The Beauty Of MLS In OctoberScramble for Supporters’ Shield, playoff spots setting up memorable final month
by Ray Marcham | Friday, October 02, 2015
October is setting up to be one of the most unpredictable months MLS has ever had.
Of course, not everyone is happy about that.
With a month left in the regular season, almost nothing has been settled as far as playoff positioning, or even who might make the playoffs. Only the Chicago Fire has been eliminated from postseason contention, though Colorado and Philadelphia could be added to that list with losses this weekend against Real Salt Lake and Toronto, respectively.
The only team that has clinched a playoff spot is New York Red Bulls, but they could still end up anywhere from first to sixth in the Eastern Conference, depending on how the month goes. They can’t let up, especially with a possible second Supporters’ Shield in three years in sight.
Oh, yes, the Supporters’ Shield. The winner of the Shield also has the inside track to host the MLS Cup, and right now there are 10 clubs within six points of each other. Los Angeles took the lead on Sunday night after defeating FC Dallas, as the Galaxy are in the midst of their now-traditional last season surge to the top. They jumped past Vancouver and NYRB with the win, which Dallas also could have done if they had won in SoCal.
But even with the Galaxy being the first to 50 points, that Vancouver, New York, Dallas, New England and Columbus are all within 3 points (or, a win) of LA shows just how much is still at stake. Even up-and-down Seattle, free-falling DC United, and the mysteries that are Sporting Kansas City and Portland are within striking distance of the Galaxy, if things go right.
Portland isn’t assured of a playoff spot, with San Jose and Houston both within a game of the Timbers in the West. RSL isn’t entirely out of the picture, either, but they need wins & have to hope that the Timbers/Quakes/Dynamo all stumble.
While not all of the spots in the East are clinched, the top six are pretty much set. Montréal is four points up on Orlando City and five points up on New York City FC with two games in hand on both, so the Impact are as good as in. But since only six points separate NYRB, New England, Columbus, DC United, Toronto and Montréal, who gets the first-round byes and home matches won’t be known until the last weekend of the season.
This situation doesn’t please everyone. The expansion of the MLS playoffs from 10 teams to 12 is still questioned by some who feel that too many teams make the postseason. If this was a 10-team playoff, the Impact and Timbers would be on the outside looking in, but still with a great chance to get in. It would also make the positions every team in slots 1-5 in each conference a bit shaky, but the closeness of the races would still be intact.
If anything, the new playoff format has taken away the prize of finishing third, as they no longer skip the play-in match and go straight into the conference semifinals. The prize of getting that first-round bye for teams that finish first or second is stronger, and this season that may be as important as making the playoffs.
The importance of playoff positioning, and even making the playoffs, makes every game in the regular season that much more important. While some may point to this season as a reason why there should be a smaller playoff (or, for the Europhiles, none at all), it also supports the format because it allows more teams to stay in the race for a longer period of time. This way, there are fewer “meaningless” matches where both clubs are just playing out the schedule, which leads to dreadful matches that have no meaning. Even Chicago can still impact the playoffs, with matches against New England, DC United and the Red Bulls still ahead.
Besides, having 12 out of 20 teams make the playoffs isn’t out of the ordinary for North American sports. Both the NHL and NBA have 16 out of 30 teams make it, and in NCAA Division I FBS football, an astonishing 80 out of 128 teams will make the postseason. Yes, the NFL has 12 out of 32 make the playoffs, and MLB has 10 out of 30, but that means a large amount of teams are playing out the string well before the season ends, with nothing to play for.
In a way, MLS has gotten a bit lucky this year. That the top of the league is so tight has been a major plus in making sure the season finishes strong. Some may see that as “mediocre” or a sign that the league has too much parity, but they ignore the big picture.
That big picture shows a season of ups & downs heading to an exciting finish. The Supporters’ Shield race is incredibly tight, positioning for spots is frantic and almost every match having meaning. It won’t be pretty, and soccer at this time of year rarely is, but it will be fascinating.
And it just may be setting up the best October MLS has seen.