Promotion/Relegation: Supporters' Shield race and potential spoilers

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Four teams still have a chance to be crowned the top team of the MLS regular season.

It's not quite as exciting as we thought it would be, but the final week of the MLS season still leaves plenty to be decided. The biggest battle seems to be for the Supporters' Shield, where no team seems willing to take firm control. Heading into the final week, any one of four teams can still win the regular-season title. There are also five teams battling for three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. At the same time, a few of these teams will have to play CONCACAF Champions League games in the middle of the week...

Promoted

Chivas USA's role as spoiler: It has been a dismal season for the Goats. Even by their hopelessly low standards, it has been almost historically bad. They'll need at least two points from their final two games to avoid turning in their lowest total since their complete train-wreck of a debut season in 2005 when they had just 18 points in 32 matches.

But there is genuine opportunity in these final two games. Proving that MLS schedule makers do have a sense of humor, Chivas USA will close the season against two teams competing for the Supporters' Shield. First, they'll visit Real Salt Lake on Wednesday. Then, they'll host the Portland Timbers on Saturday. If they get points from either of those games, their opponent will effectively be knocked out of the Shield race. Even more, they could potentially relegate one of those teams to the play-in round.

Say what you will about MLS scheduling and its playoffs, but Chivas USA playing in meaningful games the final week of the season is kinda amazing.

Impact off life support: While the Sounders' melt-down has drawn much attention from the national media, the Impact's was not all that difference. Like the Sounders, they had gone from Supporters' Shield favorites to being on the cusp of missing the playoffs. In fact, they still could (although the scenario that would have to play out is a bit unlikely).

But, unlike the Sounders, they seem to have stopped the bleeding. By coming from behind to beat the Philadelphia Union 2-1 on Saturday, the Impact ended a six-match winless run in which they had claimed just a single point. They are still among the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference and shouldn't be overwhelmed by any opponent.

They could be just the latest example of how teams' primary focus should be on just getting to the playoffs or how the MLS season tends to enforce parity over time.

New York's Supporters' Shield hopes: The Red Bulls have passed their toughest test in their battle to win the first trophy in their history, and they did it in impressive fashion. The Houston Dynamo are excellent at grabbing scrappy draws when a point is a sufficient result for them — especially at home — but they couldn't capitalize on their chances against New York on Sunday in a 3-0 victory for the visitors.

Tim Cahill scored one of the best goals of the season just 10 seconds into the match and Houston couldn't recover. New York were on the back foot and out-shot from that point until the 65th minute, when they capitalized on a free kick to double their lead and relieve the pressure. Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the last goal of the evening, pushing the score to an impressive margin that didn't reflect how well Houston played between the Red Bulls' first two goals.

While the Chicago Fire are no slouches and certainly won't roll over at Red Bull Arena during the last game of the regular season, the Red Bulls are in a great position to win the Shield. In fact, they could have it won before they even take the field on Sunday if Saturday's results go their way. There's a very good chance that they could enter the Chicago match just needing a draw to lift the Shield.

No one wants to jinx them quite yet, but it looks like the choking Metros of old are gone. If they were going to crumble, they probably would have done it in Houston.

— Kevin McCauley

Relegated

Sounders are MLS's version of Mexico: Has a MLS Cup champion ever lost four straight games at any point in the season? Based on my quick research, the answer is no. But then again, I'm not sure we've ever seen a playoff team back into the playoffs in quite the manner the Sounders have.

After four straight losses and failing to clinch on their own in five straight games, the Sounders ultimately needed to rely upon the LA Galaxy to get the job done for them. This is not so unlike what happened to Mexico in the recent World Cup qualifiers, as the highly talented side needed the help of their biggest rivals to qualify for the playoff.

In any case, something is clearly quite wrong in Seattle. There are any number of reasonable explanations for why they aren't playing great — from injuries, to unfamiliarity, to the simple ebb and flow of a season — but nothing comes close to giving real insight as to how a team poised to win the Supporters' Shield has been outscored 12-2 in four straight games. Sounders owner Joe Roth recently told Grant Wahl that he doesn't feel as though Sigi Schmid is to blame. The question then must be asked, who is?

Poor timing by Champions League: MLS is preparing for the final week of the regular season with the Supporters' Shield and final playoff spots totally up in the air, but some teams don't have the luxury of thinking about that. They have to focus on the final day of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage instead.

Isn't the Champions League supposed to be a reward?

MLS likes to pretend the Champions League matters, trotting out tired lines about it being the place where the league can prove itself or giving teams who qualify some extra allocation money, but they don't do much to support that claim. Sure, there's the allocation money, but they regularly schedule league matches while other teams in the league are playing Champions League matches and now, make teams decide whether to prioritize the last weekend of the regular season or last matchday of the continental championship.

Of course there are obstacles to an ideal schedule, like TV, weather, stadium availability and competing sports, and that is fine, but then the charade that the Champions League matters needs to end. If you're the league then either follow through on your talk and make it work — providing financial incentive wouldn't hurt, especially after Robb Heineman revealed that there was almost none to winning the competition — or say that it's a side competition like the U.S. Open Cup and leave it at that.

Until the league does, it just looks like you're lying to fans saying it's a priority and then making teams play for their MLS lives days after playing for the Champions League lives.

— Ryan Rosenblatt

The Timbers-RSL battle for the Shield and first in the West: Jason Kreis and Caleb Porter don't play for draws. Their teams aren't built for it and don't want to play that way. Attacking football is in the blood of both teams and their players and they should be expected to play their normal game in all circumstances.

This was the narrative heading into this weekend's marquee fixture between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, but unfortunately, the game didn't deliver at all. While it certainly wasn't a handshake draw and neither team was truly negative, it was obvious that both teams were a lot more concerned with not conceding than they were with scoring. It was just about the most cautious game that either team has played all season, and the 0-0 score was a fairly accurate reflection of what happened on the pitch.

It wasn't dire stuff, but it also wasn't good, save for Jose Adolfo Valencia's flashes of brilliance and Nick Rimando's big saves at the end. There were big moments — particularly in RSL's defensive end — but neither team was as ambitious as they usually are. The finish was great, with Rimando coming up huge, but most of the game disappointed. Hopefully they take things up a notch if they meet for a playoff series.

— Kevin McCauley

"Promotion/Relegation" is a weekly column about the goings on in and around MLS. Sorry if you were looking for lively debate about a concept foreign to the United States.

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