Monday MLS Breakdown: Spoiling for a Playoff Fight

In the midst of a tightly packed playoff race, the four teams adrift at the bottom of the league could play a vital role in determining which sides reach the postseason. Kyle McCarthy examines the role of the spoiler and surveys the remaining fixtures before tackling the Week 27 happenings.
By Kyle McCarthy

Friday night provided a glaring testament to the impact spoilers can have on the playoff race as the season winds to a close.

Two playoff chasing teams (New England and Colorado) traveled to two sides well out of the playoff reckoning (New York and San Jose) in search of all three points. Instead of supplicating to the needs of the playoff chasers, the plucky also-rans emerged with creditable draws and inflicted damage on those jostling for position in the playoff tussle.

Expect similarly surprising results over the next few weeks as the spoilers start to play an increasingly important role in determining which teams reach the postseason.

The playoff picture, as best one can tell at this point, involves 11 teams fighting for eight spots. Four teams – Columbus, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles – look relatively assured of a playoff spot, leaving the other seven teams – Seattle, Colorado, Chivas USA, D.C. United, New England, Toronto FC and Real Salt Lake – in a scrap for the four wild card berths.

With 11 teams fighting for the playoffs, that leaves four teams planning for next year, though one team would certainly quibble with that distinction given its recent form. Even though the playoffs aren't a likely possibility, recent results have suggested that Kansas City, FC Dallas, San Jose and New York haven't packed up for the season and started planning for a nice Caribbean vacation just yet. Instead, these four clubs have garnered points against teams higher up the table and impacted the playoff race in the process.

No struggler has the opportunity to influence the playoff race like Kansas City does given its current form. The Wizards have picked up nine points in their past four games (including a 4-2 win over playoff-chasing New England on Sept. 5), a haul that could have reached 12 given the performance in a 1-0 loss at D.C. United on Sept. 9. With 30 points in the bag and a six-point gap to close with eighth-placed United, Kansas City harbors faint, but still beating, playoff hopes. Four wins in its remaining five matches might put the Wizards in with a shout, a tall task even with the inspired performances in recent weeks.

Even if it can't crawl back into the playoff race, Kansas City has a real opportunity to influence the outcome of the Western Conference playoff race. The Wizards host Colorado at CommunityAmerica Ballpark on Saturday before starting a two-game swing through Houston (Oct. 4) and Chivas USA (Oct. 10). A two-match homestand featuring Seattle (Oct. 17) and D.C. (Oct. 24) closes the season and could drastically alter the outcome of those precious final few wild card slots.

Los Angeles and D.C. know the danger FC Dallas poses on a given night. The Hoops thumped the Galaxy 6-3 at the Home Depot Center last weekend and snatched a draw with United at Pizza Hut Park on Sept. 5. With Jeff Cunningham – a player profiled in this space last week – in scintillating form and FCD starting to find some cohesiveness in the attack, the Hoops can trouble teams on a given week so long as they are not expected to play any defense.

In its five remaining games, FCD plays four playoff chasers and one also-ran (San Jose). Real Salt Lake travels to Pizza Hut Park on Saturday night in desperate need of a victory to keep its flagging playoff hopes alive before New England starts a two-match road swing in suburban Dallas on Sept. 30. FCD then travels to San Jose (Oct. 7) before wrapping up the season by hosting Colorado (Oct. 17) and trekking to Seattle (Oct. 24).


Ryan Johnson | San Jose forward scored the winner and conceded the penalty kick that led to the equalizer in Friday's 1-1 draw with Colorado

San Jose snatched a 1-1 draw with Colorado on Friday night to burnish its spoiler credentials. The Earthquakes are plenty rested after a 20-day layoff and have more games remaining (7) than any other team in the league. While two home matches against New York (Oct. 3) and FC Dallas (Oct. 7) won't matter, San Jose will play five significant games during its remaining slate.

Fortunately for those teams in the hunt, San Jose won't play any of its important games at home. San Jose's home-road split (5-4-4 at Buck Shaw, 0-8-2 outside the Bay Area) makes these matches a welcome proposition. Colorado gets the first crack to finish out a home-and-home on Wednesday night (Sept. 23) before D.C. hosts the Quakes on Sunday afternoon (Sept. 27). After the two home games against New York and FCD, San Jose visits Toronto FC (Oct. 10), Chivas USA (Oct. 17) and Los Angeles (Oct. 24).

While New York did establish a new MLS record for matches without a win against an opponent with its 13th consecutive draw or loss (0-7-6) to New England on Friday night, it did nick a point off the Revs at Giants Stadium in a 1-1 draw. Add that point to a home win over Columbus (1-0 on Aug. 30) and the Red Bulls have shown signs of life under interim boss Richie Williams (2-1-1 in his second interim stint at the helm).

New York's lost season has but four matches remaining with three of those tilts against viable playoff contenders. The first three of those matches – Chivas USA (Sept. 26), San Jose (Oct. 3) and Real Salt Lake (Oct. 14) – are on the road. Suffice it to say the Red Bulls aren't much of a threat to pick up points away from Giants Stadium with a gaudy 0-11-1 mark outside of New Jersey this campaign. New York finishes out the season with a home date with Toronto FC (Oct. 24).

The most pertinent information from that brief survey comes from the opponents the four also-rans will face over the next month or so. Here's the breakdown from the playoff chasers' point of view:

Number of Games Versus Bottom Four
Three
Chivas USA (Kansas City, San Jose, New York)
Colorado (@ Kansas City, @ FC Dallas, San Jose)
Two
D.C. – (@ Kansas City, San Jose)
Real Salt Lake – (@ FC Dallas, New York)
Seattle – (@ Kansas City, FC Dallas)
Toronto FC – (San Jose, New York)
One
Houston – (Kansas City)
Los Angeles – (San Jose)
New England – (@ FC Dallas)
None
Columbus
Chicago

If form holds, a few teams – Chivas USA, Colorado and Toronto FC spring to mind – could benefit from a dash of scheduling luck. Then again, these spoilers have showed that the form book doesn't necessarily matter as the stakes increase.

Week 27 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers


Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Zach Thornton, goalkeeper, Chivas USA


Zach Thornton | Chivas USA keeper continues to make his Best XI case

In a week filled with likely candidates – David Beckham's all-action display in Los Angeles' 2-0 win over Toronto FC, Brad Davis' free-kick infused contribution in Houston's 3-2 win over Real Salt Lake and Guillermo Barros Schelotto's point-saving double in Columbus' 2-2 draw with Chicago on Sunday – for the prize, the award here goes to Thornton for standing on his head and thwarting Seattle almost singlehandedly in Saturday afternoon's 0-0 draw at Qwest Field. Thornton's save on Sebastien Le Toux's drive from six yards after 15 minutes came straight out of the top drawer, while a late stop on Fredy Montero ensured a point for 10-man Chivas. And those were just the most noteworthy of his six stops. Thornton hasn't allowed a goal to Seattle in three meetings this season

MVP Tracker

1. Landon Donovan, Los Angeles midfielder – Still the favorite.

2. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus midfielder – Veteran Argentine schemer scored his first two goals since June 14 in the Crew's 2-2 draw at Chicago.

3. Shalrie Joseph, New England midfielder – Joseph's hopes will vanish if New England misses the playoffs.

Next in Line: Omar Cummings, Colorado forward; Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto midfielder; Chad Marshall, Columbus defender; Conor Casey, Colorado forward.

The Starting XI

1. New York interim coach Richie Williams likely won't get the full-time gig for next season, but he's sure doing his best to state his case for a job somewhere. With Friday night's 1-1 home draw with New England, the Red Bulls are now 2-1-1 under his stewardship, though all four of his games have come at Giants Stadium. Now the fun starts for the Red Bulls (0-11-1 on the road) with three of the final four on the road.

2. “We could have gone away with nothing,” Revolution forward Steve Ralston said. “I think it was fair at 1-1. It seemed like a fair game. They could have maybe had a penalty kick. We had some chances and so did they. We have to be able to finish that game off. We're a better team than that. We have to be able to kill the game off.”

3. “We should have finished them off at 1-0,” San Jose coach Frank Yallop said after Conor Casey's stoppage-time penalty rescued a deserved point for Colorado in its 1-1 draw on Friday night at Buck Shaw Stadium. “We had a couple of breaks -- Chris (Wondolowski) had one and Bobby (Convey) had one -- if we stick that in it kills the game for them.”

4. Time for Sigi Schmid to throw either Brad Davis or Freddie Ljungberg in the middle of the park. After watching Seattle settle for 0-0 home draw against Chivas USA to extend its winless and scoreless streak at Qwest Field to four matches, it's clear that Sounders FC needs an additional attacking element through the middle to accompany the usually dangerous wide play. Creating chances wasn't the issue against the Goats, but Seattle needs more thrust there anyways as it casts a glance toward the playoffs.

5. Thrust in central midfield is even more important against a Chivas USA side that knows how to squeeze the game. Opponents never obtain a moment's rest against the Goats. The Goats' ruthless brand of effectiveness makes one wonder why Preki's side has struggled to break through during the postseason, though the paucity of goals up front shines some light on the matter.


Jimmy Conrad | Wizards defender made amends for two defensive mistakes by scoring the winner against FC Dallas

6. “It's easy to brush (my performance) off now, for sure,” Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad said after his game-winning header handed Kansas City a 3-2 victory over FC Dallas. Conrad had made two critical errors earlier in the game that led to both FCD goals. “But, there's still video to watch. We have that on Tuesday. I can't wait for that.”

7. Real Salt Lake deserves plenty of credit for a spirited fightback (and Pablo Campos deserves similar plaudits for his tidy buildup play in both goals) to draw level with Houston before succumbing 3-2 at Robertson Stadium on Saturday night. If only RSL's thought process (Will Johnson's needless shoulder charge to give away the foul that led to the first goal and Jamison Olave's wild lunging tackle to draw a first half red stick out as poor choices) and focus matched its collective will.

8. Nights like the one David Beckham had in Saturday night's 2-0 win over Toronto FC have occurred far too rarely during the England international's stint with the Galaxy. Beckham scored the winner after nine minutes and could have had a couple of more while appearing active and engaged throughout his 89 minutes on the field. As L.A. Times scribe Grahame Jones noted afterwards, it was the type of performance Beckham should produce more frequently given his ample quality.

9. “Overall, I felt comfortable with the boys,” TFC debutant Julian de
Guzman said after playing the full 90 in his MLS debut. “I'm not in my tip-top form. The last game I had was a couple months ago with the national team. I felt all right throughout the game, but close to the end I started to cramp up.”

10. Four out of the past five meetings between Chicago and Columbus have ended in a 2-2 draw after Sunday's 2-2 stalemate at Toyota park. (The other meeting ended in a 0-0 draw.)

11. The Eastern Conference table-toppers played a wide-open, entertaining game with plenty of chances. Pity then that referee Mark Geiger decided to award a 79th penalty kick for a clash of flying boots between Wilman Conde and Steven Lenhart to allow Barros Schelotto to notch his second goal of the game and grab a share of the spoils. It was a peculiar collision as both players made leaping lunges for the ball with their studs exposed, but this meeting of the legs that could have and should have been resolved in any other way aside from pointing to the penalty spot. Lenhart told the Columbus Dispatch he was “pleasantly surprised” by the call. Not a good sign when the fouled player admits surprise, Mr. Geiger.

The Playoff Picture

Eastern Conference
1. Columbus (11-4-10, 43 pts., 5 games remaining)
2. Chicago (10-6-10, 40 pts., 4 games remaining)
Western Conference
1. Houston (12-8-7, 43 pts., 3 games remaining)
2. Los Angeles (10-5-11, 41 pts., 4 games remaining)
Wild Cards
1. Seattle (9-6-11, 38 pts., 4 games remaining)
T2. Chivas USA (11-9-4, 37 pts., 6 games remaining)
T2. Colorado (10-8-7, 37 pts., 5 games remaining)
4. D.C. United (8-6-12, 36 pts., 4 games remaining)
==
New England (9-8-7, 34 pts., 6 games remaining)
Toronto FC (9-10-7, 34 pts., 4 games remaining)
Real Salt Lake (9-10-7, 34 pts., 4 games remaining)
Kansas City (8-11-6, 30 pts., 5 games remaining)
FC Dallas (7-12-6, 27 pts., 5 games remaining)
San Jose (5-12-6, 21 pts., 7 games remaining)
New York (4-17-5, 16 pts., 4 games remaining)

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.


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