The Road to the MLS Cup Playoffs

The stage is set for an epic month of October

No doubt we’re all still buzzing after our biggest-ever win in Major League Soccer action on Wednesday night, however, it is now time to calm down and look at the bigger picture.

That bigger picture being the MLS Cup playoffs and for the 'Caps, becoming the first Canadian club to qualify.

Unless you have been living under a rock these past few weeks, Vancouver Whitecaps FC are locked in a battle for the fifth and final playoff spot with those pesky, never-say-die Texans that go by the name of FC Dallas.

Up until Wednesday night, Colorado Rapids, Portland Timbers and even cellar-dwellers Chivas USA all still had mathematical chances of making the postseason, but the flickering lights of their campaigns were extinguished – and then some – by Whitecaps FC’s record-breaking 4-0 result over Chivas USA.

Had it not been for the last-second heroics from San Jose Earthquakes super-sub Steven Lenhart last Saturday night, which deprived Toros of a huge win, the current situation for ‘Caps nation could have been tenser than inside a battle room of the Allied forces during World War II.

Okay, that last sentence is somewhat hyperbolic but still, we can’t underestimate how important these final few weeks of the MLS Regular Season are for Whitecaps FC.

The month of October is bound to be a pulsating affair for the keen observers of the Western Conference - which from here on in should be described as the Wild Wild West – considering Real Salt Lake (second, 52 points from 31 games), LA Galaxy (third, 50 points from 31 games) and Seattle (fourth, 49 points from 30 games) are in a dogfight to finish above the other and avoid that wildcard face-off with the team that eventually finishes fifth.

It’s safe to say the Earthquakes – who were the first team to clinch a playoff spot – won’t be dislodged from the summit because of the nine-point buffer separating them and RSL with three matches to go.

But what makes these closing weeks even more intriguing is that all these teams only tackle clubs from within the Western Conference.

And it will be interesting to see how Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles and Seattle deal with the ‘distraction’ of CONCACAF Champions League matches later this month. All three have to play one game but if one club is bound to have any disadvantage from this, it is Real Salt Lake. LA and Seattle have already clinched their spot in the quarterfinals, so they will no doubt field their reserve squads.

RSL, on the other hand, need a victory at home to Costa Rican club Herediano on October 23 – four days before hosting Whitecaps FC in the final match of the regular season. Not only do Salt Lake need to win that match to advance to the quarterfinals, but they can't let Herediano score, or else they will need to win by at least two clear goals to secure their advancement. The pressure is certainly on, so they could be fatigued heading into their final match with Vancouver.

So before we delve into the remaining fixtures for these teams, it is worth noting that due to the congestion on the Western Conference ladder from second to sixth, it is likely one of the tiebreakers could be used to separate the teams.

Two months ago, the MLS Board of Governors confirmed the first tiebreaker to be used for teams that are tied on points at the end of the regular season is the Goals For tally, and if teams have scored the same amount, then their Goal Differentials will be taken into account.

Thanks to Wednesday night’s big result, Whitecaps FC closed the Goals For gap on Dallas to three and the Goal Difference to two – but Dallas has played one less game.

Among RSL, Los Angeles, and Seattle, the Galaxy should emerge victorious should that trio finish level on points. Bruce Arena’s squad has 55 goals to its name compared to the Sounders’ haul of 45 and RSL’s 44.

RACE FOR FIFTH: VANCOUVER WHITECAPS FC AND FC DALLAS

In the understatement of the year, Whitecaps FC badly needed that win last night – which was the team’s first in the past eight matches. The result temporarily extended Vancouver’s advantage over Dallas to five points, with the Hoops on the road to the victims of last night’s beat down (Chivas USA) on Sunday. Dallas will be keen to take the three points in that game, though Chivas coaches and players stressed the need to play for pride – and their careers - in their remaining games.

Following the international break, both Vancouver and Dallas are in action on Sunday, October 21, which will see plenty of fans engaging in a bit of scoreboard watching on their phones. Whitecaps FC host Cascadia Cup rivals Portland Timbers while Dallas will be thrown into the cauldron known as CenturyLink Field to take on the Sounders. A first-ever win over a Cascadia Cup rival for the 'Caps together with a draw or a loss for Dallas in Seattle would see Whitecaps FC become the first Canadian side to make the playoffs.

If the race for fifth isn’t finalized that weekend, then it definitely will be on October 27-28 – the last round of the regular season.

Whitecaps FC have a tricky test away to Real Salt Lake (October 27) – who will be in a battle of their own higher up the standings – while FC Dallas will be back at home after three road games to take on Chivas USA (October 28) once again.

REMAINING MATCHES
WHITECAPS FC: v Portland (October 21); @ Real Salt Lake (October 27)
FC DALLAS: @ Chivas USA (October 7); @ Seattle (October 21); v Chivas USA (October 28)

RSL, GALAXY AND SOUNDERS BATTLE FOR SECOND, THIRD, AND FOURTH

This race is going to be wonderful to watch for all soccer fans because each of these three teams - Galaxy, RSL, and Sounders FC - will play each other this month. What’s more is each team will play multiple games in the span of a short period of time.

Sounders FC have played one less match than Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy and will be in the comfortable surroundings of CenturyLink Field for their next three matches, starting with the battle against Portland for the Cascadia Cup in front of 67,000 fans this Sunday.

After the international break, Sigi Schmid’s charges host Real Salt Lake on October 17 and then FC Dallas four days later.

On October 24, the Sounders have Champions League obligations to fulfil against the visiting Marathon before rounding out their season with a trip to The Home Depot Center to take on David Beckham and Co. on October 28.

Real Salt Lake have perhaps the most challenging stretch to end the season. Real travel to Carson to take on the Galaxy on Saturday before resuming their season in Washington in the middle of the month. To compensate for the trip to Seattle, RSL have a week to prepare for a home tie against Herediano in the Champions League before closing their season at home to what could be a desperate Whitecaps FC side four days later.

From a logistical standpoint, the Galaxy would have been hoping for a better schedule. Once the home date with Salt Lake and the international break is out of the way, LA travels to Western Conference leaders San Jose (October 21) before flying to El Salvador for a match four days later.

The club is likely to send out a starting XI packed with reserves for that midweek match in Central America considering they welcome the Sounders (who by then won’t have travelled since September 29 - and that was only a short drive to Vancouver) on October 28.

REMAINING MATCHES
REAL SALT LAKE: @ Los Angeles (October 6); @ Seattle (October 17); v Vancouver (October 27)
LA GALAXY: v Real Salt Lake (October 6); @ San Jose (October 21); v Seattle (October 28)
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC: v Portland (October 7); v Real Salt Lake (October 17); v FC Dallas (October 21); @ Los Angeles (October 28)

In a nutshell, it’s going to be one cracking end to the MLS regular season out here in the wild, wild West.