Seven teams for three spots: MLS playoff scenarios will keep heads spinning into final weekend

By John Marshall, AP
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

MLS season down to the wire

One team is in with a win, can still get there with a loss. Another needs to win or lose by two goals or fewer. Five teams have already clinched, three are out. Six could end up tied and the deciding factor could be goal differential, fewest disciplinary points, even a coin toss.

Got all that?

Now, who’s on first and what’s on second?

Seven months of jockeying has come down to one wild weekend in Major League Soccer. Seven teams, three playoff spots, eight games, more than 50 different scenarios to sort out the Laurel and Hardy-ish playoff possibilities.

Go ahead, try to keep up. Just have the aspirin bottle ready.

“We don’t even talk about it,” Dallas FC coach Schellas Hyndman said. “It’s too complicated and we need to win a game before we can dream about anything else.

Here’s what we know for sure: Columbus, Houston, Los Angeles, Chivas USA and Seattle are in the playoffs, New York, San Jose and Kansas City are out.

After that, it’s amalgamation of disorientation.

The lynchpin in this wheel of uncertainty is Chicago.

Beat Chivas on Thursday night, the Fire are in, no questions asked. If Chivas beats Chicago? Well, the MLS playoff scenarios will look like something ripped straight from the pages of “The Foot Book,” by Dr. Seuss: One team, two team, red team, blue team.

Headed into the weekend, there’s seven teams between 37 and 42 points, including four with 39. A Chicago loss keeps Colorado, Toronto, D.C. United, Dallas, New England and Real Salt Lake in the mix.

Among the possibilities: five teams tying for the final three spots or six for the final two. Figuring it all out will be about like solving Sudoku puzzle designed by The Riddler: you’re not sure if there’s ever going to be a right answer.

“I’m not the brightest guy in town, so there’s no way I’m going to go over all that stuff,” D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen said. “The bottom line with us is that we need to win. The other stuff is out of our control. We have to take care of what we can control.”

Rather than go bleary-eyed running down every team’s playoff possibilities, take a look at Colorado as an example.

The simple part: beat Real Salt Lake on Saturday, the Rapids are in.

After that, it gets a little more complicated.

Lose to RSL, Colorado can still get in if it’s by two goals or fewer and only two of the teams with 39 points win. Tie on Saturday, the Rapids will need all four teams with 39 points to lose or tie, OR if only one of Toronto, New England, D.C. United and Dallas wins.

Head swirling yet? That’s just one team’s possibilities.

“I don’t know every possible situation,” Rapids defenseman Pablo Mastroeni said. “The extent of my knowledge is if we win, we solidify a spot. If we tie, then we’re basically hoping two or three teams on the other side lose or tie. That’s all I know.”

The chaos spawned in 2007, when MLS tweaked its playoff format.

The league gave wild card berths from 2000-02, when there were three divisions, then dropped it from 2003-06. Wild cards came back when Toronto joined as an expansion team, giving playoff spots to the eight best teams, regardless of conference.

The first couple of years, no problem.

This year, with some teams finishing strong, others limping to the line, the full complexity of the MLS playoff system has been revealed: it’s hard. Makes-your-head-hurt hard.

Funny thing is, figuring out who gets into the playoffs is actually the easy part.

Getting the seedings straight will take an abacus, an MIT roundtable discussion, a slide rule, maybe even a kindgarten-style bead counting game. And don’t even get started on the tiebreakers. That might lead to a Scanners-esque episode.

There’s so many permutations, the league office has had a half dozen people crunching numbers since the last game on Sunday to figure out who goes where. They get to do it again this Sunday.

“We have a number of people in the office who sit down and literally run through every possibility,” said Todd Durbin, MLS executive VP of player relations and competition. “With the conclusion of every game, they have to almost start over and rerun all the different possibilities. And this year they have been working overtime, overtime, overtime.”

At least it’s made for an exciting finish.

Heading into the final weekend of the season, 70 percent of the MLS teams have clinched playoff spots or are still in contention.

Going through the past year of playoffs in the four other major sports, only the NHL was anywhere near that climactic going into the final week of the season, with 57 percent of its teams in or still with a shot. The NFL had 44 percent of its teams still alive, baseball had 21 and the NBA had 19, according to MLS.

“A lot of teams are dreaming, fighting, biting — whatever it takes to get to the playoffs,” Hyndman said. “It’s like going to the dance. If you’re in the dance, at least you get a chance to participate. It’s fantastic for MLS soccer and will make for a fun weekend.”

Once it’s over, maybe then we’ll have an idea of who’s on first and what’s on second. Maybe.

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