The MLS Cup Playoffs are fast approaching, but there is still much to be decided. After last night’s games, only 8 teams have qualified for the playoffs, and 7 teams are still in contention for the 4 remaining playoff spots. All 15 of these teams have two games remaining, rather neatly one home and one away each.
Atlanta fans will be most interested in the Eastern Conference, so let’s take a look at that first:
Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls have clinched the two first round byes. They are also competing for the right to hoist the Supporters’ Shield, as no Western Conference team can catch them. However, with only 1 point separating them they are neck-and-neck. It’s tight on the tiebreakers as well: they are tied on wins (the first tiebreaker) and Atlanta leads goal difference (the second) by just 1 goal.
Atlanta has the 1-point lead and therefore controls its own destiny, with a magic number to clinch the top seed of 6. Given the two team’s schedules, that is most likely to happen by simply winning both remaining games. Tiebreakers are not to be relied on though, as the Red Bulls close out against Orlando City, who have set a new record for goals allowed in a season with 72 in 32 games (the old record stood for 20 years: the Colorado Rapids allowed 69 in 1998). Which means they could easily pass Atlanta on goal difference. However, the Red Bulls have the slightly tougher remaining schedule, playing the Philadelphia Union this weekend. Remember also that Atlanta can clinch a CONCACAF Champions League spot with just 1 more point.
Regardless of their own performance, the Red Bulls will need Atlanta to drop points in order to take top spot. Note also that both teams can set a new points record, besting Toronto FC’s 69 from last year.
The other 4 places in the East are less settled. New York City FC and Philadelphia have both secured playoff spots, but the final two spots are not yet finalized. The Columbus Crew SC can clinch one of them with a win over Orlando (yes, Orlando are actually cast in the role of spoiler right now; try not to laugh). D.C. United strengthened their hold on the final playoff spot last night by beating Toronto 1-0. Toronto have fallen ignominiously from their champion status and are also in a spoiler role with games against the Montreal Impact and Atlanta. Montreal are already hanging on by a thread: a loss eliminates them for sure and 4 points could result in a tie with D.C., but they have a massive goal difference disadvantage of 17 such that anything less than full points is not enough.
By comparison, the Western Conference is up for grabs:
The picture cleared up a bit last night, with the Seattle Sounders claiming a spot by winning 2-1 over, yes, Orlando. 4 teams are vying for the last 2 spots. Moreover, no one has clinched a first round bye yet, with the top 5 teams all able to do so. This is complicated by the remaining schedule. 4 teams have 2 games against other teams in contention, and 2 have 1 such game. Only 2 teams (Seattle and the LA Galaxy) play only against eliminated teams. Simply put, anything can happen.
Of the 4 teams playing for the last 2 spots, the Portland Timbers are clearly in the best position, needing only 3 points to clinch and likely qualifying with just 1 point. Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps are separated by just 3 points and have everything to play for, but all of them need all 6 points to clinch, along with some help in the cases of the Galaxy and Whitecaps. The Whitecaps in fact did themselves no favors last night by getting whupped 4-1 by Sporting Kansas City. Real Salt Lake will be the first team to finish its regular season, by the way: they play the New England Revolution this evening and at Portland on Sunday. A tie or loss tonight is not fatal, but that last game will be key.
How does all of this affect the playoff matchups? First, remember that after the first round, the remaining teams are reseeded. That makes taking the top seed important, because by doing so you are guaranteed to get the lowest remaining seed in the conference semi-finals. That means the top seed cannot play the initial 3rd seed, only the 4th, 5th or 6th seed. In fact, all else being equal, the 1st seed has a 50% chance of playing the 6th seed. It also means playing the home leg of the conference semi-finals and finals last.
As it stands currently, in the East NYCFC would host D.C. and Philadelphia would host Columbus in the first round, and Atlanta would face Philadelphia, Columbus or D.C. in the semi-finals.
In the West, the first round would be Real Salt Lake at LAFC and Portland at Seattle, with FC Dallas avoiding LAFC in the semi-finals.
It’s going to be a fun last two weeks, folks.