MLS Playoff Watch: Parity keeps everything interesting

10/07/2013 9:53 AM

10/07/2013 10:01 AM

Remember last week when everyone thought that Sporting KC were all but out of the race for the Supporter's Shield after a 1-0 home loss to Philadelphia?

Yeah. Forget that thought. This is a really strange league right now.

Sporting Kansas City took care of business on Saturday on the road. And, thanks to some fortuitous results elsewhere, are just two points back of New York with a game in hand. Sporting KC has the highest maximum possible points (60) in the East. One more than New York, two more than Montreal.

As of Monday, pretty much every team (save Toronto, D.C. United and Chivas) is still alive in the playoff hunt.

In the East, six points separate fourth-place Montreal from 8th place Columbus. Out West, Los Angeles and Colorado are level for the last two spots with San Jose, Vancouver and Dallas within seven points.

Kansas City will travel to Houston for a vital match on Wednesday. A win, and Kansas City will join New York in clinching a playoff spot. A draw (combined with a loss by Chicago on the weekend) will have the same impact.

A loss could sting a little bit. But it won't be the end of the world. One win over the last three games will get KC to 54 points -- and a playoff spot.

Which is what you get in a league that has become the land of parity, where only one team has clinched a playoff spot and a dominant team or MLS Cup favorite has yet to be found.

Every team at the top of the table -- save SKC -- had issues this weekend.

New York needed a late goal to salvage a draw with out-of-the-playoffs New England. Real Salt Lake were down to 10 men against out-of-the-playoffs Dallas before a late equalizer saved them. Portland managed a positive result with a draw, but it was points dropped to an out-of-the-playoffs Vancouver squad.

The shocker of the weekend, though, goes to the Seattle Sounders, the Supporter's Shield front-runners thanks to games in hand, who got thumped 5-1 by the Colorado Rapids.*

*The biggest reason Sporting Kansas City could get the Supporter's Shield? The West keeps beating up on each other. Portland and Real Salt Lake could've made up some ground in the race, but drew instead.

It's not like Seattle is alone with a multi-goal loss on their resume over the last few months. Since the All-Star break, the only three contenders in either conference that have not lost at least one match by at least two goals?

Sporting Kansas City, Colorado and Los Angeles.*

*You could make a convincing argument the Galaxy and Rapids are the hottest teams in MLS right, having won this weekend a combined 10-1. Of course, both could be overtaken and miss out on the playoffs unless they keep on winning. This league is really strange right now.

Every other team has a really bad loss or two. Especially in the East.

The Houston Dynamo got shelled 5-0 by Montreal and 4-1 by New York. Montreal lost by two goals to D.C. United back in August and then lost 3-0 to Vancouver. Philadelphia lost 5-1 to New England. Columbus and Chicago have three losses by at least two goals. Even New York has a 2-0 black-eye against Columbus.

These are all since the All-Star break.

What's more, only four teams in the entire league have fewer than 10 losses -- and New York, Seattle and Colorado have 9. Portland is the only team in the whole of MLS that absolutely cannot lose more than 10 games.

Just about every team is perfectly mediocre: Capable of winning -- or losing -- on any given night against any given opponent.

That's not an indictment of the league. Not by any means. It's a sign of competitive balance in a league that is built to enable parity.*

*Parity is why MLS has a salary cap in place and roster restrictions like caps for foreign and designated players.

It's also a sign that this is going to be a really tense and interesting close to the season.

Every game matters from here on out. Need further proof?

Kansas City can take the Supporter's Shield if it wins all three games on the schedule (and Seattle drops a game). Or it could miss the playoffs if it loses all three and Chicago* and Philadelphia win out.

*The max points for the Fire is 52. If Kansas City only picks up one point over the last three games and the Fire win out, KC and Chicago would be even on points and wins (the first tiebreaker). Kansas City would need to keep its narrow +3 "goals for" advantage over the Fire to make it into the playoffs in that scenario.

Sporting Kansas City, thanks to a parity-rich league, completely and totally controls its own destiny.

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