Searching For A Wild Card

Searching For A Wild Card

  • Posted by Drew Epperley
  • On September 7, 2011
  • 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs, 2011 MLS Playoffs, 2011 MLS Season, Features, Wild Card

Real Salt Lake could be a wild card team this post season. (Getty Images)

It seems as each season goes in Major League Soccer, the wild card positions in the playoffs seem to be the ones with the most to gain and the least to lose.

Just taking a gander at the teams who have won a MLS Cup over the last couple of seasons and it was easy to figure out why the wildcard spots are so valuable these days. Long gone are the days in MLS where a eight of the ten clubs make the playoffs, now days it is ten of 18. Big difference in quality and quantity.

Even with the odd structure of the new playoff system this season it still seems that a wild card stands to gain the most, even with a tougher schedule. We’ve talked a lot this season about how good the Western Conference is and how dicy the Eastern Conference can be.

At this point the playoffs look fairly even with five teams from each conference sitting in the playoff zone. Sadly though, the top five clubs in the standings are Western Conference teams, which means the Eastern side will possibly see another non-EC champion this year in the playoffs.

On the flip side for those Eastern Conference teams, four of those teams in the top five have busy schedules to close out the season, which means by the time the playoffs hit, they could be a bit gassed to make ┬ádeep run to MLS Cup. So let’s look at each club in the wildcard zone to see what their chances look like for the remainder of the year and into the playoffs should they make it.

I’m going to start in the West and work my way back East here.

Real Salt Lake (currently 4th in Western Conference)

RSL is the one team in the West that stands to possibly move up into the automatic bids if they can work their remaining schedule right. They had struggled for a few games but they did look better against Philadelphia and Chivas in their last two. Right now they are only four points back of Dallas for that third spot and you can tell this is a club that does not want to have to deal with an extra wild card game this season. Still, should they find themselves in the wildcard zone I view them as one of the most dangerous teams in that group. They’ll likely be the top one and end up in the Eastern Conference bracket. That’s a scary idea for teams like Columbus, Kansas City or Philadelphia.

Colorado Rapids (currently 5th in Western conference)

The Rapids are one of the four Western sides with CCL dates to deal with in the remaining part of the schedule. It seemed as I was saying they were dead in the water back in June or July is when they really hit their stride as a club. I still worry about their depth going late into the season with all the CCL games but it seems that Gary Smith has found a way to balance the two out. As long as the Rapids don’ slide too far down into the wild card area here, they stand to have a good shot at things.

Portland Timbers (currently 6th in Western Conference)

The Timbers sit just a point away from being in the wildcard mix. They’re currently tied with the New York Red Bulls but with only a few home games left on the season they have to find a way to win on the road. This Timbers squad certainly has some talent to cause issues in the playoffs. You also have to believe the league front office is hoping and praying to get them into the playoffs, especially if they can host a home game in the wildcard round. At the end of the day this club still seems like a long shot at best with their remaining schedule.

Chivas USA (currently 7th in Western Conference)

This is just one of those clubs you wonder about. They’re certainly good enough to reach the post season but their consistency remains a big issue here this season. If Robin Fraser can even get a tenth of the Juan Pablo Angel that we used to see in New York then the Goats could be fine here. This club does appear to be one of the ones that could end up getting on a roll real late in the season if everything lines up. Dan Kennedy has proven to be a top class keeper this season and he could help guide them in the playoffs.

Houston Dynamo (currently 3rd in Eastern Conference)

The Dynamo are listed here solely on the reason that they still have yet to win away from home this season. As long as they take care of business at home to finish out the season and pick up a win somewhere away from Robertson Stadium, this club will certainly make the post season. It comes down to whether or not it will be an automatic birth or a wildcard birth. This club is certainly talented to make a deep run if they can find success away from home.

Philadelphia Union (currently 4th in Eastern Conference)

The Union have taken a nose dive in recent weeks with their play and are starting to look like a team that is in their second year. The remaining schedule is pretty tough for this club as well. Freddy Adu, Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and the rest of the team have to get on the same page here and the defense has to step up. What was a strong part of their club early on this season is starting to be very leaky. I really felt a couple months ago that this was a club that could make a deep run but now I’m not so sure. Getting a few games in a row where they look good will help get my feelings back on the good side with this club but they’ve looked a long way out from that recently.

New York Red Bulls (currently 5th in Eastern Conference)

Ah the Red Bulls. The one club that everyone is keeping an eye on right now. I will say one thing about them though, should they make the playoffs as a wild card team, they will be very tough to deal with. Why? All that talent has to eventually do something positive and for a short five-game span they could easily do it in the post season. This long layoff for the club will go a very long way in determining whether or not this Red Bull side reaches the post season or crashes out. I see them getting there but those last two or three games going into the post season will be key to show if this club is going to be a Cup contender like we all expected them to be or a club that crashes out in the first round again.

DC United (currently 6th in the Eastern Conference)

So much young talent with this club but really I feel they are a year away at this point. They could still sneak into the playoffs considering all the games-in-hand they have at the moment. Hard to believe it but they’ve actually played fewer games than RSL this season. I have reservations about whether or not this is a club that can pull off multiple wins in a row late in the year too.

Chicago Fire (currently 7th in the Eastern Conference)

Yes, a couple wins in a row and the Fire now sit just a few points shy of a playoff spot. Very weird how that works out but hey, give them credit for getting there. The last two months are always about momentum going into the playoffs and if the Fire keep this up they will certainly be a tough team to deal with. Their defense is coming together nicely and their offense is starting to take some serious shape. We know they draw a lot of games which means they are always in the game. What a story it would be if they made a run at things here too. Also, keep an eye on them in the US Open Cup final in Seattle next month. A win in that would mean huge things for this club going forward.