up two wins, they've clinched. I won't say it can't happen, but it will take an amazing finish from the Wizards along with an epic collapse by one of the last three teams in (the top five have clinched).

All of this is a convenient introduction to another topic. With the introduction of expansion teams the past few seasons (and especially next season), playoff berths are becoming more and more scarce. Baring the possibility that the playoffs are expanded, which I'm sure is possible, but I will hope it doesn't happen, next season only 45% of MLS teams will make the playoffs. This creates quite a different
dynamic than the 80% in the early years, or even the 60% of three years ago. Now more teams will be facing seasons where their playoff hopes are gone before the final week or two, they may even be on life support by mid season. There will still be space for impressive runs, like the Sounders this year, but I think we will see more teams that know they are out of the race early on.

This could create an interesting effect, namely, teams putting focus into other competitions. I am optimistic that we will see teams put stronger teams (as well as marketing) towards the Open Cup, CCL and Superliga as they see their playoff hopes dwindle. Certainly the schedule will prevent some of this, as many of the USOC games are played long before anything is decided playoff-wise, but in the event that an USOC quarterfinalist, say, or a CCL participant is having a terrible league season, I hope that they will push their battle for a trophy harder as another avenue for a successful season.

I don't see huge changes overnight, as this year was another of empty USOC stadiums and mediocre crowds for the international competitions, but we did see some very encouraging signs. Thanks to the increased effort to market some of those games, the CCL being included in some teams ticket packages and the seemingly guaranteed USOC record crowd coming tonight, the teams with more robust fanbases seem ready to establish the other competitions as important and entertaining.

The next question becomes, how does a trophy from USOC, CCL or Superliga compare to a MLS playoff birth?
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