Monday, October 17, 2011

The MLS Grinder: The End of Days

We're almost, almost there. Until the playoffs come bounding back out of the closet to barrel us over with the kind of dramatic flair only the postseason can mete out, we're entered in the silly season. A week of conjecture, endlessly drab if-then scenarios and all the coach speak you can stomach. (You wanna hear "It is what it is?" this week, gang? Pay attention to Frank Klopas' inevitable "why we didn't make the playoffs" presser).

I have a fiery hatred for intricate mathematical playoff possibilities, mostly due to the fact that if they look anything like the Fire's need-to-have-this-happen playoff scenario, the statistical possibility of a postseason opportunity is lower than being struck in the face by the Hale-Bopp comet at a dead sprint at the bottom of the ocean. Look at this mess.

Chicago needs the following to happen to clinch one of the league's final four playoff spots. They must win their season finale against the Crew, AND Portland can't win either of its last two (DC and RSL), AND DC United must tie/lose to either Portland or SKC, or the Red Bulls lose to the Union AND the Fire somehow overcome NY's goal difference of five goals. The MLS research team member who was coerced into hunting that down wasted a good portion of his day, because the Fire are as good as gone.

But this was a nice consolation prize, one that forced all these meandering statistics.

In any case, we have nine spots taken already, which means there is one remaining playoff opening to be split between the following: New York, Portland, Chicago or DC. We've deduced Chicago's chances, which makes the Red Bulls' pathway seem comically simple by comparison: beat Philly. That's it. For New York, win and you're in. Things get needlessly complicated should Philly triumph, to the point where Portland, DC United and Chicago all need to lose either one or two games. The trouble with all this is the Union are still in contention for the East's top seed, meaning Peter Nowak will undoubtedly be fielding a first choice side when these teams clash on the final weekend of the regular season.

It's still absurd that New York is even in this position, but with Rafa "Destroyer of Worlds and Locker Rooms" Marquez going all Tazmanian Devil-meets-H-Bomb on Tim Ream coupled with the team's utter lack of depth, I guess it all makes a modicum of sense. I do think it's funny that Hans Backe's name has been thrown into the blender for the worst coaching jobs in MLS history. It's a discussion worth having, especially if the Red Bulls fail in their playoff quest. The issue I'd take is that Backe's roster was, in essence, a cheap Western movie set lashed together in haste. It looks fantastic and holds up well on screen, but in even slight breezes it topples over with ease.

And while we're on those Red Bulls, beating Philly got geometrically harder because of Thierry Henry's stupidity in a 2-0 loss to SKC over the weekend. This act will force the league's best player to miss the Red Bulls' biggest game of the year. An appropriate end of the road for this group if it comes to that.

Now, let's take a brief jaunt around the league for the who's and what's of Week 32. The playoffs are so close I can taste it.

- Backsliding FC Dallas put the brakes on the collapse with a 2-0 win over Vancouver. It's notable for a few reasons. Most importantly, Brek Shea was involved in both goals, assisting Marvin Chavez on the first and scoring the second himself. This is big news for the Hoops. Shea has logged an incredible amount of minutes since July, about 1,700 in all competitions. His tired legs and weary attacking impetus are both the first to go, and seeing Shea right the ship on the eve of the playoffs will give MVP-less Dallas a huge mental edge. And in other, more embarrassing news, Vancouver joined an elite group of superstars by being the fourth team in league history to fail to win an away match. Let us all doff our top hats to the West for this achievement of substance.

- The Galaxy are just showing off at this point.

- With its win over shorthanded New York, Sporting KC is in the playoffs for the first time in three years. I was vocal in my support for SKC's title chances last week, and I still think this team has the juice to take a crowbar to the playoff scene. But 'ay, here's the rub: SKC is not so good away from Livestrong Sporting Park. A 3-7-6 record away does not inspire confidence in road matches come playoff time for a side severely lacking in postseason experience. The good news is SKC can lock up homefield advantage through to the MLS Cup with a win over seventh-place DC United in their regular season finale. Should that happen, there's not an Eastern Conference team I'd pick over SKC going forward.

- The Timbers were once level with New York on points and trailed only on goal differential. The goal differential bit is out of the question. It appears the playoffs are headed that way now as well. With a 2-0 loss to Houston, those dreaded scenarios are now in play for the boys from the Rose City.

I don't have the numbers on this to compare with previous expansion sides (I know, I know), but Portland, which is now through with its home matches, sold out each of its 17 league matches (Jeld-Wen seats just north of 20,000) and got a total of 320,051 fans to the park this season. Very, very impressive. But you know what I think about that already.

- The Union are in the playoffs for the first time after a 1-1 draw with TFC. A long way to come after a 15-loss campaign last year. Now they control their own playoff fate. Pretty incredible luxury to have 19 months after your first game as a franchise.

- Lastly, a proper sendoff for Kasey Keller this week. Keller, who is walking off into the sunset at season's end, got a rousing ovation from a rowdy crowd 64,000 supporters at Seattle's home finale last weekend. And look at these locks.

- Will Parchman

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