Commentary

Four MLS teams vie for final playoff spot

Updated: October 19, 2011, 12:47 PM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

The MLS Cup playoffs won't officially begin until Oct. 26, but with four teams vying for the 10th and final playoff spot heading into the final week of the regular season, for all practical purposes the postseason will start a week early.

The madness is set to begin Wednesday when the Portland Timbers visit D.C. United in what amounts to an elimination game. The next night, the New York Red Bulls -- a team that controls its own destiny provided you ignore its near-terminal case of dysfunction -- will host the Philadelphia Union. The Chicago Fire, which needs a miracle to qualify, can only wait in the hope that the stars, planets and asteroids all align so that its game Saturday against the Columbus Crew actually means something.

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Andy Marlin/Getty ImagesPortland manager John Spencer has been disgusted with the number of points his side has left on the table this season.

For the likes of Portland and D.C. United, the fact that they can still qualify for the postseason elicits equal parts relief and anxiety. Portland's 2-0 loss to Houston last weekend put them in the unenviable spot of having to win its final two games on the road -- where it has won just twice all season -- and hope that New York slips up. But Portland manager John Spencer, who has squeezed the maximum out of his side this season, isn't the kind to stop fighting while a chance at a postseason berth remains.

"I think the guys know what's in store for them," he said. "It's almost like the second leg of a playoff series where you've tied 0-0 at home. We're going to have to go away on the road and win the game in order to advance into the next round. That's the way we're approaching it mentally."

That hasn't stopped Spencer from fuming over the points his side has left on the table this season. There was the blown two-goal lead against New York that resulted in a 3-3 tie. A similar implosion against Toronto ended in a 2-2 draw. Then there was the late 1-0 loss at home to Colorado.

"It's not clutching at straws saying, 'Oh, if we'd done this or done that,'" he said. "It's points that we had in the bag that we've managed to take out and throw away. That's been the disappointing thing. The good thing is that we've not been an expansion team that's come in and been blown away by everybody and not been good enough on the field."

Every team can engage in that kind of analysis, and none more so than United, which contrived to turn a 1-0 lead over Chicago on Saturday into a 2-1 loss by conceding two stoppage-time goals. Such a defeat normally induces the kind of hangover that only a truckload of aspirin can cure, but United manager Ben Olsen is banking on the short collective memory of his players to get the results the team needs.

"After Sunday, I think everybody was struggling mentally," Olsen said, "but the guys showed up on Monday with a new lease on life really. We thought we were out of it, and now we still have a chance, so that's really helped."

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Andy Marlin/Getty ImagesWith Thierry Henry suspended, Juan Agudelo will likely get the starting nod in N.Y.'s match against Philly. If they win, the Red Bulls will reach the postseason.

Olsen said he expects a high energy game, but given the stakes involved, it seems just as likely that caution will characterize the early exchanges. After all, both teams have a game this weekend as well, and there's no sense in playing recklessly. A goal in the second half will work as well as one in the opening minute.

That's why Portland will need to take a disciplined approach to stop United's lethal counterattack. The same goes for United, which will need to eliminate the kind of mistakes in the back that nullified its hard work against Chicago.

If New York takes care of business Thursday at Red Bull Arena, nothing else will matter. The Red Bulls own all the necessary tiebreaking criteria, be it head-to-head matchups or goal difference. A win and they're in. Then again, New York is a team for whom nothing is easy. Thierry Henry's foolish red card last weekend against Kansas City means he'll sit out the regular-season finale.

Juan Agudelo figures to start in Henry's place, but the Frenchman's absence means plenty of eyes once again will be on the New York midfield. The move of Rafa Marquez from center back to the center of midfield has seen the Mexico international have an uptick in form, although there have been some shaky times as well. Manager Hans Backe, who received the dreaded vote of confidence from general manager Erik Soler, indicated Marquez will remain in that role for the foreseeable future.

"I think it's better for us, because now we get one more guy who can make the final pass from midfield," Backe said. "Hopefully we can see that on Thursday. I just think we are more well-balanced with him in midfield."

But there are still issues with Marquez's ability to recover defensively, and this will be tested against a Philadelphia side for which Sebastien Le Toux has been on fire lately, with 10 goals in his past 11 games.

"Philadelphia is so, so dangerous every time the ball turns over," Backe said. "Nine times out of 10, the first pass after a turnover is behind a team's back four to Le Toux, who is flying now. When he was playing wide, he wasn't that effective, but in the middle as the higher striker, the timing on his runs has been phenomenal and they have been very precise. We just need to have a better reaction when we lose possession. We need to be all over them to force side passes, back passes, whatever it is."

That means Teemu Tainio will have to be on his game and provide the kind of mobility that Marquez lacks. Tim Ream will also need to avoid the kind of catastrophic mistakes that have marred his season.

As for Chicago, it is stuck on 40 points with one game remaining and is completely at the mercy of other results. Not only does it need New York to lose, but Chicago also needs to make up a five-goal deficit in the goal difference tiebreaker, an aim made more difficult by the fact that Columbus will be trying to claim the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Fire will have to get more points in their single game than the Timbers get in two, since Portland has a better head-to-head record. D.C. United will need to stumble as well. In other words, reaching the playoffs for Chicago would be akin to winning the lottery and the World Series of Poker in one weekend.

No wonder manager Frank Klopas said, "We're not even thinking about what might happen in other games. We're just focusing on Columbus and nothing else."

There is a tendency to think that too much is being made over which team qualifies for the final spot, but recent history has shown that seeding matters little once the playoffs start. Real Salt Lake claimed the 2009 MLS Cup from the eighth and final spot. Colorado won last year from the seventh position.

"We know that in this league, all you've got to do is sneak into the playoffs," Olsen said. "It doesn't matter how ugly or if you 'deserve it,' you just have to get in there."

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Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesOne dark horse to make a strong playoff run is the Houston Dynamo, which are looking like a much more solid outfit ever since Geoff Cameron returned to the back line.

Who's hot: An argument can be made that momentum heading into the playoffs is overrated. New York reached the 2008 MLS Cup final after winning one of its final six regular season games. But almost every coach and player will tell you they'd prefer to enter the postseason playing well. On that basis, Los Angeles and Seattle are peaking at the right time. L.A. is 7-1-1 in its past nine games, while Seattle has been almost as good, going 6-2-1 over that same span. One dark horse candidate is the Houston Dynamo, which are unbeaten in their past five matches and look like a much more solid outfit ever since Geoff Cameron returned to the back line.

A hot goal scorer can cover a multitude of playoff sins. Le Toux's aforementioned heroics have Philadelphia looking dangerous, and Columbus' strike tandem of Andres Mendoza and Emilio Renteria seem to be clicking at the right time, having combined for nine goals in the Crew's past 10 matches.

Who's not: A schedule unburdened by CONCACAF Champions League commitments was supposed to give Real Salt Lake an advantage during the regular-season stretch run. Instead, RSL has recorded a single point in its past five games. International duty, injuries and a killer suspension to Kyle Beckerman have served to undermine RSL's play. Beckerman will be back for the playoffs, and manager Jason Kreis hopes the midfielder's return will get Real back to its dominant form from earlier this season.

United has also been struggling, having dropped four in a row since Dwayne De Rosario's hat trick powered the Black and Red to a 4-1 win against Real Salt Lake on Sept. 24. United's young back line has looked especially suspect of late, conceding nine goals during their current losing streak.

And what to make of FC Dallas? Mired in a four-game losing streak, FCD looked to get back on track after consecutive wins over Chicago and Vancouver only to get pummeled 3-0 at home by Toronto in the CCL on Tuesday. While Brek Shea is emerging from his funk, the rest of the offense is struggling, having scored four goals in its past six league games.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.