MLS playoff teams set, but final week features plenty at stake
With a week left in the regular season, all of the playoff spots are set and a long-standing goal record remains within reach. Here's where things stand following a decisive MLS Week 33:
At one point Saturday night, the Columbus Crew were headed toward a road upset of D.C. United, which would have inched Columbus toward a playoff berth while putting playoff-starved D.C. on the ropes for the season finale in Chicago. The Houston Dynamo had also thrown away an early lead over the Philadelphia Union and were staring its playoff fate in the face. Then, suddenly, the drama flipped.
There is nothing quite like simultaneous action in different places across the country, and that is exactly what occurred when D.C.'s Marcelo Saragosa (who has been playing with a heavy heart after the death of his father earlier this year) and Houston's Oscar Boniek Garcia scored within minutes of each other to completely turn the Eastern Conference playoff picture on its head. The Crew were forced to scramble and throw numbers forward, with Robert Warzycha having no choice but to take off a defender and throw forward Emilio Renteria into the mix. Columbus still would have maintained a minor shred of hope entering the final week of the season if it could have hung on for a 2-2 draw, but when Lewis Neal's stoppage-time winner rolled cruelly into the back of the net followed by the final whistle at RFK Stadium, the men in yellow collapsed to the field one-by-one, their playoff dreams up in stadium-flair smoke.
MLS does not have the last-day simultaneous drama like leagues elsewhere around the world, but Saturday night's back-and-forth was as encompassing and enthralling as gets. While some may gripe that MLS allows so many of the league's teams into the postseason, there is no denying the fact that having so many teams playing meaningful games this late in the season makes for tremendous theater.
The only seeding that can change is Seattle and Real Salt Lake swapping the second and third seeds, but it will impact which team hosts either leg of their conference semifinal battle. RSL had the slightest of edges over Seattle in their regular season meetings, going 1-0-2, including a 1-0 win in May. There were also two scoreless draws, including last Wednesday (with the caveat that neither team was at full strength after the international break). Either team could rightfully claim the MLS Cup, and the series will be a fascinating tactical matchup between a pair of battle-tested sides that make it no secret about how they want to go about their business.
Supporters' Shield-boasting San Jose awaits the winner of the Los Angeles-Vancouver wildcard game, and if this season's results are a harbinger of who will win that opener at the Home Depot Center on Nov. 1, it will be the defending MLS Cup champions. In its two home games against Vancouver, L.A. coasted to 3-0 and 2-0 victories. The Whitecaps backed into the playoffs with just one win in their last nine matches (a blowout of lowly Chivas USA), while the Galaxy are 5-1-3 in that time span. Anything can happen in a one-off scenario, but it's hard to picture Vancouver going on the road and besting Bruce Arena's side, which could set the table for another conference semifinal between championship-caliber clubs who just played this week.
Earning the Cascadia Cup trophy not only gives the Timbers regional bragging rights, but it also provides a more stable foundation for University of Akron and U.S. Under-23 national team coach Caleb Porter when he takes over in December. The win also ensured that the club would not finish in last place in the Western Conference, sparing some embarrassment as it looks to move forward and put forth a team that is capable of matching the level of passion in the stands at Jeld-Wen Field with a consistent high level of play.
As Timbers owner Merritt Paulson wrote on his much-scrutinized Twitter account following the victory, in perhaps the most appropriate summation of the night's events and putting the season as a whole into proper perspective, "Damn .... we needed that! #cascadiacup."
In the East, all of the playoff teams have punched their tickets, but not a single one is locked into its current seed. For as unbeatable as Sporting Kansas City has been, the club will fall out of first place with a loss to Philadelphia and a D.C. United win over Chicago. Four teams are still jockeying to avoid having to play in the wild-card round while trying to balance roster fitness and keeping starters fresh for the playoff run. The major details have all been sorted out, but the playoff picture in the East could look vastly different than it currently does at this time next week.
Goalkeeper: Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
Defenders: Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Andy Najar (D.C. United)
Midfielders: Marcelo Saragosa (D.C. United), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Martin Rivero (Colorado Rapids), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders)