Prematurely pressing the panic button: MLS Week 32

Bob Levey

The playoffs have been reached, and while the seeding is not yet set, that panic button is not needed.

Well, after Saturday's matches, it turns out this post may be a bit simpler than I thought it would be. Well, at least until it comes time to break down the seeding scenarios - we know which five teams will be representing the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, but the standings are still far from stable.

I guess that somewhere, we all knew that this would be how it played out. I give major props to the Columbus Crew for what they overcame en route to a late season surge that will end, at best, just one point shy of a spot. They ended up showing more resilience than probably any other team in the league, and their question now becomes one of translation - can their late season form carry over into next season, where they could contend once more? That remains to be seen.

For now, though, they fade into the background, their feel-good story now playing second fiddle to what promises to be a very eventful week for the Eastern Conference. With all ten of MLS's playoff teams known, the matches this week are solely for standings - and unlike the West, the East promises to be quite interesting. Even Philadelphia, long ago eliminated from contention, has a role to play - they have a match in hand against the conference, and will play both Kansas City and New York, with two more chances to shake up the standings.

You'll also notice that I've added two categories to the standings - as seeding is at stake, I have listed the first two tiebreakers used by Major League Soccer: goals for and goal differential (in that order). There are, of course, other tiebreakers, but the next is disciplinary points, which are as of this writing not current - due to review by MLS, they're generally not set until a few days after the matches.

The results that would lead to a certain finish are in italics, with tiebreakers explained afterward.

Standings:

1. Sporting Kansas City

Record: 17-7-9
Points: 60
Matches played: 33
Goals For: 40
Goal Differential: +14
Next week: Versus Philadelphia, 10/24

Though they only got a point against New York Saturday, that one point was enough to keep them on top of the standings heading into the final week of the season. Overall, it looks good for Sporting KC, as they're the only team that is assured a spot beyond the one match playoff between the fourth and fifth seeds.

The lowest KC can finish is second (loss, DC win) - I'm not going to bother making the tiebreaker conditional here; KC would have to single-handedly set a new league record for single match scoring to make up the deficit in goals that they have against DC United. Suffice it to say they need a win or a draw to end up on top.

Luckily for Kansas City, their last match is at home, though it is on a somewhat short turn-around (unlike the other four teams, they play Wednesday, not Saturday). And while DC United has to play at Chicago, KC gets Philadelphia - and I give Philly the same chance I'd give most teams at Livestrong, which is to say slim to none. I think Kansas City will get at least a point, and they'll get to sit back and figure out who they'll play.

2. D.C. United

Record: 17-10-6
Points: 57
Matches played: 33
Goals For: 52
Goal Differential: +10
Next week: At Chicago, 10/27

At this point in time, I'd like to say that I need to stop picking on DC United. Every time I pick on them, pointing out their notable absence (the injured Dwayne De Rosario), they seem to prove me wrong - the latest instance being a 3-2 home win against Columbus that led to the Crew being knocked from the playoffs when the Dynamo won their match about twenty minutes earlier.

All of the sudden, they're the one team with a chance to challenge Kansas City for the top spot in the East (win, KC loss), though it is a long shot, as they play at third place Chicago Saturday night.

Though they are the away team, their path is clearer - a single point cements them into second place, while they could fall as low as fourth (loss, New York win), as they have scored two goals less than the fourth place Red Bulls. It will be a hard-fought match, but I think they stand a good chance at getting at least the point that they need to stay in second.

3. Chicago Fire

Record: 17-11-5
Points: 56
Matches played: 33
Goals For: 45
Goal Differential: +5
Next week: Versus DC United, 10/27

On the flip side of New York is Chicago, the team that will host the Red Bulls on Saturday night. Out of the five teams here, Chicago is the team with the widest range of possibilities - they can finish anywhere from second place (win) to fifth (loss, New York and Houston wins).

In theory, the last part of that is moot - after all, Chicago plays at home, and they're coming off of a lackluster 1-0 loss at New England last Saturday that dropped them out of second place. It would seem that everything is aligning perfectly for the Fire to pick up three points and muscle their way back into second place.

All that being said, my mantra should be well known by now - there is no such thing as a given three points. I've mentioned it in every single Panic Button post to this point - DC United is a team without their best player. And yet, they've kept fighting. The loss of one of the greatest scorers in MLS hasn't stopped them yet, and I'm beginning to believe that there's a chance that it won't. The stars should be aligning for the Fire, but I think that DC leaves Chicago with at least a point.

4. New York Red Bulls

Record: 15-9-9
Points: 54
Matches played: 33
Goals For: 54
Goal Differential: +8
Next week: At Philadelphia, 10/27

I was right, wasn't I? Though New York was able to keep Kansas City from taking another three points away from Red Bull Arena, they weren't able to accomplish anything on their own, and had to settle for a scoreless draw that slowed them down just a bit.

And yet, all is not lost. The Red Bulls can finish anywhere between third (win, Chicago loss)and fifth (loss or draw, Houston win), and unlike the Fire, they face a team that is not playing for a postseason position. Unfortunately for them, however, that team is Philadelphia.

Though Philly has long been out of the race, they've enjoyed playing spoiler the last month or so - just ask Houston or Chicago. The flip side, however, is that they played a hard match in Houston last Saturday, and they have to travel to Kansas City on Wednesday before heading back to their own home park to close the season - so they might be tired. Still, I have a feeling that the Union will come out with an urge to show their home fans that they're not simply rolling over, and that at best, the Red Bulls will only be able to salvage a single point - a point that could be the difference between a winner take all match at home or away.

5. Houston Dynamo

Record: 14-8-11
Points: 53
Matches played: 33
Goals For: 48
Goal Differential: +9
Next week: At Colorado, 10/27

I'll be honest - I didn't think that the Dynamo would have clinched last week. Thankfully for what little remains of my sanity, however, a 3-1 win over the Union, coupled with DC's last minute heroics against Columbus, managed to prove me wrong - even at the expense of making the Eastern Conference race a fraction less interesting heading into the final week.

Though Houston has clinched a playoff spot, all is not said and done. As has been mentioned ad nauseum recently, the fourth and fifth seeds must battle in a one match playoff to decide who moves on to the conference semifinals. The Dynamo have a small chance to avoid this, however - they could finish as high as third (win, Chicago loss, New York draw or loss), or fourth (win, New York loss/win, New York win, Chicago loss) though they only control part of this.

Regardless of the chances of advancing in the standings, the Dynamo have a simple task: beat the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids have been out of the Western Conference playoff picture for a few weeks, but they are coming off of a win against Chivas USA, for whatever that's worth, and they are playing at home. With the Dynamo's road woes well noted, I get the feeling that this match will not be as easy is it could be, though I do see the Dynamo maintaining their momentum with a win and the three points that would come with it.

All of the above being said, here are the tiebreakers again, in a way that's perhaps easier to follow:

Points:
Kansas City: 60
DC United: 57
Chicago: 56
New York: 54
Houston: 54

Goals For:
New York: 54
DC United: 52
Houston: 48
Chicago: 45
Kansas City: 40

Goal Differential:
Kansas City: +14
DC United: +10
Houston: +9
New York: +8
Chicago: +5

While all this talk of numbers and tiebreakers is probably making your head spin (it does mine, too, at times), the Dynamo can keep it relatively simple: win. Get the three points, and let everything else fall as it may. Sure, they can pass up New York and/or Chicago, if the cards fall right - but all that the Dynamo can control is the outcome of their own match.

A loss or a draw against Colorado all but assures that the Dynamo will be in the playoff game, and that it will be on the road (even a draw and a New York loss would keep the Dynamo in fifth - the Red Bulls have scored four more goals). While the Dynamo could win their match and still end up in fifth place, a win does open up those other possibilities.

To add another level of interest and intrigue, every other match will be played before the Dynamo even kick off at Colorado. Kansas City-Philadelphia is on Wednesday at 7:30 Central; Philadelphia-New York is Saturday at 12:30 Central; and Chicago-DC United is Saturday at 3 Central. This means that by the time the Dynamo match starts at 8 Central, the scenarios will be known in full.

At that point, all they have to do is go out and win. No pressure, right? They've been in that situation for weeks already, and have gotten mixed results. That being said, they've accomplished the first goal on the road to another MLS Cup. They're in the playoffs, regardless of what happens. You can take your hand off of that panic button - at least until the weekend is done and everything else is known.

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