Thanks to an imbalance in the number of matches played to this point and a needlessly complicated playoff structure that MLS commissioner Don Garber may tweak again soon, the Red Bulls' playoff picture looks muddied.
It looks like the Red Bulls have a tenuous grasp on the final wild card berth and need clubs like the Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire to cool off. It looks like D.C. United can knock them out of the postseason with winning ways and their game in hand. It looks like the Red Bulls are in trouble.
As the math bears out, looks can be deceiving -- and that's to the Red Bulls' benefit.
That's not to say the Red Bulls can skate into the MLS playoffs. They still have work to do, and the time for conceding draws at the expense of wins needs to be behind them over their final three matches. Their current standing doesn't absolve them of their responsibility to deal with Rafael Marquez's place on the club, nor how Red Bulls coach Hans Backe can keep his roster healthy for the final stretch.
But they do control their own destiny. And here's why:
This table represents every eligible playoff club not presently in possession of a Western Conference automatic berth (i.e. the only three spots New York can't use to get in the playoffs). "Points" is how many points the clubs have in the regular season standings. "GL" represents the number of games that club has left. "MAX" is the maximum number of points a club can attain by season's end if that club wins out the remainder of its matches.
Then there's a few new numbers for you to crunch. "Magic #" is the magic number pundits use to describe the combination of events necessary to clinch a better finish in the standings than the club in question.
Basically, we're talking about any result which would favorably benefit the Red Bulls in the standings. That magic number represents the number of points the Red Bulls need to get or the opponent needs to concede for New York to overtake them.
For example, the Red Bulls will mathematically eliminate the Chicago Fire from overtaking them in the postseason standings if both clubs somehow create a six-point gap that benefits New York. If the Red Bulls collect at least six points (+6 points) over their final three matches, the Fire can't catch them. If New York collects three (+3) and the Fire lose once (+3, since they conceded an opportunity to collect three points and keep up), Chicago's out.
In the next column, the "Tragic #" lists the antithesis -- the number of points the Red Bulls need to concede or the opponent needs to get for New York to be unable to overtake them. This refers to any result which would unfavorably harm the Red Bulls in the standings.
Thus, a Sporting Kansas City win (-3) plus a New Red Bulls draw (-2, since the draw would concede two of a possible three points they'd receive from a win) would prevent New York from overtaking the tenants of Livestrong Sporting Park since the combination of events (-5 points) would add up to the tragic number.
(A note: "TB?" asks whether the Red Bulls control the playoff tiebreaker over the club in question according to the league's rules and regulations. If New York doesn't control the tiebreaker, the other club receives one extra point in their favor in the "Magic #" and "Tragic #" columns since New York can't finish tied in the standings without the tiebreaker to their benefit.)
So where does that leave the Red Bulls? Presently, they sit in the final wild card berth according to the MLS Playoff Standings and three points behind the Houston Dynamo.
That latter point is important because, as the MAX column shows, the Dynamo, Red Bulls, and Portland Timbers cannot finish with more than 49 points over their remaining matches.
The Red Bulls hold the tiebreaker over the Dynamo (goal differential) and Timbers (win-loss) as well, which means a three-way tie would give the edge to New York -- and the playoff spot with it. That's backed up by the current "Tragic #" column, which shows that neither the Dynamo nor Timbers can reach it on their own.
Moreover, Houston and Portland kick off against one another on Saturday, October 14 and force the losing side between the Timbers or Dynamo into a 46-point cap or both sides into a 47-point cap in the standings with a draw. If New York wins out, they're guaranteed to jump at least one of those sides.
And what about D.C. United and their recent surge of success and their game in hand on the Red Bulls?
D.C. can still overtake their longtime Eastern Conference rival if they win out, but remember that the Red Bulls are guaranteed to overtake either the Timbers or Dynamo with a three-game win streak of their own. That would mathematically clinch at least 10th place in the standings as well as the final wild card berth -- and that's before any mention of D.C.'s rescheduled match against the Timbers on Wednesday, October 19 and that encounter's ramifications on the Red Bulls pursuit.
So what's the takeaway? New York still has a long way to go before they can print their playoff itinerary, but their postseason plans are still within their control despite their inconsistency and controversies. A little help can go a long way to secure their chances, but there's only one plan Backe needs to implement to ensure a playoff berth before time runs out on the 2011 season.
Win, and you're in.