The weekend's MLS results helped bring the conference playoff races into focus. Some teams showed they are real contenders, and others are faltering at the wrong time.
Currently, there are four teams that look like locks to make the playoffs: Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United in the East, and Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders in the West.
This weekend we saw two teams, the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas, signal their intent with emphatic victories that have them both looking serious about finishing the 2014 season strong.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers didn’t quite do the same this weekend, and neither did Toronto FC, the New England Revolution or Chicago Fire.
With four teams looking like locks, that leaves six available playoff spots, with 12 teams still having realistic chances of making moves for those places. Here is a rundown of how those teams shape up after this weekend:
Battered by Sporting Kansas City over the weekend, but TFC still remains five points clear of the trailing playoff pack while holding games in hand on every other team in the East. Getting Jermain Defoe back is a top priority, but the Reds face a relatively easy schedule that features none of the four teams considered locks for the playoffs.
The Crew made a major statement with a surprising 4-1 thrashing of the LA Galaxy on Saturday. The team’s failure to secure reinforcements during the summer transfer window was a big blow, but Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay looked like players ready to step up and offer Federico Higuain some much-needed support. The Crew boast a strong defense, and face two matches remaining against three teams on this list: Houston, New England and Philadelphia.
New York Red Bulls
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A wildly inconsistent team that can sometimes look unstoppable, and other times look completely lackluster, the Red Bulls had a bye week, which should help ahead of what is the toughest schedule of the East teams on this list. With four matches against the playoff locks, and a trip to Los Angeles to face the Galaxy, the Red Bulls could have a tough time holding onto the final playoff spot in the East, let alone climbing up any further.
New England Revolution
The Revs still don’t look like the team that tore up the league in the spring, but with Charlie Davies starting to find his scoring touch, the they do have the weapons to make things interesting. The team’s need for a strong defensive midfielder makes signing Jermaine Jones a priority, and if the Revs succeed in landing him you have to like their chances. Without Jones, the Revs will struggle to hold off Philadelphia or Houston, two teams that made upgrades in the summer.
The firing of John Hackworth has sparked a surge in the Union, who sit just a point out of the fifth playoff spot. Sebastien Le Toux is in top form, giving Philadelphia the goal scorer it needs to make a serious run. A winnable game against San Jose awaits next week, followed by back-to-back meetings with Toronto FC — a run of matches that could catapult the Union in the standings, or bury them. The additions of goalkeeper Rais M’Bohli and defender Carlos Valdes should help the team’s late push, but you have to wonder how M’Bohli’s arrival will affect team chemistry.
The additions of DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido should help offer some support to a defense that was the league’s worst before their arrival. Beating Philadelphia was a good first step for Dominic Kinnear’s side, and getting Will Bruin rolling is a must if the Dynamo will have any chance of making a deep run.
Chicago has the same record as Houston, but after losing to Montreal it’s tough to put the Fire in the same class as the Dynamo. The team’s inconsistent defense will make reaching a playoff spot very tough, as will a schedule that features three matches against the playoff locks, and a visit from FC Dallas. The Fire could still sign Jermaine Jones, which would help, but it still looks like Chicago is destined to miss the playoffs again.
You could call FCD a lock already, considering the current eight-point cushion it has on the other teams outside the playoff zone, but a very tough remaining schedule could threaten to bring the team back to the pack. Don’t bet on it, though — not with the way Fabian Castillo and Tesho Akindele are playing. Two meetings each against Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy will tell us whether Oscar Pareja’s side is a legitimate title contender.
The Galaxy appear to be a lock given the talent on the team’s roster and the fact LA has multiple games in hand on the teams chasing it. For now, however, we will include the Galaxy on this list. With Gyasi Zardes giving the Galaxy a third dangerous attacking weapon to go with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, and with their defense being one of the best in the league, the Galaxy could even still make a push for the top spot in the West.
Currently two points ahead of Portland for the final playoff spot, with a game in hand, the Whitecaps are in a decent position, but concerns about an inconsistent attack continue to dog Vancouver. Adding defensive cover with towering central defender Kendall Watson helps the defense, but until the team can score more regularly, and play better on the road, it could be tough for the Whitecaps to navigate through what is a brutal remaining schedule. One positive for Carl Robinson’s side is that there are two matches remaining against Portland, which should help the Whitecaps control their own destiny.
It's impressive that the Timbers are even in the conversation after starting the season winless in their first eight matches, but Caleb Porter's squad still has work to do. The additions of Fanendo Adi and Liam Ridgewell appear to be significant upgrades, which should help the Timbers seriously push Vancouver for the final playoff spot. Also working in Portland's favor is the fact there are three matches remaining against the struggling San Jose Earthquakes. That's a bonus, but making the most of their two meetings against the Whitecaps will still be the most important part of the Timbers' playoff push.
A month ago the Rapids looked like a good playoff pick, but a recent 1-5-2 slump has hit Colorado at the worst possible time. The Rapids are still just three points ouf of the final playoff spot, but a poor run of form, a potential serious injury to defensive leader Drew Moor, and a brutal upcoming schedule (Galaxy, Sounders, Galaxy) could have the Colorado completely out of the playoff race by early September.
GOAL USA’S MLS WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week- Fabian Castillo. The Colombian speedster absolutely destroyed the San Jose defense, playing a role in four goals, including two he scored on his own in FC Dallas' 5-0 thrashing of the Earthquakes.
Rookie of the Week- Tesho Akindele. Has officially turned the Rookie of the Year race into a two-man competition. Akindele has caught up to Chicago midfielder Harrison Shipp after notching his first career hat trick in the FC Dallas beating of the Earthquakes.
Team of the Week- Columbus Crew. A 4-1 victory at home against the Galaxy was the Crew's most impressive result of the season. Putting four goals on the toughest defense in the league was impressive, while keeping the Galaxy's dangerous attack to one goal also deserves attention.