By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 18, 2013) US Soccer Players - This is parity at its best. This is parity as it is supposed to be. This is parity as MLS dreamed it, with the regular season coming down to the wire and the bulk of its teams still with a chance to make the playoffs.
With two weeks to go, 15 of the league’s 19 clubs remain alive. Only two teams have officially locked up a playoff spot, though their ultimate place in the standings is still to be determined. The Supporters' Shield, the trophy that goes to the top point-earner over the course of the season regardless of conference, is still up for grabs. New York can win the Shield (which would be the club’s first-ever trophy any of us would recognize in 18 years of existence) if they take care of business in their last two games. Any slip up by the Red Bulls, and it could be the Timbers, or RSL, or even LA or Seattle who grab the Shield.
Sure, it’s possible to be negative, to suggest that the tightness of the Supporters Shield and playoff races are more a function of mediocrity than anything else, but that hardly takes away from the intrigue brewing up and down the standings. How we got here almost doesn’t matter now that it’s all in the past. What matters is that the next two weeks will be among the most exciting stretch runs in the history of MLS.
Let’s stop for a second, just before the madness begins, to take stock and revel in that which we’re about to receive.
At this point in the 2012 season, most of the playoff spots were set. The San Jose Earthquakes were closing in on the Supporters' Shield, though Sporting Kansas City was hot on their heels. Rather than a race to make the playoffs for a large collection teams, the last few weeks boiled down to locking in seeding and finalizing the last one or two playoff sports among a small handful of clubs. The schedule certainly didn't help, pitting contending teams against also-rans in many cases.
Not so this season. Again, for emphasis, 15 of 19 MLS clubs still have a chance to book a postseason ticket with two games to go. Some are long shots, and need help from others to get in, but the situation nevertheless promises the possibility of open soccer in which teams desperate to grab three crucial points to put towards their playoff resumes. It’s possible a head coach or two will act counter intuitively and pack it in, but it won’t be in their teams’ best interest. Too many clubs need goals and wins for the soccer to bog down into knockout-style drudgery.
A look at the schedule over the next two weeks reveals a host of games of massive import for both teams. On Saturday, Montreal hosts Philadelphia with each team on 46 points. The Impact are spiraling downward, their strong start to the season evaporating to the point that they are now on the brink of falling out of the playoff places. The only reason they sit above the playoff line and the sixth-place Union is one greater win. The Union need a win to salvage a trying season that was equal parts promise and disappointment.
Also on Saturday, New England welcomes Columbus to Gillette Stadium. The game is the first of back-to-back matches between the clubs, with both currently on the outside of the playoff places. The Crew hold on to slim playoff hopes, making Saturday’s tilt an absolute must-win for Brian Bliss and company. New England’s youthful fun-time attacking prowess deserves better than a playoff-less season, but only if they can take care of business at home to give themselves something to play for in the final week at Crew Stadium.
In Denver, the fifth-place Rapids have to hold off the Whitecaps, who are just three points back of Colorado for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Like New England and Columbus, the two teams will face each other twice to close out the year. A Vancouver win in the first leg could set up a juicy encounter north of the border to close out the season.
Portland and RSL face off in the marquee matchup of the weekend, a game that will likely decide which of the two grab first place in the West and could play a role in the Supporters Shield race. The Timbers trail the Red Bulls for the top spot overall only by one win in the first tiebreaker category and one goal in the second.
On Sunday, Houston hosts New York with the Red Bulls’ Supporter Shield chances on the line while the Dynamo have a bit more work to do before they’re in the postseason field officially. Houston isn’t a lock for the playoffs, despite currently sitting in third place in the East. Failing to secure a win in their final two games (the Dynamo close the regular season with a visit to D.C) would open Dom Kinnear’s team to slipping behind one of the other challengers in the East.
Like say, Chicago, who avoids a contender in their penultimate match with TFC coming to Bridgeview. In a way, there’s more pressure Chicago and Seattle (the Sounders play eliminated FC Dallas on Saturday) than on anyone else this weekend. Both teams need the points, and both teams have to hold their concentration against teams with nothing to play for but pride. Slipping up against the League’s dregs could give the final game a do-or-die feel. The Fire have to go to Red Bull Arena on the final day of the season, while Seattle host the Galaxy.
Those won't be matches between clubs taking it easy ahead of the grueling playoff gauntlet.
This weekend’s schedule closes with the California Clasico, pitting the Galaxy against the Earthquakes. Stunningly, LA’s playoff position is far from secure. There's a real chance the two-time defending champions won't make the playoffs. Meanwhile, San Jose has clawed back into playoff contention and needs a win over LA. The rivalry element of the match only heightens the tension.
The whole picture - Eastern Conference, Western Conference, Supporters' Shield, play-in round versus bye to the conference semifinals - is delicately poised. Nothing has been decided, a heady state of affairs that leaves no game unimportant between now and the last blast of a referee’s whistle on October 27th. This is as close to an MLS promotion/relegation drama as MLS will ever get. Everything that comes in the postseason will be pure bonus.
Does parity work? The answer to that question is in the eye of the beholder. In the case of 2013, MLS competitive balance sets up the most dramatic, intriguing, and contentious end to a season anyone could ask for.
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