MLS Playoff Cheat Sheet: Guide To Weekend Watching

PORTLAND, OR - JUNE 19: Jeremy Hall #17 of the Portland Timbers and Mehdi Ballouchy #10 of the New York Red Bulls battle for the ball during the first half of the game at Jeld-Wen Field on June 19, 2011 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The playoff race almost could not be more wide open as no fewer than 13 teams are still very much alive in the race.

As chance would have it, the midweek MLS games didn't do much to clarify the playoff picture. Sure, Friday's tie between Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union allowed the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake to clinch playoff spots, but those two were never really in doubt. That tie also moved Sporting level on points with the Columbus Crew, who lead the Eastern Conference, but that too is particularly notable.

With teams still having anywhere from four-seven games left to play, much can obviously happen. But make no mistake, some of these teams are entering must-win territory. This week, we'll start with the bottom of the playoff table and work our way up.

10th playoff spot

Portland Timbers: The boys from Rose City moved into sole possession of 10th place with a tie on Wednesday, but they know they really could have used those two extra points. Three teams are within five points and the Timbers have have four of their final five remaining matches on the road, where they've claimed just seven points all year. The biggest of those might just be on Saturday when they visit the New York Red Bulls. A win makes their lives a lot easier, while a loss may all but end their hopes of making the playoffs in their first year.

Playoff race

Here's how the MLS playoff race is shaking out:
Team Pts W GD GP
Galaxy 58 16 21 29
Real Salt Lake 51 15 18 28
Sounders 51 14 15 29
FC Dallas 46 13 4 29
Rapids 41 10 1 30
Crew 41 11 -2 29
Sporting KC 41 10 6 30
Union 40 9 6 29
Dynamo 39 9 -1 30
Timbers 37 10 -5 29
Red Bulls 36 7 3 29
United 35 8 -1 27
Chivas USA 32 7 -2 30
Key: Green (Automatic West qualifier); Blue (Automatic East qualifier); Red (Wildcard)

New York Red Bulls: Wednesday's loss and the subsequent hack job Rafael Marquez pulled on his teammates may very well be the signature moment of the season. If the Red Bulls manage to turn it around, that will undoubtedly be seen as the catalyst. If they continue their collapse, that will be the moment that exemplified their season. Marquez has been suspendedfor Saturday's game, and winning such a big game without him would be a huge emotional lift for a team that no doubt feels betrayed by their Designated Player.

DC United: Blowing a two-goal lead at home to Chivas USA kept them from moving into playoff position with at least two games in hand on most of their competition. Instead, they are two points behind the pace. It's not at all an impossible hill to climb, but it's not automatic either. Saturday's home game against RSL is not a must-win, but they really can't afford to lose many matches from here on out. Even a tie would be huge.

Chivas USA: Coming back from two goals down on the road and surviving an undeserved penalty kick at the death kept their playoff hopes flickering. But with more games played than every team their fighting with and a five-point deficit to erase in just four games, they need wins whenever they can get them. If they can't beat Toronto FC on Saturday, we can unofficially consider their hopes dead.

Eastern Conference crown

Columbus Crew: Technically, they still own the first tiebreaker for Sporting despite the two teams being level on points and the Sporks having a rather large goal-difference advantage. The Crew beat Sporting back in April when KC was in the midst of their 10-game road trip. Next Saturday, they'll play their second game that will decide the tiebreaker. In the meantime, the Crew have a home game against the Galaxy. Three points would obviously be great, but anything less just ramps up the importance of next week's game.

Sporting KC: Their tie on Friday moved them level on points with the Crew. Now they wait to see whether next week's game will be for a chance to take the conference lead and really grab control of the race or is merely about staying alive.

Philadelphia Union: After winning just once in their past 10 games, it would be easy to forget the second-year franchise is just a point behind the conference leaders. But here they sit with five matches to play. Next week's home game against United is huge no matter what happens on Saturday. The only question will be whether or not United have a chance to climb into the conference-championship race with them.

Houston Dynamo: How are they still in the conference-title race despite not having a single win away from Robertston Stadium? Well, it's mainly because of the overall ineptitude of the rest of the conference. That said, if they can't start winning on the road, even making the playoffs is not guaranteed. They have a rather huge road game against rival FC Dallas on Saturday. A win could vault them into the conference lead. A loss could leave them outside of the playoffs.

Supporters' Shield

Los Angeles Galaxy: Leading all their competition by seven points and only five games left on their schedule, it's tempting to say this race is over. But a loss on the road to the Crew could slice that lead to four points. More importantly, one of the teams chasing them still has a game in hand. Saturday's results will likely determine if this remains a race worth watching.

Real Salt Lake: No team can match the Lakers' five-match winning streak, which is actually tied for the longest in the post-shootout era. Now, it looks like Javier Morales is coming back and he says he'll be on the bench for Saturday's game against DC United. They are still needing to catch a few breaks, but right now they are making their luck. 

Seattle Sounders: In case they needed any added motivation, Saturday's match against the Vancouver Whitecaps could decide the Cascadia Cup, the three-way rivalry that also includes the Timbers. The Sounders absolutely need to win in order to have any hopes of winning the Shield, but playoff positioning is probably their more important concern right now.

Be sure to follow all of Saturday's MLS action in this StoryStream.

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