Making Sense of the Mangled MLS Eastern Conference Playoff Race
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Friday, 23 September 2016 08:20

If the last weekend of play in Major League Soccer taught us anything, it's that we don't know a thing when it comes to predicting the playoff races, especially in the Eastern Conference. 

Only two of the 10 teams in the East took three points out of Week 28, and both of those results were road wins by the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew. 

Philadelphia lost on the road, D.C. United needed a late equalizer to tie the Chicago Fire, New York City FC played to level terms with FC Dallas, and Toronto FC came from behind to draw the New York Red Bulls at home. 

With a month left in the regular season, basically anything can happen in the East. Toronto are still the clear favorites to capture the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, but one more slip-up by Greg Vanney's men could open the door for either of the New York sides to slide into the top position. 

Philadelphia and Montreal seemed to be locks to qualify for the postseason a few weeks ago, and in all honesty, they should still make it, but a late surge by New England has put the fourth- and fifth-place clubs under a bit of pressure entering Week 29. 

Starting with Friday's clash between NYCFC and Chicago at Yankee Stadium, Week 29 presents us with a quintet of juicy affairs that could alter the landscape of the East further. 

The same can be said about the rest of the matchweeks leading up to the final day of the season on October 23, as the teams still in contention fight for the best spots possible. 

As we mentioned above, Toronto are still in charge of their own destiny despite dropping two points to the Red Bulls at BMO Field on Sunday. The Reds play four of their final five matches at home, including three in the next week starting with Philadelphia on Saturday. 

The formula is as straightforward as it gets for Toronto. If the Reds win the remainder of their home contests, they will secure the top spot in the East and challenge the top sides in the Western Conference for the Supporters' Shield. 

Jozy Altidore is in the form of his life, with eight goals in his last nine games. As if the Toronto attack wasn't scary enough, Sebastian Giovinco is preparing to return from injury. If Altidore and Giovinco are both in form entering the postseason, it will be hard not to pick against the Reds. 

The picture is cloudier once you look below Toronto in the standings. The Red Bulls and NYCFC are both two points behind Toronto, with the Red Bulls holding the tiebreaker advantage at the moment. But that could all change if Jesse Marsch's men continue to give away leads. 

The Red Bulls have let in a pair of goals when leading in three of their last five matches. Had they won at least one of those matches, they would've been in decent shape to challenge Toronto. Despite the incredible form of Bradley Wright-Phillips in front of the net, the Red Bulls haven't been able to put everything together defensively. 

There is no doubt Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan can carry them in the final third, and it's almost guaranteed either player will be involved in every goal scored by the club at this point in the season. However, until the Red Bulls shore up their back line, they can't be considered a lock to earn the second first-round bye. 

The Red Bulls will try to benefit from a closing stretch at home as they play their next three at home against Montreal, Philadelphia and Columbus before visiting the Union on the final day of the season. Nine points at home should be enough to keep the Red Bulls in the top two. 

If more mistakes are made in New Jersey, NYCFC will be prepared to pounce. Losing Frank Lampard to injury will hurt Patrick Vieira's side, but the first-year boss has built up some nice depth and should be able to get more out of his young playmakers like Jack Harrison, Thomas McNamara and Khiry Shelton down the stretch. 

Three points against the Fire is mandatory for City on Friday as is at least a draw in Houston in a week's time. If NYCFC can pick up a win against either D.C. or Columbus to end the season, they'll be assured of a home playoff game in the opening round. A win in the first round could set up a New York derby series that everyone wants to see in the postseason. 

Philadelphia were the sexy bandwagon team at the start of the season due to their revamped squad under new sporting director Earnie Stewart. The Union have plenty of talent to remain in fourth, but they aren't exactly a lock given their road woes in 2016. 

The Union, who are 3-8-4 on their travels this season, must get at least a point out of either Toronto or the Red Bulls to set up their final two-game homestand. A victory over Orlando in the penultimate week of the season should keep the Union in the top four, but there are some questions lingering around the club at the moment since they have just three wins since July 17. 

After the Impact took a point at the death from the Union at Talen Energy Stadium in Week 27, it looked like Mauro Biello's side were trending upward. However, Montreal fell at home to New England in Week 28. Now the Impact are holding on to fifth place and are in danger of being dragged into the competition for sixth. 

Montreal have a game in hand on sixth-place New England, but they only have two games left at Stade Saputo. The Impact are going to have to grind out results on the road in order to stay above the red line in October. The matchup with the Revolution on the final day of the regular season could mean more than the Impact want it to. 

Then there's the heated race for sixth, which could take its latest turn on Sunday if the Crew take care of business at home against the Revolution. New England are the hottest team in MLS right now, as they've taken nine points from three matches in September. 

Jay Heaps has tinkered with his formation to get the best out of Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo and others in attack. The Revs have the experience to come out on top in the battle for the final playoff spot, but nothing can be taken for granted, especially after last weekend. 

New England can eliminate the Crew's hopes of a late surge from ninth with a win on Sunday at Mapfre Stadium. The Revs have a favorable schedule after Sunday, as they host Sporting Kansas City and Montreal as well as visit Chicago.

Everything is set up for the Revs to clinch a playoff position, but where they will be seeded is hard to predict given the recent play of the two teams directly above them. 

D.C. United and Orlando City are both facing an uphill climb entering Week 29, and we may see just one of those sides push the Revs in some fashion since they face off at RFK Stadium on Saturday night. United also have a chance to knock Columbus out of the race for good on Wednesday at home during their game in hand. Six points at home will give the Black and Red a chance heading into October, but they will have to match New England's result every week. 

Orlando's 2-6-6 road record doesn't set them up for success, with a two-game road trip against D.C. and Toronto ahead. The Lions must steal a point from D.C. on Saturday to keep in contact with the teams above them. Nothing is out of the picture yet for Jason Kreis' side, but with three out of their next four on the road, they could be too far out heading into their clash with D.C. at home on October 23. 

As for Columbus, they are still technically alive, especially with two games in hand on the Revolution, but a loss to New England on Sunday would put them 10 points back with six matches to play. If the Crew somehow pull out six points against the Revs and D.C. in the next few days, they'll be in the mix, but a three-game road swing to end the season, with the final two in New York, may be too much for them to handle. 

The East is set up for a thrilling and unpredictable finish to the regular season, and the postseason should be as wild as the chase for the six playoff positions. Toronto, both New York teams and Philadelphia look like they will hold form and remain in the top four. Montreal and New England have to be seen as the favorites to earn the final two spots. 

But with the high number of head-to-head matchups in the next month, anything can happen, with the four teams separated by four points fighting for fifth and sixth. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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