For quite a few years now, the Eastern Conference of MLS has been seen as the weaker of the two, with the Western Conference dominating. In fact, of the 21 MLS Cups to date, the West has won all but 6, and four of those were in the first four years of the league’s existence. No Eastern Conference team has won the Cup since the Columbus Crew in 2008.
Therefore, it has been quite a surprise to most observers that the Eastern Conference has been the stronger of the two in 2017. This has in no small part to do with the addition of Atlanta United, as well as the resurgence of the perennial basement-dwelling Chicago Fire, but mostly the emergence of Toronto FC, and perhaps a certain David Villa has had an influence on the proceedings. As of right now, Western Conference leaders the Vancouver Whitecaps would only manage fifth in the East (fourth on PPG).
As we approach the final stretch, this new-found dominance in the East has not done much to clarify the playoff possibilities. Take a look at the following table:
As of right now, only the top and bottom positions in the standings have been settled. Toronto clinched not only the conference but also the Supporters’ Shield this past weekend, and DC are out. Of the five remaining playoff slots, four have been claimed, by New York City FC, Atlanta, Chicago and Columbus. One slot remains to be filled.
However, the final order of those four teams plus the No. 2 spot remains in competition. This is significant because the 2nd place team receives a bye through the single-elimination round, and the 3rd and 4th finishers get home field advantage in that round. More on that later.
First, let’s review the possibilities for the final spot. The New York Red Bulls obviously hold the advantage right now, but that doesn’t make the situation any less messy. All four of the teams below the dreaded red line but still in contention have the same points. They are separated only by tie-breakers. The first tie-breaker in MLS is wins, not the more common goal difference, which is the second tie-breaker.
They also have the same number of games remaining. All four could potentially finish above the Red Bulls. That’s where the remaining schedule comes into play. In this regard, New York hold the advantage, as they have a game in hand over all the teams below the red line. However, in order to secure the slot, they must get at least 3 points from the potential 9 they have left. This is because 2 points (i.e., 2 draws and a loss), risks a tie-break situation. It would leave them on 12 wins, which would be surpassed by the Montreal Impact or New England Revolution if either wins out. It would also mean a maximum goal difference of only 1 (because the current 2 GD would be weakened by the loss), which could be tied or bettered by the Philadelphia Union with 2 wins, meaning a minimum GD of 2 from those wins.
Now let’s consider the remaining schedules. In the table above, opponents marked in red are teams still in contention in the East. Which, as it turns out, is most of them. For the four teams below the red line, each of them has one game against a team above the line and the other game against a team below the line. That’s going to make for some pretty intense competition.
Reviewing who plays who, this probably puts the Montreal Impact in a fairly good position, as they first play Toronto, who now find themselves in the unlikely role of potential spoiler, having secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They only have history to play for: they are chasing the most points in a season (68), most wins (20) and a few other marks. But they will likely need to rest several starters coming out of the international break, and then who knows what they will choose to do against Atlanta to close the season out.
The Red Bulls still have an ace in the hole, that being their game in hand. Vancouver and Atlanta will both be tough games, since both teams are playing for post-season positioning. DC is a different story. Yet again, that’s a spoiler situation and unpredictable, but it’s still a lifeline.
Above the red line, similar confusion reigns. Even a win against Minnesota Tuesday will not settle anything for Atlanta, who would jump into second on GD. Fortunately, Atlanta controls its own destiny right now. Winning out would almost certainly mean taking 2nd place. A tie with New York City on points and wins is possible, but United have a massive goal difference advantage of 17. The Pigeons would need blowouts of truly historic proportions to wipe that out. But failure to secure points from the last two games means the Five Stripes could finish as low as 5th. 4 points from the final 3 games would secure a home game in the first round; 6 points would mean 3rd place overall.
Note also that even games against Western teams shown above are not to be taken lightly. None of those teams are out of the playoffs either (although Minnesota are hanging by a thread even with 4 games remaining; a loss to Atlanta will eliminate them), and the Whitecaps and Houston Dynamo have everything to play for still. In fact, the West is probably even more messy than the East.
At the moment, any permutation of the four teams already qualified is possible. This then, is a schedule-maker’s dream. There are just 20 days left in the regular season, and almost every remaining game is still meaningful.