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The Northwest Passages: Cascadia clubs in the playoff race

With two and a half months of the MLS season gone, where do the PNW clubs stand, and what do they need to do to make the playoffs?

With roughly a third of the 2014 Major League Soccer season in the books, storylines are beginning to really unfold and a heirarchy is becoming evident in the standings. But with so much of the season left, there's still plenty of time for favorites to be toppled, and for a good run to turn an early-season patsy into a playoff contender.

With all three Cascadia teams located on the Pacific Coast, we're going to ignore the lower division for now and focus on only the nine teams in the Western Conference. Here's the current table as it stands, with the top five spots representing playoff berths:

# Club Pts GP PPG W L T GF GA GD
1 Seattle 25 12 2.08 8 3 1 23 19 4
2 Salt Lake 23 11 2.09 6 0 5 23 13 10
3 Dallas 17 13 1.31 5 6 2 22 22 0
4 Vancouver 16 10 1.6 4 2 4 16 12 4
5 Colorado 15 11 1.36 4 4 3 12 14 -2
6 Los Angeles 12 9 1.33 3 3 3 10 8 2
7 San Jose 10 10 1 2 4 4 10 12 -2
8 Chivas USA 10 11 0.91 2 5 4 13 20 -7
9 Portland 10 11 0.91 1 3 7 16 19 -3

Your reaction to that table will probably depend on which side of the Columbia your loyalties reside, with Sounders fans ecstatic at their team's form and the Whitecaps faithful largely satisfied with their team's performance but Portlanders less enthused by a team that topped the Conference last year now pushed to the bottom.

Luckily for the fans without fluoride, MLS parity means that the playoffs are but five points away, and the relative glory of third place only seven ahead.

At this point, it might be helpful to know what kind of season is required to make the playoffs. Looking at 2011, 2012 and 2013 - the three seasons in which a nine-team West has had each of its teams play 34 matches, we can learn the following:
  • The teams finishing fifth in each of those years respectively collected 49 points, 43 points, and 51 points.
  • The teams finishing sixth in each of those years respectively collected 42 points, 39 points, and 51 points.
  • The closest year, 2013, saw Colorado edge past San Jose on goal difference.
  • More competitive years tend to have fewer "whipping boy" teams and require more points to get into the playoffs. In the incredibly close 2013 race, just three teams in MLS (one in the West) had fewer than 40 points, and a team with 51 missed out. In 2012, there were seven teams (four in the West) under 40, and a paltry 43 put Vancouver in the postseason.

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There are currently five MLS teams (three West) that are averaging fewer than 1.17 points per game, the pace needed to pick up that 40. But perhaps importantly, these teams aren't being blown out, or even beaten every game. Portland's single win is cast in a better light when you remember the Timbers have scored 16 goals and picked up seven draws in 11 games.

While it probably won't be as close as last year, a team aiming for the playoffs will still probably want to target at least 48 points to be in the postseason mix, and 51 would be absolutely certain of a spot. With those numbers in mind, let's see how well positioned the PNW teams are to reach those goals.

Seattle has been in great form, and currently has more points than any other team in the league, although with a game in hand, RSL's points per game average is a hair higher. To hit 48, the Sounders will need just 13 points from their final 26 games, an abysmally low mark. Seattle is halfway to safety with only a third of the season gone: this fall, Rave Green is in.

Vancouver has been on or near the playoff line all season, but its recent uptick in form - undefeated in four, on a two-game winning streak - suggests that maybe Carl Robinson's team is coming together nicely under its rookie coach. The likely minimum entry of 48 points would require the 'Caps to post 32 points in 24 games, 1.33 ppg. Keep up this current pace, and Vancouver would make it. But any slips from the BC boys, and they might be dragged down into the scramble for that last spot.

Portland has the toughest task of all. At just 0.91 points per game, the Timbers are on course for barely 31 points this season. That's not playoff form, that's a last-place tempo. To get 48 points, the Timbers need to amass points at a clip of 1.65 per game, almost as good as last year's 1.68 pace, which made Portland the top seed in the West and saw it miss out on the Supporters' Shield by two points. It's not impossible, but it might be too big a task for Caleb Porter's side.

Even with the most optimistic of plausible occurrences, that Colorado's form slips and none of the three teams above the Timbers can pick it up to above 1.33 ppg, they would need serious improvement - to better than a point and a half per game - to sneak in. With a defense that has yet to keep a clean sheet, it's hard to see that happening.

But this is MLS, and a hot month or two could launch Portland right back in it.

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Portland — Alvas Powell cleaned Chad Barson's clock for a thoroughly deserved red card, and the Timbers had to come back dramatically twice to get a draw against Columbus. Which is a nice moral victory from which the players can learn lots about themselves and use as motivation to dig deep and fight in other matches. But it's also dropped points at home against the team in the worst form in the league, and the Timbers continue to slip behind. The defense is a mess right now.

Coming up: The Timbers visit the New York Red Bulls, who have slumped to two straight losses after a period of fine form. World Cup call-ups mean Tim Cahill and Roy Miller aren't available, but the Red Bulls still have plenty of power  going forward. Saturday, May 24, 4 p.m. - MLS LIVE.

After that's, it's a quick trip across the continent to play Chivas USA in midweek. The Goats already took a point off the Timbers when they met in Portland in April, and maybe this time Pa Modou Kah will feel like marking Erick Torres. Wednesday, May 28, 7:30 p.m. - MLS LIVE.

Seattle — Congratulations are order for Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, both of whom are heading to Brazil as part of the USA's World Cup squad. Brad Evans didn't survive the trim from the 30-man roster, but the Sounders will be more than glad to have their captain back. They Rave Green seem to have put their Foxoborough shaming in the past with a clean sheet and an absolutely ridiculous oh-no-he-did-not goal from Obafemi Martins.

Coming up: The second Cascadia match of the season, as Seattle crosses the border and makes jokes about bags of milk as the Sounders face the Vancouver Whitecaps. Saturday, May 24, 4 p.m. - MLS LIVE.

Vancouver Steven Beitashour is going to represent Iran in the World Cup. That's pretty nifty. The Whitecaps had a week of rest, and go into their Cascadia game against Seattle on back-to-back wins, not having lost since Apr. 12.

Coming up: Home to Seattle, with the chance to really make a statement or fall back into the bottom-half meat grinder. Saturday, May 24, 4 p.m. - MLS LIVE.

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