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Prematurely pressing the panic button: MLS Week 31

It's not quite time to press that orange button, Dynamo fans. Here's another look ahead.

Bob Levey - Getty Images

They say the dice have no memory, and that Fate is impartial. Watching the Dynamo's match last Saturday, I feel like we have sufficient evidence to argue otherwise. I'm not going to argue the call, but I will question the consistency of MLS referees - especially after the previous week, when Columbus was gifted a goal that was even more offside than the would-be match winner from Brian Ching.

While one missed call certainly has the chance to completely change the whole picture, it can't be blamed for everything (I'm looking at you, Atlanta Braves fans - as bad as that call was Friday, it wasn't the sole cause of your loss). So as worked up as we've all gotten over it, it's time to shove that aside and look ahead.

Last week, I gave you all a look at the big picture in the Eastern Conference, as well as a few halfway predictions for the way the matches would turn out. Based on last week, I've come to two conclusions: the conference is even thicker now than it was last week - even though the point spread between Kansas City and Columbus is the same - and that you probably shouldn't bet based on my predictions. Oh well.

The main thing to notice is that in one of my few correct predictions, Montreal was eliminated from playoff contention, even though they did manage to salvage a point from the match here in Houston. As we're in the middle of an international break that is probably welcomed by many teams, this edition of the Panic Button will look ahead to next week's matches. Here we go.

Safely in:

1. Sporting Kansas City

Record: 17-7-8
Points: 59
Matches played: 32
Next week: At New York, 10/20

After the frustration Saturday night, I'm sure legions of Dynamo fans tuned in to the Columbus-SKC match cheering for Kansas City to come away with a favorable result - which they did, as it took a stoppage time header from Eddie Gaven to salvage a home draw for Columbus.

I wasn't one of those watching (my stomach had had enough, between the Dynamo match and El Clásico), but I did keep an eye on the score - as I will this week. Kansas City travels to New York this Saturday, and a win by the top-ranked team would serve to shake up the standings even more - and after the match in New York last weekend (more on that later), anything looks possible.

As bad as my predictions turned out last week, I'm going to go ahead and make more. Kansas City is a strong road side, as they've shown. I think they'll get at least a point out of it. One point won't shake the standings as much as three, but it will keep them on top of the table heading into the final match of the regular season.

2. Chicago Fire

Record: 17-10-5
Points: 56
Matches played: 32
Next week: At New England, 10/20

I seem to remember saying that I thought that Chicago would get three or four points out of their two matches last week. I was right about that - they got three - but man, was I wrong about the distribution. On a Wednesday night in which they celebrated their fifteenth anniversary, they were trounced by a Philadelphia team that doesn't seem to care that they're playing teams that are ranked higher than they are; while the supposed headline match in New York fizzled into a relatively one-sided affair that the Fire won.
It's a trend I've noticed: team plays Philadelphia and they lose horribly. That's good for Philly, but woe to the team that has to face the loser next. Sometimes it just takes a little prodding, and Chicago got theirs and translated into a jump up the table and a playoff spot.
While a majority of the teams still in the hunt will be beating up on each other come next weekend, Chicago's match is in Foxboro against New England. The Revolution will be the next chance to test my above-mentioned theory, as their last match was a loss to Philadelphia. While there is a chance the Philly loss could galvanize New England as it did both Houston and Chicago earlier, the point remains that unlike the other two, the Revs don't have much to play for. I think Chicago gets at least a point here, though it would shock me to see them walk out of Foxboro with three.

In line for a spot:

3. D.C. United

Record: 16-10-6
Points: 54
Matches played: 32
Next week: Versus Columbus, 10/20

Never count on Toronto F.C. to hold a playoff team to a draw. They almost did it against D.C. United, but fell about four minutes short. While many Dynamo fans had followed this game in hopes of seeing D.C. falter, Hamdi Salihi turned the latest TFC miscue into three points, allowing D.C. to jump a spot in the table (they briefly held second place, at least until Chicago beat New York a few hours later).

I mentioned it last week, and I'll mention it again: the free fall that was supposed to happen once this team lost De Rosario has yet to materialize, and if you just go by their results so far, it looks as if it won't at all (at least during the regular season). Since losing De Rosario on 12 September, they're 4-0-1 - but numbers can be misleading. None of the teams D.C. United has played have been contenders - they've drwn against Portland and beaten New England, Toronto, and Philly, not to mention a Chivas team that has been outscored by Chris Wondolowski.

They have two matches left - and both are against contenders, starting with next Saturday's home match against Columbus. While I'd love to see D.C. get all three points and give the Dynamo a chance to put some space between themselves and the Crew, I think this is where you see the loss of a brilliant playmaker begin to hurt D.C. United - I doubt they get more than a point out of the match.

4. New York Red Bulls

Record: 15-9-8
Points: 53
Matches played: 32
Next week: Versus Kansas City, 10/20

All of the sudden, Red Bull Arena doesn't seem quite as formidable, does it? Two of their last three matches there have been victories for the road team, and it might have been three had the third team not been Toronto. New York's supporters were treated to another offensive show last Saturday - unfortunately, it was by Chicago's Sherjill MacDonald in a 2-0 Fire victory. In that loss, the Red Bulls showed how important points are in this playoff race - they didn't get a single one and managed to fall from second to forth in the table.

Next weekend won't be any easier for them, either. They're at home again, but it's against Eastern Conference leader Sporting Kansas City, one of the two teams that has managed to defeat New York in Red Bull Arena. While I do live by my oft-mentioned maxim that there's no such thing as an easy three points, I'm a lot less certain about this matchup than I would've been a month ago.

I've mentioned it again and again - Sporting Kansas City is a good road team. They nearly pulled the full three points out of Columbus, and I'd be shocked if they don't get another point here. I mentioned above that I feel that Kansas City will manage at least a draw, but the more I think about it, the more I'm willing to admit that it would not shock me to see New York drop one more at home.

5. Houston Dynamo

Record: 13-8-11
Points: 50
Matches played: 32
Next week: Versus Philadelphia, 10/20

Everybody take a few deep breaths. The Dynamo dodged a huge bullet last weekend. They needed a win against Montreal to stay in the driver's seat regarding their playoff destiny, and they only got a draw. For the record, yes, I'm angry about the Ching no-goal. Was it the right call? Looking back at replays, yes. It's a call that other teams have gotten that the Dynamo didn't - and that's what angered me about it.

But that's all in the past. The team got lucky - with Sporting Kansas City's draw in Columbus, the Dynamo remained in fifth place in the East. Another win next weekend would keep us in control of our own fate, so it's no stretch to call this next match a must-win. And while I'd normally point to the fact that we're one of the two teams still in contention not playing another contender next Saturday, I'm less than enthusiastic when I notice who the match is against.

Philadelphia. Again. The Union have lately been the bane of playoff contenders, and with three remaining matches (all against contenders), they'll have quite a say on who is left standing when the dust settles. The fact that this match is here at BBVA makes me a bit more hopeful than it would otherwise. There are points to be had here, and there are players who almost certainly want to atone for an abysmal performance last month. I think the last few matches have shaken the Dynamo into understanding the precarious position they find themselves in, and I hope that the results show that.

On the outside, looking in:

6. Columbus Crew

Record: 14-11-7
Points: 49
Matches played: 32
Next week: At D.C. United, 10/20

Columbus doesn't want to go away. Thanks to salvaging a single point against Kansas City, they're still right there behind the Dynamo, breathing down their necks like Brainy from Hey Arnold! As mentioned above, it took them a stoppage time header, but they did manage to hold Kansas City to a single point, even after falling behind thanks to a C.J. Sapong goal for SKC in the 10th minute.

If someone's going to complete my comparison and give Columbus that smack in the face that always ended Brainy's appearances, it will probably be the next team the play, D.C. United. As much as I like this to happen, I get the feeling that it won't, for reasons that I went in to above. For better or worse, Columbus's tenacity shows that they have as much of a claim to a playoff spot as any other team in the race. I think that Columbus will again pull out at least a point, keeping this race as tight as it is right now.

It used to be that you could get fifty points in a season and sit utterly assured of a place in the playoffs. That won't be so this season - with five teams already sitting at or above 50 points and a sixth sitting at 49, there will be a team that accumulates more than 50 points yet finds itself sitting at home come next month. Nobody said Fate was kind.

The trick for the Dynamo (and all the other teams) is to not be that team. Since they currently hold one of the playoff spots, their task is easy: win. Get points. As many points as possible. If they keep winning and getting points, they can't be knocked out of contention. But, as we saw last weekend, anything other than a win opens up possibilities. Failing to get points means relying on other teams to help you out, which seems like luck to me - and in my following of this team, luck has seemed to be something the Dynamo don't get that much.

The Dynamo should consider themselves lucky in this regard, though: neither of their remaining matches is against a playoff contender. I'm not saying that either Philadelphia or Colorado should be overlooked as easy (no such thing as a given three points, remember?), but I do feel better with that schedule than I would with say, D.C. United's.

Our position is not yet set in stone - and it won't be until after the final week. At this point, it's conceivable that the Dynamo could finish anywhere between second place (a long shot, but still conceivable) and sixth, depending on which way the pieces fall. While it would be nice to know that they don't have to deal with that play-in match, the only part of it the Dynamo can control is their own destiny. There's six points left to grab, and they need all of them.

You might have done so Saturday night or Sunday morning, but fear not: it's still not quite time to push that orange panic button yet. Thanks to a bit of luck, the only team the Dynamo need to rely on is themselves. And there's revenge up for grabs next week - and as much as we the fans would love to see Philly get drubbed, I'm sure the players want it even more. It will be another match à outrance - a battle to the utmost, with everything left out on the pitch. Hopefully by the end of it, we won't be rushing to press that button.