The past weekend in Major League Soccer provided yet another reminder that trying to predict outcomes in a league with so much parity is a futile exercise. Especially when playoff-chase desperation and Supporters' Shield dreams have teams pulling off surprise results left and right.
The Philadelphia Union weren’t supposed to be able to walk into Sporting Park and register a win, but that’s what John Hackworth’s side did on Friday. The Portland Timbers weren’t supposed to be able to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy at Jeld-Wen Field for a second straight time. Not with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan in the starting lineup. The Timbers did exactly that.
And the New York Red Bulls? They weren’t given much of a chance to take anything from a visit to Seattle against a streaking Sounders side. Not with Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave staying home to avoid the injury risk of playing on artificial turf. Not only did the Red Bulls play well, they earned a valuable road point in a 1-1 draw, keeping themselves at the top of the Supporters' Shield race.
You could even make an argument that Real Salt Lake, fielding a team of reserves just three days before playing in the U.S. Open Cup Final, shouldn’t have been able to walk into Vancouver and beat a Whitecaps team that desperately needed a win. RSL’s impressive depth trumped Vancouver’s desperation though, as rookie Devon Sandoval’s winner was the difference in a 1-0 triumph that pushed RSL right back into the Supporters' Shield conversation.
The plethora of surprising results has helped shake up not only the Supporters' Shield race, but also the races for the final playoff spots in both conferences.
So where does the Supporters' Shield race stand after a week that saw only two of the top seven teams in the league win matches? We have a five-horse race, and none of those horses is two-time defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles.
Here are how the five remaining realistic candidates for the Supporters' Shield stack up with four weeks left in the season (in order from favorite to long shot):
One point behind the New York Red Bulls, but with two games in hand, the Sounders have five games left to play, but three of the next four are on the road, including tough tests at Colorado and Portland. Winnable matches vs. Vancouver (at home) and FC Dallas (in Frisco) put the Supporters' Shield very much in Seattle’s reach.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
The Red Bulls have three matches left, including two winnable home games against New England and Chicago. The real test will come on Oct. 20th vs. Houston. The Red Bulls hammered the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium, 4-1, on Sept. 8th, but the Dynamo are looking much more lively now than they were back then. The Red Bulls will need at least two wins in the final three matches to have a realistic chance of securing the club’s first Supporters' Shield and meaningful trophy.
REAL SALT LAKE
Of RSL’s three remaining games, two are against FC Dallas and Chivas USA, which gives the squad a very solid chance at six points. The other remaining match is against a Portland side RSL has had the better of this year, but the Timbers are coming on strong.
It might sound far-fetched to include the Timbers, but they are only three points behind the Red Bulls with a game in hand, and they have matches remaining against both Seattle and Real Salt Lake. In short, Portland controls its own Supporters' Shield destiny, and could guarantee a share of it with four wins to close the season. You can’t rule them out just yet.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Friday’s surprising home loss to Philadelphia struck a brutal blow to KC’s chances of grabbing the Shield. Now, Sporting KC must try to close the gap on New York, which is far from an easy task when it has remaining games against streaking Columbus, Houston and the Philadelphia team that just dealt SKC a home loss.
As for the remaining playoff spots, here is a rundown of the favorites to secure the final two places in the East playoffs, and the teams vying for the final playoff berth in the West:
First, the East playoff race:
The Dynamo didn’t exactly play great in New England last weekend, but they did secure a precious road point to run their unbeaten streak to three matches. A showdown vs. Montreal looms next, and the Dynamo could propel into third place with a victory. As tough as Houston’s remaining schedule is (games against New York and Sporting KC still remain), the Dynamo are still a good bet to reach the postseason.
A few days ago the Union would have been lower on this list, but a statement victory vs. Sporting KC suddenly has John Hackworth’s team looking like a good pick to reach the playoffs. Games against Toronto FC and D.C. United could allow the Union to lock up a playoff spot before their regular season finale at home vs. Sporting KC.
The hottest team in the Eastern Conference, Columbus has done an outstanding job climbing back into the race with four wins in five matches. The Crew’s chances still hinge on the upcoming match vs. Sporting Kansas City. A win there would put the pressure squarely on the Union, while a loss could leave the Crew with too much ground to cover in its remaining season-ending two-game series vs. New England.
The Fire’s postseason chances might have faded away when Montreal’s late equalizer cost Chicago two precious points in their meeting on Saturday. What still gives Chicago hope is an upcoming trio of matches against D.C. United, FC Dallas and Toronto FC. The Fire will need three wins in a row to secure a playoff spot, and avoid having to go to New York in the regular season finale needing a win.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Much like the Fire, New England comes off a draw that should probably have been a victory given the fact the Revs outplayed the Dynamo. Those dropped points have the Revs a point behind Philadelphia for the final playoff spot, with four remaining matches against tough competition. That run starts on Saturday in New York, where the Red Bulls have been extremely tough. An upset there could give the Revs hope, but a loss will probably leave New England with too much ground to make up and not enough time left to do it.
in the MLS Western Conference, the five playoff teams look to be set, but San Jose has closed the gap on Los Angeles and Colorado to make things interesting in the final stretch. You also have Vancouver and FC Dallas still on the radar, though at this point both are extreme long shots. Here is a closer look at that race:
LOS ANGELES GALAXY
It’s crazy to think the Galaxy are still in the mix just to make the playoffs, but going winless in four straight has LA struggling to lock up a playoff berth. it’s tough to bet against the Galaxy though, especially with a game against Chivas USA up next on the schedule. Playoff safety will probably still come down to being able to beat the Earthquakes on Oct. 20th at StubHub Center.
The Rapids are far from home free at this point, and upcoming matches against Seattle and San Jose could put their playoff berth in jeopardy. What works in Colorado’s favor, along with having been on a good run of form for the past few months, is a regular-season ending two-game set vs. a Vancouver Whitecaps side that looks to be dead in the water.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Back in July the Earthquakes looked like one of the bigger long shots to put on a playoff run, but the departure of head coach Frank Yallop, and insertion of interim coach Mark Watson helped spark the Earthquakes on a 7-2-2 run that has them really believing they can make the playoffs. San Jose has matches against the two teams its chasing, LA and Colorado (as well as a finale vs. struggling FC Dallas), so there is hope, but the Earthquakes remain a bit of a long shot because they trail both by a point and have one less game remaining than both. They will need to win all three remaining matches to have a chance. An improbable task, but not impossible.
Sunday's 4-2 loss to Columbus showed as an FCD team that just doesn't have any answers, and a club that looks destined to keep stumbling to the finish line. Dallas is five points back, with no sign of being able to turn things around.
Handed a golden opportunity to grab three points against a reserve-laden Real Salt Lake side, the Whitecaps laid yet another egg, and now it's tough to see them erasing a four-point gap when they have a brutal stretch of opponents to close out the year (Portland, Seattle, Colorado twice). The Whitecaps are toast.
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