by Dan Barkley
The MLS playoff picture is taking a different shape than expected.
Let's flash back to around the midway point of the season. Back then the Galaxy were running away with the league, almost ten points ahead of the rest of the pack (although they were already slowing down). FC Dallas had recovered from their early season funk, but looked like a borderline playoff squad. Toronto looked to be in a good spot for the playoffs, while Seattle looked to be out.
In fewer then two months, the field has shifted dramatically. Not just in the teams likely to make the playoffs, but the changes in the playoff seeding for some teams will have broad implications as well.
We'll begin in the West, which is where all the excitement is anyway. The Galaxy have continued their precipitous fall from the top, the Crew have now them tied for the Supporters Shield, Real Salt Lake is one point back, and Dallas four back with a game in hand. Just two weeks ago, I assumed the Galaxy and RSL would be fighting it out for the first seed in the West, as I expect the home field advantage in the conference finals will be a huge priority, especially considering RSL's impressive run at Rio Tinto. However, Dallas has been the hottest of the three teams, and is a real threat to overtake both clubs and claim the top seed. And, depressing attendance aside, Dallas has played as well at home as LA. So we have a three horse race for the top spot, and the other two sides will have to face off in what should be a very exciting first round match up. Although they finish the season with away games with the Galaxy and RSL, I think Dallas still has the easiest road the rest of the way and will claim the top spot (and the Supporter's Shield).
Yes, after that awful, uninspiring start of four draws and a loss, I'm predicting Dallas finishes on top. I'm as surprised with my pick as anyone.
However, neither of the other two teams seem like they will keep up. I do think that LA will pick up their form soon, but not enough to keep up with Dallas. And RSL's four remaining CCL games will tax them, enough to drop them off the top spot. If it does fall this way, an LA – RSL first round match up will be a lot of fun.
In the East, the top two spots seem like they've been set since May. The Crew have seven points on NYRB, almost insurmountable at this point. However, with the Open Cup Final and four CCL matches, I don't see the Crew hanging on for the Supporters Shield.
There are about seven teams with a chance at the four 'wildcard' spots. Whoever comes out last in the LA/RSL/Dallas will grab the first one, after that, the order is anyone's guess. The Rapids are on top of the rest in points, but have a bit of a meat-grinder of a schedule to finish, with four of their seven matches against that LA/RSL/Dallas trifecta. Comparatively, the Earthquakes schedule is pretty soft, and they'll probably come in for that second spot. I still think the Rapids will make the playoffs, leaving the Sounders, Fire, Wizards and Toronto to fight it out for the last spot. The Fire seem to be the only team with a real shot at catching Seattle, but with three games in hand it's difficult to predict either way.
And to review, my current predictions, which no doubt will make me look foolish in a month:
West automatic qualifiers:
1.FC Dallas (Supporter's Shield)
2.Real Salt Lake
East automatic qualifiers:
2.New York Red Bulls
2.San Jose Earthquakes
First team out:
1. Chicago Fire