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)
The only positive in the way the Red Bulls started against Chicago was that they gave themselves enough time to impressively reverse the deficit and pull out a win to go top of the East.
The Revs are MLS’s hottest team by results, with five wins in a row and seven games without a loss, and Lee Nguyen is heating up again as the playoff draw closer.
Kei Kamara’s goalscoring form has been impressive this season, culminating in his 19th and 20th of the year in a win over the Union, all without a single penalty kick.
Carl Robinson summed it up well after beating Colorado: “You can play with not much quality and have a moment of magic and get three points. So we'll take the three points.”
It’s been 189 minutes since LA’s high-powered offense scored a goal, but Donovan Ricketts did record his first shutout on Saturday since rejoining the Galaxy in July.
Two quick goals at the end of the first half, including an olímpico from Michel, were enough for Dallas to jump into second place in the West after winning three in a row and eight of its last 11 games.
Despite being right on the edge of the playoffs, the most interesting story in the Rose City came off the field this week, as Darlington Nagbe finally became eligible to play for the U.S. after gaining citizenship.
Head coach Sigi Schmid was cleared to return to training following a mystery ailment that hospitalized him, and although he didn’t make the trip to the Bay Area this week, he’ll be back behind the bench on Saturday.
With how late the equalizer came and the fact that San Jose is in the hunt for a playoff spot, a tie at home against the Sounders has to be seen as two points lost rather than one point gained.
TFC turned in another miserable defensive performance on Sunday, which started with Damien Perquis’ own goal and was capped by Michael Bradley’s bizarre decision to try to dribble past two players in his own penalty area.
A draw away to the Galaxy can’t ever be considered a bad result, especially with Montreal clinging to the final playoff spot in the East—albeit still with at least one game in hand on the rest of MLS.
It’s now been four games since D.C. won, and it would be four losses in a row if not for a very late Steve Birnbaum goal in Colorado, where United really could have used three points.
SKC’s winless skid hit five games in a frustrating week on the road that saw it tie the Timbers before losing to former USL affiliate Orlando; it doesn’t get easier with FC Dallas up next.
RSL has won two games in a row twice this season, and without a third occurrence against the Galaxy on Saturday, it will be very difficult to claw a way into the playoffs.
Houston can’t afford any more weak performances, especially at home as it had against RSL on Saturday, if it’s going to overcome the current six-point deficit and make the playoffs.
Pablo Mastroeni spoke about concentration and decision-making after both games this week, which included giving up an 87th-minute equalizer at home in what has been pretty much an all-season pattern for the Rapids.
Despite a six-game winless streak that just ended (without the injured Kaká no less), the Lions are right on the edge of the playoff places still with at least four winnable games remaining in their last five.
Opportunities to sneak into the playoffs are dwindling for Philadelphia, which has played the most games in the East, although its remaining schedule is about as favorable as it gets.
For the second time this season and fourth in the last two years, Chicago relinquished a two-goal lead, this time conceding twice just 12 minutes after going up 2-0 in New Jersey.
Even with all NYCFC's big-name signings active and available (that is, until all were subbed out by the 66th minute and David Villa taken off at halftime), the playoffs continue to slip away from the club's grasp, as it has won just twice in the last 10 games.