With a little over half of the MLS regular season gone, it's time to start looking at the playoff picture. Both conferences are jam-packed near the top with only four points separating first-place Sporting Kansas City from fifth-place Houston Dynamo in the East and seven points between first-place Real Salt Lake and fifth-place L.A. Galaxy in the West.
In the Eastern Conference, bottom-dwellers Toronto FC and DC United have almost no chance of making the postseason, which leaves New England, Columbus and Chicago among those who are currently on the outside looking in. The Western Conference is a bit more competitive. Chivas USA is the only team that hardly has any chance of making the playoffs. This means Colorado, Seattle and San Jose are the ones that need to climb their way back up the standings.
The playoff hopes of many teams may look dim right now, but let's not forget the Galaxy's incredible run to make the postseason that started around the midway point of last season. Who has the potential to make a similar run? Keep on reading to find out.
Standing: Seventh in the West (24 Points)
Games Played: 17
The Seattle Sounders are currently behind the L.A. Galaxy and the Colorado Rapids for that fifth and final Western Conference playoff berth, but it's hard to consider them a "dark horse." They've played the fewest number of games in all of MLS thus far. With three games in hand against the Galaxy and four against the Rapids, the Sounders have a chance to climb the standings rather quickly.
Playing the fewest games means nothing, though, if Seattle can't make up those points. Their seventh-place standing is somewhat justified even with those games in hand since their points-per-game average of 1.41 also puts them seventh in the West.
Seattle's upcoming schedule can get them back on track, though. Their next three games are all at home, where they've won four in a row, outscoring opponents 13-4. The first of those three matches is against Colorado, and a win would mean a six-point swing. After that, the Sounders host Chivas USA, which should yield three more points. To cap off their homestand, Seattle will face FC Dallas, which is another potential six-point game.
The Sounders have never missed the playoffs during their time in MLS, and I don't expect them to start this season. They have some work to do to get there, but I fully expect them to safely make the postseason and contend for the MLS Cup.
Standing: Eighth in the West (24 Points)
Games Played: 21
The Earthquakes' playoff hopes certainly look dim, as they sit just above last-place Chivas USA. Up to this point, San Jose has fallen to earth and cracked under the pressure to perform up to the standard they set for themselves after last season's phenomenal Supporters' Shield-winning campaign.
Their schedule the rest of the way doesn't help their case, either. They have a three-game stretch where they'll face Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and L.A. Galaxy. To finish the regular season, they travel to face the Galaxy once again and then host Dallas for the season finale. If there is a bright spot on their schedule, it's the fact that they will get to play Chivas twice.
With Alan Gordon, Chris Wondolowski and Marvin Chavez all off on Gold Cup duty, the task at hand for the Earthquakes is just that much more difficult. To add to San Jose's woeful season, they've been absolutely horrid on the road. They have the worst road goal differential (minus-14) in the league and are 1-8-2.
The only hope for the Earthquakes is that they stay healthy the rest of the way and rediscover some of that late-game magic they had all of last season. Perhaps new signing Jaime Alas can be their savior and this season's Simon Dawkins. Or maybe they'll put their two unused designated player spots to good use and shock the entire league with a great signing. Emile Heskey, anyone?
Standing: Sixth in the East (24 Points)
Games Played: 19
After failing to qualify for the playoffs three years running, the Revolution are hoping they can turn that trend around this season. To do so, though, they must be more consistent. One week they crush the Galaxy 5-0, and the next, they settle for a scoreless draw with the worst team in the league, D.C. United.
The Revs have many things going for them, though. Their defense has been surprisingly stingy, only giving up 18 goals, which is tied for the best in MLS. With a home goal differential of plus-eight and a road goal differential of minus-three, they rank second and fourth in the East, respectively.
New England's youngsters have played a large role in the success that the team has had so far. Eighteen-year-old striker Diego Fagundez leads the Revs in scoring with five goals and also has four assists. In his second MLS season, 21-year-old Kelyn Rowe leads the team in assists with six. The Revolution are also hoping that 20-year-old Juan Agudelo can soon return from injury and add to his goalscoring tally.
Jay Heaps' team has a favorable schedule for the rest of the season. Their next three opponents consist of Columbus, D.C. and Toronto. After those matches, their remaining 12 games should also give them the opportunity to rise up the standings. They'll play Chicago and Columbus twice and will face off against Toronto and D.C. one more time.
Standing: Eighth in the East (21 Points)
Games Played: 18
With one of the league's top goalscorers in Mike Magee, it's hard to imagine the Fire not making a run at the playoffs. Magee has been scorching hot, scoring a goal in each of his first seven games with the Fire. He leads Chicago in scoring and is second in assists while only playing in seven of 18 regular-season games for them.
Chicago has shown they can hang with some of the best MLS has to offer. Just a couple weeks ago, they had a close game with Sporting Kansas City but lost 2-1. They were able to beat the Red Bulls 3-1 at the beginning of the season and have held the likes of Real Salt Lake and Portland to draws.
If the Fire want to have a chance at making the playoffs, though, they have to play better on the road. They are 1-5-2 away from home and have the second-worst road goal differential (minus-nine) in the league. On the road, they've been shut out four times this season and have only scored five goals in eight games.
With 18 games played, Chicago has a game in hand over the three teams that are directly ahead of them in the standings. Their schedule is unforgiving, though, as they'll have to face Kansas City, Seattle, Dallas and New York once and Montreal twice in their remaining games. However, Frank Klopas' squad will have quite a few "six-point swing" opportunities since both New England and Houston have two more games against Chicago.
All it boils down to for the Fire is winning the games they need to. Losing to teams like Kansas City and New York won't hurt them too much, as long as they win against the teams right above them in the standings.