The Supporters' Shield race in MLS is tightening up thanks to Week 28 results and a cluttered schedule ahead, writes Liviu Bird in this week's Power Rankings.
It’s shaping up to be quite the fight for the 2015 Major League Soccer Supporters’ Shield. The top five teams are separated by three points, and all of them could end up lifting the silverware without much surprise at the end of October.
Despite recent slumps from D.C. United and the LA Galaxy, they and current leaders the Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Dallas and the surging New York Red Bulls just need a couple results to differentiate themselves from the rest. It’s not that winning the regular season means all that much in a league that considers its playoff champion the true victors, but home-field advantage throughout the playoffs has proven vital in recent years.
Since moving to the highest-seed-hosts format, just two teams have come through the knockout rounds to make it beyond even their next opponent—and that was in the first year, when the Galaxy beat the Houston Dynamo in the 2012 final. In the past two years, the importance of a higher seed has come through, despite the Supporters' Shield winner also winning MLS Cup in just three out of the last 13 seasons.
Traveling for the first leg of a two-game series spelled defeat for 10 of 14 teams in 2013 and 2014. So it’s not impossible to win as the underdog, but the parity of such a close league is at least somewhat reduced in the postseason.
With that in mind, teams will be fighting for positioning as hard as those trying to simply make it to November.
Here are a few thoughts on MLS Week 28 and upcoming action as it relates to playoff positioning:
Red Bulls have pole position in East
After their 3-2 comeback win against the Chicago Fire, the New York Red Bulls finally knocked D.C. off the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Coming in as the favorite, the Red Bulls made things interesting for themselves when they had to overcome an early two-goal deficit to win the game.
Now, they’re top of the heap, have a massive advantage in goal difference on the rest of the conference and a fairly favorable remaining schedule that includes finishing the season against the Philadelphia Union at home and at Chicago.
D.C.’s schedule in league play isn’t much tougher, but the CONCACAF Champions League complicates things.
Making things more impressive, Jesse Marsch’s team has three games in hand on United—but of course, it’ll have to make those matches count. Look out for the Columbus Crew, who sit third and play both teams in front of them; United plays the Crew twice, including on the final day.
San Jose stretching for playoffs in the West
On the opposite coast, the San Jose Earthquakes seem likeliest to break into the top six among teams that aren’t there already. Three points separate them in seventh with Houston in eighth, meaning the Dynamo have to make up six points to leapfrog the Portland Timbers.
A draw at home against the Seattle Sounders didn’t help San Jose at all, especially considering that a win would have put the Quakes all the way in fifth place.
They have chances to take results from struggling teams in the East, specifically New York City FC and the Montreal Impact, before four important and difficult in-conference games close the season out.
It will be difficult for San Jose to replicate its recent form over that stretch, having lost just twice in the last eight games. But if the Earthquakes can do that in matches against Real Salt Lake, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City and at Dallas to finish the season, nobody will say they don’t belong in the playoffs.
Other competitions adding to difficult schedules
It’s a good and bad thing to be in the Champions League at this time of year, especially in a league that doesn’t value continental competition that highly yet. For teams in tough spots with regard to league positioning, that misery is compounded in a whirl of excess travel, squad rotation, minimized training opportunities and selection headaches.
This week, MLS participants in CCL will be: D.C., which dropped out of first in the East thanks to a four-game winless streak; RSL, which needs all the positive results it can get just to make the playoffs; and Vancouver, whose youngsters have proven resilient in a congested timetable but who are also trying to make history by winning major silverware twice in the same season.
Next week, Seattle and LA will also be active in the competition, and Kansas City and Philadelphia face off in the U.S. Open Cup final on Sept. 30. None of those teams are likely to complain too vociferously, but they could certainly use less distractions during the all-important run-in to the playoffs.
More games with playoff implications coming up
Next week, Montreal and San Jose face off in a big game for both sides. They’re right on the border of the playoff places, the Impact currently in and the Earthquakes out, and the Canadian team in particular could use a win with a tough home game against the New England Revolution just three days later.
Another game with possible postseason influence includes RSL hosting the Galaxy. Regardless of each team’s positioning, that’s traditionally a hard-fought game that rarely sees more than a couple goals scored throughout 90 minutes, and that intensity only increases at this time of year. With Juan Manuel "El Burrito" Martinez making his mark in his first RSL start, the club could easily play role of spoiler while maintaining its thin playoff hopes.
Finally, Houston travels to Philadelphia on Sunday in a desperation game for both teams. Without a win, both can pretty much kiss their playoff chances goodbye, and a draw doesn’t do either much good.
Every week will be packed with these kinds of games from now on.
Week 28 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Tim Melia (Sporting Kansas City)
DEFENDERS: Bobby Burling (Colorado Rapids), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Omar González (LA Galaxy)
MIDFIELDERS: Michel (FC Dallas), Sacha Klještan (New York Red Bulls), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Adrian Winter (Orlando City SC)
FORWARDS: Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)