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MLS Playoffs: Sizing up the stretch runs

With just two weeks left in the season, almost nothing is entirely written in stone as 12 teams are still fighting for spots and jockeying for position.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Heading into the final few weeks of the MLS season, it's hard to imagine things working out much better for the folks at the league office. Up until now, there has only been one entirely meaningless game (Philadelphia-New England on Oct. 6) and there are races at the top and bottom of the playoff picture.

To help make sense of all of that, we've put together a guide to get you through all the various permutations.

Supporters' Shield

It's tempting to say that the San Jose Earthquakes have basically locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. They have, after all, already secured 64 points and are five points ahead of Sporting Kansas City with two games left to play. If the season were now over, they'd have won as many games as any team during the post-shootout era and only the 1998 LA Galaxy (22) won more matches in regulation than the Earthquakes' 19. If they can win their final two games, they'll set a new record for points (that Galaxy team had 68).

A look at their schedule suggests that might not be so easy. The Earthquakes' final two matches are at home against the Galaxy and on the road against the Portland Timbers. The Galaxy are 6-2-2 in their last 10, while the Timbers are the only team in the West the Earthquakes have so far failed to beat at least once.

In their two games against the Timbers, the Earthquakes have looked surprisingly vulnerable. The first time they met, the Timbers handed San Jose a 2-1 defeat at Jeld-Wen Field. In the encore, the Earthquakes were forced to erase a late 2-0 deficit and nearly surrendered a goal in the dying moments.

Of course, the only way the Earthquakes don't win the Shield is if Sporting KC can win their final two. Both are definitely winnable, as they will visit the New York Red Bulls and host the Philadelphia Union.

It was only about a month ago that KC beat the Red Bulls on the road and things have only gotten worse in Harrison. Since that loss, the Red Bulls settled for a tie against the lowly Revolution, beat an absolutely awful Toronto FC and lost to the Fire. They've also seen their general manager sacked and their coach is believed to be not far behind.

Oddly enough, the Union game might be the tougher of the two. In their first meeting, the Union won 4-0, easily KC's most lop-sided loss of the season and one of only two times they've fallen short by more than one goal. Despite being eliminated, the Union have gone 3-1-0 in their last four and two of those wins came against teams currently in playoff position.

Prediction: The Earthquakes fall short of history, but still hold on with a pair of ties.

Top spot in the East

As KC is chasing the Earthquakes, they must also be mindful that the Chicago Fire can still catch them. The Fire are just three points behind and have a five-goal lead in the first tiebreaker. They've scuffled a bit late, losing 2 of 3, but have two winnable games to close out their season. They'll play at the Revolution on Saturday before closing out their season at home against D.C. United on Oct. 27.

The Fire have struggled against both of their final two opponents, though. They lost 2-0 the last time they visited Foxboro and were handed a 4-2 loss in their only previous meeting with D.C.

Prediction: KC's lead proves too much to overcome as the Fire split their final two.

Final playoff spot in the East

Four teams remain very much alive for three playoff spots and none of them are guaranteed to make it in. D.C. United sits in the prime position. At least a tie on Saturday at home against the Columbus Crew would punch their ticket.

If the Crew win that game, though, the situation turns much dicier. Depending on what happens with the other two teams, United could miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season if that loss were to be combined with another on the road against the Fire.

On the other end of the race, the Crew probably need at least four points from their final two, but realistically probably need all six. While a tie against United would keep them alive, there's a decent chance they would be eliminated by the time they play their season finale against TFC on Oct. 28.

The reason for that is the Red Bulls and Dynamo would almost certainly have to lose out for the Crew to get in with any less than full points.

In addition to their home game against KC, the Red Bulls have a road game against the Union. Considering they have a four-point lead on the Crew as well as a huge goals-for lead on every other team in the East, the only likley way the Red Bulls don't get in is if they lose both of their final two. Considering they beat the Union in each of their previous two meetings by a combined score of 5-2, that seems highly unlikely.

The Dynamo haven't been playing great either, but they also have the easiest path of the teams still alive in the East with a home game against the Union and a road game against the Rapids. Both opponents are basically playing for pride at this point.

Prediction: The Crew fall short, but the Dynamo leapfrog the Red Bulls to win the right to host the wild-card game.

Playoff positioning out West

Real Salt Lake seems to be safe from the play-in game, but who their opponent will be is still a fair question. The Seattle Sounders sit three points behind them with a game in hand and the two teams facing off on Wednesday. A win by the Sounders in that game would essentially lock in the 2-3 matchup, with only the site of the return leg being open.

An RSL win, however, would make the race much more interesting as it would leave the Galaxy just two points back. The dream scenario for MLS would be for the Sounders and Galaxy to meet on Oct. 28 at Home Depot Center with a spot in the wild-card round still up for grabs. If the Sounders don't get at least four points from their home games against RSL and FC Dallas, that's an entirely realistic possibility. The Galaxy probably also need to win on the road against the Earthquakes on Saturday to make this all come to fruition.

Prediction: The Sounders jump into the No. 2 spot by edging RSL in the tiebreaker.

The West's final playoff spot

What was shaping up as an epic collapse/comeback is not looking quite as likely anymore. The Whitecaps can lock up their playoff spot by beating the Timbers at home on Saturday. If they don't, though, it could get interesting as their final game of the season is on the road against RSL.

FC Dallas, who is currently four points back, probably needs to win their final two to get in. The big game is on the road against a Sounders team that they've yet to beat this year, most recently settling for a 1-1 tie at home on Sept. 2. If Dallas can pull out a win there and the Whitecaps are forced to settle for a tie or worse at home against the Timbers, beating Chivas USA at home on the final weekend might be all the Toros need to make the playoffs.

Prediction: Whitecaps beat the Timbers to suck all drama out of this race.