MLS Playoff Cheat Sheet: Lots Of Teams Still Very Much Alive

COLUMBUS, OH - AUGUST 20: Carlos Valdes #5 of the Philadelphia Union and Andres Mendoza #10 of the Columbus Crew battle for control of the ball in the first half on August 20, 2011 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

With just five points separating six teams for the final three playoff spots, the end of the season should be interesting.

Over the course of the next month-plus, followers of the MLS playoff race are likely to hear a lot about how exciting the race has become. A lot of credit will undoubtedly be given to the 10-team playoff format, while people note how so many teams are still alive in the playoff race. Here's the thing, though: As it sits right now, on Saturday morning of Sept. 17, an eight-team playoff field would be yielding just as much, if not more excitement.

Playoff race

Here's how the MLS playoff race is shaking out:
Team Pts W GD GP
Galaxy 55 15 18 28
Sounders 48 13 12 28
FC Dallas 46 13 5 28
Real Salt Lake 45 13 15 26
Rapids 41 10 2 29
Crew 41 11 -1 28
Sporting KC 40 10 7 28
Union 36 8 5 27
Dynamo 36 8 -2 29
Timbers 36 10 -5 28
United 34 8 2 25
Red Bulls 33 6 4 27
Chivas USA 31 7 -1 28
Key: Green (Automatic West qualifier); Blue (Automatic East qualifier); Red (Wildcard)

After the Portland Timbers' win on Friday night, they moved into the No. 10 playoff spot with 36 points. It also moved them level on points with the No. 9 team (Houston Dynamo), as well as the No. 3 team in the East (Philadelphia Union). In other words, if there were an eight-team playoff field, we'd have three teams level on points for the final spot. Conversely, we still have the exact same number of teams competing for that final spot as DC United would still be just two points back and the New York Red Bulls would still be just three back.

All of this is a long way of simply pointing out that there are a lot of teams still in the playoff race -- and would be even if there were fewer teams making it.

To help sort through all this, I'm creating a MLS Playoff Cheat Sheet that will help sort through all the various scenarios. Truth be told, I probably should have posted this on Friday, but ... life, what are you going to do? Each week, I'lll update this with how the various races are shaping up.

Supporters' Shield

The Los Angeles Galaxy currently hold a seven-point advantage over their closest competitor (Seattle Sounders) and a 10-point lead on Real Salt Lake, which does have two games in hand. Right now, this is the closest thing to a decided race.

LA Galaxy (55 points): Their lead is safe for the next few weeks no matter what they do, but with three of their final five on the road after this one, picking up points at home against a horrible Vancouver Whitecaps team is a must.

Sounders (48 points): Lose to DC United at home, and there's really no sense in continuing to include them in this race. Heck, anything less than a win probably ends whatever slim hopes they have at the Shield.

FC Dallas (46 points): Take whatever I said about the Sounders and apply it here. The Toros host the Red Bulls and need to win.

Real Salt Lake (45 points): With two games in hand, their nine-point deficit is not quite as big as it looks. But they need points out of those games to make it matter. They too are at home, but host a very tough Sporting Kansas City team. Assuming the Galaxy take care of business, RSL probably needs a win to remain relevant in this race.

Eastern Conference

The Columbus Crew currently hold a one-point lead over Sporting KC, who are four points clear of the next team. This week's results could either make this a very interesting race or turn it into a two-team affair.

Crew (41 points): Fresh off a tie against the Dynamo on Wednesday, the Crew sit alone atop the East for at least a few days. To stay there, they probably need at least a point at home against the Union.

Sporting KC (40 points): From here on out, SKC will play the same number of home games as away games. Saturday's game at RSL is easily their toughest game remaining on their schedule. Truth be told, they can probably afford to lose and still be in fine position.

Final playoff spot

Six teams are within five points for the three playoff spots. As it stands right now, three teams are level on 36 points, which would decide everything from the third automatic spot in the East to the No. 10 playoff spot.

Union (36 points): Just a few weeks ago we were talking about the Union making a run at the Eastern Conference crown. A loss on Saturday could now theoretically knock them out of playoff positioning. They are not yet in must-win territory, but after this home game against the Crew, they have just two of their final six at home.

Dynamo (36 points): As crazy as it sounds, the Dynamo really could make the playoff without a single road victory, but home games like Saturday's against the San Jose Earthquakes are absolute must-wins. The Dynamo have just four games left after this, two of which are on the road. 

Portland Timbers (36 points): On Friday, they picked up an absolute must-win to move into the final playoff spot. They they sit and wait.

DC United (34 points): More than any other team, United has some margin for error as they have at least two games in hand on every team they are racing against. They can probably afford to lose to the Sounders on Saturday, but any kind of points would really help their cause.

Red Bulls (33 points): As bad as it has gone for the Red Bulls, they can still turn the season around. It seems unlikely to start with a road win at FC Dallas on Saturday, but that would put them right back into playoff position. The good news is they still have four road games in their final six after Saturday.

Chivas USA (31 points): As much as being five points back from the final playoff spots is an uphill climb, the Goats also have one of the tougher remaining schedules. Saturday's match at the Chicago Fire is actually one of their more winnable matches and one in which they almost have to grab points to have any hope of making the playoffs. 

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