By Simon Fudge/whitecapsfc.com
The final weekend of the 2008 USL First Division regular season is nearly upon us, and there is much to be resolved before the playoffs begin.
Six clubs have assured themselves of a place in this year's USL-1 playoffs, with the final spot to be determined between Minnesota Thunder, Atlanta Silverbacks, and Carolina RailHawks. For the playoff-bound clubs, meanwhile, the coming weekend offers them a chance to improve their seeding before postseason action begins on Friday, September 26.
Starting at the top of the table, Puerto Rico Islanders need only a point from their last two games to secure first place and the Commissioner's Cup as regular season champions, as well as a first-round bye in the playoffs. Colin Clarke's side host Atlanta on Friday before traveling to Montreal for a clash with the Impact on Sunday. A draw from either of those two matches will suffice for the Caribbean outfit.
With second place guaranteed, Vancouver Whitecaps FC are the only club that can catch Puerto Rico for first place. In order for Teitur Thordarson's side to achieve this, the Whitecaps must win Saturday's match with the Sounders in Seattle and hope the Islanders lose both of their final two games. Vancouver cannot finish level on points with Puerto Rico, as the Islanders hold the tiebreaker between the two clubs.
Canada's other USL-1 club in Montreal Impact can secure a third-place finish with a victory in either of their last two matches. John Limniatis' side face the Thunder in Minnesota on Saturday before hosting Puerto Rico the following day. Rochester Rhinos, meanwhile, can finish no higher than fourth in the table, having missed the chance to put pressure on Montreal after Wednesday's 1-0 defeat at Miami FC Blues.
Charleston Battery can overtake the Impact in third. A win over Southern Derby rivals Carolina on Friday would go a long way to boosting their chances, but even a draw with the RailHawks – combined with two Impact defeats and a Sounders draw with Vancouver – will be good enough as well, as Mike Anhaeuser's side hold the tiebreakers over Montreal, Rochester, and Seattle.
The Sounders can also finish third. Yet, for that to occur, the Emerald City club must beat the Whitecaps, have Montreal claim no more than a point from their last two matches, and hope Charleston take no more than a point versus Carolina.
Minnesota currently sit in the final playoff place, and although a win in their final game with Montreal would come as a boost, the Thunder's chances may hinge on how Atlanta performs in their final two games in Puerto Rico and Miami. The Silverbacks hold the tiebreakers on both Minnesota and Carolina, and one victory may be all that Jason Smith's side need to finish in seventh place.
Carolina have the slimmest chance of making the playoffs. In order for Scott Schweitzer's side to make it, the RailHawks must win their final two games versus Charleston and Portland Timbers, hope Atlanta earn no more than three points from their last two matches, and have Minnesota claim no more than a draw with Montreal. Carolina hold the tiebreaker with Minnesota, should both those teams end the regular season in seventh on 37 points.
With the first-place club receiving a bye, the next six teams enter the first round of the playoffs and will be seeded by their final positions in the standings. Second place will play seventh place, third place take on sixth place, and fourth place meet fifth place in three two-leg aggregate score contests on September 26 and 28. The three first-round winners will join the first-place club in the semifinals, with the lowest seed facing the regular season champions. These two match-ups will also be decided over two legs on October 3 and 5.
The two winners will then advance to the USL-1 championship final on Saturday, October 11, with the match to be hosted by the club that has the higher seed.