Major League Soccer begins its All-Star break on Monday, but unlike some leagues, this star-studded hiatus does not bisect the regular season, but rather comes a full two-thirds of the way through the campaign. With as few as 11 matches remaining for some clubs in MLS, the 2015 MLS Playoffs are beginning to take shape.
With teams now facing the last portion of this year’s regular season, who’s all but punched their ticket for the postseason, and who on the outside might be poised to make a run at playoff qualification?
DC United command first place in the Eastern Conference with 38 points. The club in the nation’s capital are coming off a very convincing performance against Philadelphia Union, one in which Philly went up 2-0 in the first five minutes, but saw DC storm back to a 3-2 victory — precisely the kind of game you’d want heading into the break. With seven points separating United from their closest challengers, Columbus Crew, and a full nine points ahead of the third place New York Red Bulls, DC seem to be in full control of the East.
But looks can be deceiving.
Despite DC’s large lead up top, and despite their point total being tied with FC Dallas for best in MLS overall, some of the teams looking up at them have an advantage. Third place NYRB (29 points), and fourth place Toronto FC (28 points) have each only played 19 games, while DC has exhausted 23 of their fixtures. Even if NYRB drop points in the four fixtures they have to make up, they still have a lot of ground they can cover between now and the end of the year.
Even with one less point to their name, consider Toronto FC’s position. They have Sebastian Giovinco’s fantastic form — 13 goals and 10 assists, the only player in double figures in both categories — about to be reunited with the creativity and distribution of Michael Bradley, who’s returning from national team duties. Toronto looks to become even more dangerous after the All Star Break.
Despite their massive advantage at the moment, don’t expect DC to be shoo-ins for the East’s top seed come season’s end.
At the other end in the East, things are pretty tight. Vying for the sixth and final playoff position, there are three teams all sitting on 24 points apiece: NYCFC, Orlando SC, and Montreal Impact, with Montreal winning the tie-breaker. Tied on points with 9 more on offer than the other two clubs, the Impact have an undeniable numerical advantage.
And yet, at Yankee Stadium, there must be something of a feeling of inevitability. With Andrea Pirlo having only just this weekend made his debut for NYCFC, and with Frank Lampard — who missed much of the campaign playing with parent club Manchester City — hoping to return from injury in the coming weeks, things seem on the up.
With a midfield containing Lampard, Mix Diskerud and Pirlo feeding one of the greatest strikers of all time in David Villa, NYCFC certainly have goals in them — something they proved in their victory this weekend, thanks in part to David Villa’s brace. Look for NYCFC to surge, and Orlando to perhaps fall off the pace and battle Montreal for the East’s final playoff position.
Like DC United in the East, out West, FC Dallas head into the break sitting on 38 points after coming off a 4-1 victory over the Portland Timbers on Saturday. Their point advantage, however, is far slimmer. Dallas is only two points up on the No. 2 side, Vancouver, and a mere six points separate first from sixth place in the West. Furthermore, although they don’t have the game-in-hand disadvantage of DC (and, in fact, actually have one in hand over second place Vancouver), Dallas have been woefully inconsistent for some portions of this season.
Fans in Dallas will be quick to point out that over the last five MLS games, their club has not dropped a single point — that’s championship form. The question for the final third of this campaign is which Dallas we’ll see, the team that dominated June and July, or the team that fell to pieces so often in April and May. If their form continues, despite the tight race in the Western Conference, Dallas might just be untouchable.
While the Western Conference may not have a three-way tie on points for their final playoff spot, the Western race for that last ticket to the postseason is arguably even closer than the East. At the moment, the perennially fierce rival Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are tied on points at 32, with Seattle winning the tie-breaker for fifth, and Portland sitting sixth.
The Timbers are not in bad shape, but as has often been the case in recent history, their playoff hopes may come down to performances on the road, and so far, they’ve been pretty awful. Having lost just one game at home all season, Portland has struggled without the voices of the home crowd behind them, having lost seven of 11 matches on the road. In other words, despite the power of Providence Park, this final playoff spot is anyone’s to win.
But the toss-up that is the West’s final playoff spot is perhaps not as intriguing as its comparison to the table in the Eastern Conference. Consider this: the last place team in the West, Colorado, has the same point total as the final playoff position teams out East.
The disparity between the conferences is so great. This doesn’t guarantee that the MLS Cup will be residing out West once again after the Final this season. But, unless things change drastically, it does guarantee that some fans in the West will be rather disgruntled this fall, watching teams with half a dozen fewer points duke it out in the playoffs while their club’s squad sits and watches from home.