In MLS, we're used to talking about the Western Conference and it's host of "popular" teams vying for playoff positioning near the end of each season. In 2012, the tables have turned and the Eastern Conference is turning out to be full of powerhouse teams and what will be an exciting playoff race down the final stretch of the year.
As of today, nothing is certain in the East. Positions 1-6 are separated by a measly 9 points. It would be nice to tell you all the teams have the same amount of games to go, but with MLS' unstable scheduling ability, that's not the case. The Eastern Conference teams have between 5-8 games remaining and you better believe that will come into play with a couple of the positions.
The three teams I think will finish 1-3 are the teams sitting in those spots now - Sporting Kansas City, New York, and Houston. I don't, however, think they'll necessarily finish in that order. Between these club's remaining games, any of them could essentially win the East and capture the ever important home field advantage.
As for the 4-5 spots, well that's the most exciting race. Currently held by Chicago and Columbus - this fight could (and will probably) get interesting with D.C. United and Montreal within striking distance. Four teams will compete for two spots, then those two clubs will face each other in a one match "win or go home" playoff game. Talk about competition!
It's difficult to look down the road and predict specific results of all the upcoming games - there are too many unknown factors to consider. It is however, a great time to look at the Eastern Conference teams, the amount of games remaining, their "must win" opponents, and to make some bold predictions about their 2012 season.
Take a look inside the post and let me know your thoughts in the comments. Got a different opinion? Share it below and let's let the playoff talk start with just a few short weeks left of the 2012 MLS season.
Let's take a look at the schedule for each of the seven Eastern Conference playoff contenders - and since SKC are sitting atop the standings now, let's give them the repsect they dereve and start with them.
Sporting Kansas City (50 points, 15-7-5, 34 goals for)
Games remaining: 7 (3 home, 4 road)
Away games of note: at New York (twice), Montreal
Games against teams in playoff race: Houston, New York, Montreal, Chicago, Columbus, New York
Outlook: SKC is one of the best teams in the East. Sure they're capable of winning the East outright, but they will likely see some fight from all the playoff contenders they face. They'll face the Red Bulls twice in New Jersey, where they're yet to be defeated, and have to pick up points in Montreal, which is tough.
Prediction: 3rd place finish in East
New York Red Bulls (46 points, 13-7-7, 46 goals for)
Games remaining: 7 (5 home, 2 road)
Away games of note: both games vs sub par teams
Games against teams in playoff race: Columbus, SKC (twice), Chicago
Outlook: New York benefits from having a heavy home schedule to close out the season, where they're undefeated (9-3-0). I do think they will drop at least one game against SKC at their house, regardless it sets them up for nice positining in the East. I don't think Columbus or Chicago will be able to win in New Jersey, so because of scheduling the Red Bulls could be the favorite to take the conference.
Prediction: 1st place in East
Houston Dynamo (45 points, 12-7-9, 40 goals for)
Games remaining: 6 (3 home, 3 road)
Away games of note: at Sporting Kansas City
Games against teams in playoff race: SKC, Montreal
Outlook: Houston's biggest game will be this Friday at Sporting Kansas City. After that their biggest challenge will be how Dominic Kinnear handles their two CONCACAF Champions League games sandwiched in their final 6 games. If the Dynamo get the points they "should" get, they could even challenge for the top spot in the East. Between all the playoff contenders, Houston has one of the more favorable schedules for the final stretch.
Prediction: 2nd in East
Chicago Fire (44 points, 13-8-5, 35 goals for)
Games remaining: 8 (4 home, 4 road)
Away games of note: at Sporting Kansas City, New York
Games against teams in playoff race: Montreal, Columbus, SKC, New York, D.C. United
Outlook: The Fire have been in impressive form as of late and have rightfully found themselves in the middle of playoff talk. In addition to their recent form, they also have the most games remaining from the playoff contenders in the East. However, they'll go head to head with several of their playoff contenders and I'm not sure they will be able to keep pace. Visits to SKC and the Red Bulls will likely result in losses, so their 4 remaining home games could determine their fate.
Prediction: Sorry Fire fans, but I don't think they'll be enough wins to lock in a position.
Columbus Crew (42 points, 12-9-6, 33 goals for)
Games remaining: 7 (4 home, 3 road)
Away games of note: at New York, Chicago, D.C. United
Games against teams in playoff race: New York, Chicago, SKC, D.C. United
Outlook: One man has seemed to put Columbus in the spotlight - Federico Higuain. In just six games, Higuain has scored 3 goals and 6 assists, while leading the Crew to 4-1-1 record in that stretch. Columbus has their momentum in full swing as the final stretch approaches and will need Higuain to show up even more as they will play three road games against some of the East's most difficult opponents. Not sure if I'm completely on the bandwagon, but it came down to Crew or Fire for my final playoff spot and I can see the Crew edging their way into the final spot.
Prediction: 5th place in East
D.C. United (41 points, 12-10-5, 43 goals for)
Games remaining: 7 (3 home, 4 road)
Away games of note: Chicago
Games against teams in playoff race: Columbus, Chicago
Outlook: DCU was once the Eastern Conference leaders, but have quickly faded from being one of the leagues best. Their final games will see them face off with underachievers New England, Philadelphia, Chivas USA, Portland, and Toronto, which I think gives them a solid chance to seal a playoff spot. I'm not saying those clubs aren't capable of beating DCU, but I think they'll get enough points to get into the playoffs (right before quickly bowing out).
Prediction: 4th in East
Montreal Impact (39 points, 12-14-3, 43 goals for)
Games remaining: 5 (2 home, 3 road)
Away games of note: at Chicago, Houston
Games against teams in playoff race: Chicago, Sporting Kansas City, Houston
Outlook: Everyone in the East has games in hand on the Impact, which makes nearly all their final games "must wins." Unfortunately, they will have two of three road games against teams who rarely lose at home - Chicago and Houston. They'll host SKC, but they've proved very capable of winning on the road. So three of the last five games are probably losses or draws at best - and that will not be enough.
Prediction: Out of the playoff race - but respectable first season in MLS
It may be a bit early to call out the favorites for the East, but fun nonetheless to spark a bit of debate. How do you see the race going? Agree with my outlook above or think it's way off? Let me know below.