The MLS playoff race was already shaping up to be a wild one in the season's final month, but a handful of surprising results this past weekend has shaken things up even more.
The Columbus Crew, Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes all pulled off impressive upset victories to pull themselves into the playoff race, raising the number of teams realistically still alive for a playoff berth to 16 of 19.
That’s right, with a month to go before the playoffs, only Toronto FC, D.C. United and Chivas USA are out, and there are effectively 11 teams battling for five playoff spots. That might scream of overwhelming parity in the league, but we are undoubtedly in for one crazy final month in the MLS regular season.
The Earthquakes’ stunning 2-1 road win at Real Salt Lake gave us a taste of just how crazy things can get. RSL had lost at home just twice all season, while San Jose hadn’t won on the road in six matches. That didn’t stop Steven Lenhart from delivering two first-half goals, and the Earthquakes defense from protecting that lead and boosting their postseason hopes.
San Jose is still a long-shot for the playoffs, currently five points out of a playoff spot with four matches remaining, but the team’s 6-2-2 record in its past 10 games has given hope to the reigning Supporters' Shield winner.
The Columbus Crew’s recent surge has come on the heels of the team’s decision to fire head coach Robert Warzycha. The Crew have responded by winning three of four matches, and their 3-0 win over the Chicago Fire helped Columbus climb to within two points of fifth-place New England with four matches left to play, including a pair of season-ending matches against the Revolution.
The Whitecaps aren’t as close to a playoff spot as the Crew right now, but their 3-0 win over Montreal was important nonetheless. Vancouver had been mired in a five-match winless slide, and had won just once in nine matches before dismantling Montreal at Stade Saputo on Saturday. The victory not only gave the Whitecaps bragging rights in Canada, it rekindled playoff hopes for a team that looked destined to slide right out of the race before Saturday.
The wins by Columbus, Vancouver and San Jose have helped increase the number of teams in the playoff mix, but not all teams on the playoff fringes came up big this weekend. FC Dallas wasted a golden opportunity to close the gap on the playoff pack in the West, dropping a decision to New York that saw the Hoops lose a match on an own goal for the second straight week. The Fire obviously came up short against the Crew, though Bakary Soumare’s 29th-minute red card made the task of winning in Columbus that much tougher.
Two teams that earned themselves some breathing room in the playoff race this weekend are the Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo. Portland’s physical 1-0 win versus Colorado has the Timbers now closer to challenging for a top spot in the West than to holding on for a top-five place. Houston’s recent surge is arguably the most impressive. The Dynamo’s second straight win pushed them four points clear of playoff safety, and with Montreal slumping, Houston suddenly looks more than capable of grabbing a top three spot in the East.
The weekend’s surprising results also put more pressure on some teams that looked like playoff locks just a few weeks earlier. In the East, Montreal has dropped two straight matches, and three of five (including two at home), and suddenly the Impact are six points ahead of the trailing pack. That may seem like a safe cushion, but Montreal’s next five matches are against tough teams in the playoff race. With the Impact defense looking vulnerable, Montreal will need to halt its current slide before that seemingly safe cushion evaporates.
The same goes for Colorado. The Rapids had a 7-1-4 record heading into their loss to the Timbers, but their four-point lead on Vancouver and San Jose looks a lot less comfortable when you consider they still play San Jose, and face the Whitecaps twice to finish the season.
The congested playoff chase should make for some great drama in the season’s final month, and if we were reminded of anything this past weekend, it's that matches are going to become more and more difficult to predict. The stretch run of the 2013 season is shaping up to be the most intense finish to a regular season in league history.