Sporting Kansas City’s 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union last night allowed the club to clinch the coveted No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The road to the MLS Cup now runs through Kansas City.
Joining them in the playoffs are the New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo, Chicago Fire and D.C. United. All four teams clinched a playoff spot last week, and heading into the final Saturday of the regular season, that is all we know.
The combinations are endless. Other than the No. 1 seed, no other seed in the Eastern Conference has been decided. There are three matches on Saturday that will clarify the playoff picture and provide the MLS with what should be an exciting night of soccer.
Chicago (currently third) is making its first playoff appearance since 2009, and can finish anywhere from second to fifth. A victory over D.C. United on Saturday would clinch the No. 2 seed, but a loss, coupled with a Dynamo victory, could leave the Fire free-falling to the knockout round.
The MLS’ midseason decision to change the first tiebreaker to goals scored is a detriment to the Fire. Of the four teams jockeying for playoff positioning, Chicago has the lowest goal tally (45).
They have not played well of late, losing three of their last four, and Chris Rolfe (eight goals with three assists) has only recorded one assist with zero goals in that stretch. He will need a better performance if he wants his team to avoid the knockout round.
Chicago’s opponent on Saturday, D.C. United (currently second), has won the MLS Cup a league-record four times, but is making their first playoff appearance since 2007.
They are traveling to Toyota Park on Saturday, where they have not lost since 2006 (3-0-3). A victory over the Fire would clinch the No. 2 seed, but like Chicago, a loss would send D.C. into the dreaded knockout round.
D.C., however, would be able to host the match at RFK Stadium on Halloween night. Many felt the injury to reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario would hinder United’s playoff chances, but credit is due to Ben Olson for galvanizing his team and leading this respected franchise to its eighth playoff appearance.
The Red Bulls (currently fourth) are coming off an impressive showing vs. Kansas City last week—a 0-0 draw where New York displayed a level of tenacity and mental toughness. New York can finish anywhere from third to fifth and will go on the road in search of a crucial three points.
The rival Union—eliminated from playoff contention—would love nothing more than to send New York on the road to fight for their playoff lives. The Red Bulls have not fared well away from the confines of Red Bull Arena and are winless on the road since May 19.
New York has been surrounded by recent turmoil, with the firing of their general manger Erik Soler and the speculated departure of head coach Hans Backe. They have not allowed it to derail their season and still have the opportunity to finish strong—igniting a momentous run towards the MLS Cup.
The scenarios do not end there.
Lost in all this chaos are the dangerous Houston Dynamo (currently fifth). As it stands, the Dynamo would have to travel on Halloween for the knockout round, but with some help, Houston can find themselves in third by the end of Saturday night.
Things get complicated for the Dynamo, as they need a few results to work in their favor. Houston would have to defeat the putrid Colorado Rapids and hope that both the Red Bulls and Fire fall earlier on Saturday afternoon.
Houston has the benefit of knowing their fate beforehand. If they are locked into the final playoff spot before the start of their match, the Dynamo may choose to rest their players for the knockout round just four days later.
It is a strategy that could spark a Cinderella run towards their third MLS Cup championship.
Many were critical of the unbalanced schedule this year, but it has succeeded in providing the MLS with an exciting finish—one that is sure to leave its fanbase on the edge of their seats.
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