After New York's solid 2-0 win over the New England Revolution last night, the Red Bulls have clinched first place in the Eastern Conference and the right to play the sixth place team in the Western Conference in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs. Currently, that spot is occupied by the Colorado Rapids. San Jose is in fifth place, one point ahead of Colorado with a largely inferior goal difference. Seattle sits in fourth place, three points ahead of Colorado, with the worst goal difference of the three clubs. Anyone can finish anywhere. Technically Seattle have a chance at third, but a match-up against Real Salt Lake, the current second place team, isn't exactly appealing.
In a reasonable system, these three teams would be fighting for fourth place. Really, these teams should be fighting for fifth place. Why fifth place? Thanks to Major League Soccer's playoff system, higher seeds aren't always advantageous. The top two teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs automatically with the next four best placed teams qualifying, regardless of conference. If there are more than four teams that qualify from a conference, the excess teams move to the opposite conference. Fourth place keeps you in the west. This year, that is an inherent disadvantage.
Currently, the team that finishes in fifth place in the west will be re-seeded and become the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. That team will face Columbus Crew, a team that are in awful form and almost certainly weaker than the Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, and the New York Red Bulls. The team that finishes fourth in the west will either face number one seed Los Angeles Galaxy or Real Salt Lake. Hardly a reward for finishing ahead of the fifth and sixth place teams.
So, what do the current fourth through sixth place teams in the west do in the final week of the season? It's hard to believe that professional athletes would willingly lose a game, but their managers have to be aware of the giant gorilla in the room that is Columbus and their atrocious form. Seattle would be heavy favorites and Colorado and San Jose should both be even money at worst against the Crew.
The first of these teams to play is Seattle Sounders, the current fourth place team. They go on the road against the Houston Dynamo, and if Sigi Schmid is smart, he'll pull Fredy Montero and other stars off the field and give some youngsters and reserves a run-out. If they tank it and lose, San Jose will have a decision to make. Their match starts 30 minutes before Colorado's, and Colorado will almost certainly be going for the win. They're also unlikely to get it against RSL, widely regarded as the current best team in MLS.
If Seattle loses, they better hope San Jose comes out guns blazing against Kansas City and that Chris Wondolowski lays them to waste. If San Jose are smart, they'll bench everyone and stay put in fifth.
I'm calling it now: The San Jose Earthquakes, your Eastern Conference Champions.