Five significant MLS trends heading into season's final two months
The six-point swing becomes more vital as teams jockey for playoff position
It will be interesting to see how teams juggle their MLS and CCL lineups
Sporting KC and New York Red Bulls must still meet three times this year
With another MLS Saturday night in the books and a pair of huge games with playoff implications on the docket for Sunday, here are five trends and other items that will affect the MLS postseason race as the season enters its final two months ...
1. The six-point swing is real -- With MLS making a change to the unbalanced schedule and more of an emphasis on conference games, the term "six-point swing" has been batted around this season, with the difference between a conference win and loss really accounting for a six-point change between teams. Now with teams so closely positioned while jockeying for the playoffs, that term takes on even more meaning with specific head-to-head matchups coming into the spotlight and carrying the utmost importance.
Case in point was Montreal's crucial 3-0 victory over D.C. United Saturday. Instead of slipping seven points behind the fifth in final spot with only six games remaining and having an extremely slim chance of making the postseason in the franchise's first MLS season, Montreal is within one point of D.C. and is right in the mix. That's not to say the Impact, winners of five straight, can take their foot off the gas pedal. Considering they've played three more games than D.C. (40 points) and Chicago (41) and four more games than hard-charging Columbus (36), Montreal's position in the standings is a bit misleading as all five teams ahead of the Impact control their own destiny and Columbus has a higher points-per-game average. That being said, who is up next on the schedule for the Impact? Columbus and Chicago, two other teams in the increasingly tight playoff fight, and two teams that Montreal can make sweat by taking advantage of the vaunted, very real six-point swing.
2. CCL impact on lineup selection -- Four of the five MLS teams involved in the CONCACAF Champions League are facing lineup decisions on a weekly basis, with managers attempting to balance the playoff hunt in league play with regional aspirations. The only one of the five that can be less concerned with the approach to MLS games and put all focus on the CCL is Toronto FC, toiling at the cellar of the league table.
That certainly proved to be the case Saturday, as the Reds started usual reserves Andrew Wiedeman, Aaron Maund, Quincy Amarikwa and Logan Emory while leaving the likes of Designated Players Eric Hassli and Torsten Frings and starting left back Ashtone Morgan out of the lineup against the Houston Dynamo with an eye on Tuesday's crucial CCL bout with Mexican champion Santos Laguna. Toronto, well out of the playoff hunt, has nothing to lose by putting all of its eggs in its CCL basket, and while the club won't purposefully tank in league play (as evidenced by the effort put forth in Houston), dropping results down the stretch would guarantee a higher draft pick in January's MLS SuperDraft.
Houston, meanwhile, took a calculated gamble that its subs and reserves could handle Salvadoran side CD FAS on Thursday. They did so with relative ease, allowing the club to emphasize getting three points against Toronto while trying to distance itself from the pack, starting a first-choice XI. Perhaps that gave Houston an air of overconfidence or led the Dynamo to overlook their opponents, though, because the club failed to put away TFC when it had the chance to and settled for a disappointing 1-1 draw.
Seattle and Los Angeles are the other teams struggling with the competition balance this week (although Seattle has two extra days than L.A. with which to work and went full-throttle in its 6-2 victory over Chivas USA on Saturday), while Real Salt Lake has to encounter it in the coming weeks as well. With all three vying for top-three spots in the West to capture first-round byes, their respective depth and priorities will be put to the test.
3. Peaking teams vs. stagnating ones -- It happens every season in MLS. Teams peak early, fade late and see their MLS Cup hopes dashed. This league is so much about peaking at the right time and entering the playoffs with a healthy squad and momentum. Just look at what Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids were able to do in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs, winning it all as two of the lowest seeds in the postseason.
As for the teams in the mix that are trending up and hitting their stride as the pressure rises, there is Sporting Kansas City, New York, Dallas, Montreal, Columbus, Los Angeles and Seattle. San Jose and Real Salt Lake are in pretty comfortable position but need to straighten things out to find their top form. The one in the most danger of dipping out of the playoff picture is Vancouver. Veteran-laden, MLS-experienced squads like San Jose and RSL are capable of flipping the switch (San Jose did Saturday in its 4-1 win over Colorado), but it would be much more encouraging to their fans if they could string together some inspiring results and find some consistency before vying for MLS Cup, because, as it stands, a handful of other teams are in better form with the postseason approaching.
4. New tiebreaker lingers, but will it alter play? -- While the league's new first tiebreaker of goals scored meant to encourage more attacking soccer, and five teams -- Montreal, Columbus, New England, Seattle and San Jose -- managed to score at least three goals Saturday night, defensively sound soccer is still what will make the difference as the importance of matches increases in the coming weeks.
The reasoning behind the tiebreaker choice [as opposed to overall goal differential or head-to-head record] is idealistic in theory, but teams just are not going to play with reckless abandon with less regard for shape and defense in order to boost their overall goal total, at least not before they have cemented their places in the postseason and are only playing to try and either capture first place or get out of the 4-v-5 wildcard-round matchup. Because there's no real home-field advantage in the rounds after that considering a switch to having the conference semifinals and finals become two-legged affairs, there's little difference to finishing second or third.
The other issue is the goals-scored race is not really all that tight in either conference. Columbus' four-goal output Saturday -- the first time it had scored more than two all season -- gives the club 29 goals -- not really within striking range of tying Montreal (42) or D.C. (41) should the Crew pull even on points with those teams. New York (43) has 12 more goals than Sporting Kansas City, five more than Houston and 11 more than Chicago. In the West, San Jose (52) and Los Angeles (44) are comfortably ahead of Seattle (40), RSL (37), and Vancouver (29). These aren't numbers that are likely to be eclipsed or challenged all that seriously, especially not at the expense of managers leaving their defenses exposed by pushing for more goals and risking dropping points in the process.
5. It's all about the schedule -- Speculation about where teams may finish and which teams may creep into the playoff picture is welcome and provides great debate, but looking ahead to the schedule sometimes holds the key to trying to project how things will actually shake out.
San Jose, for example, has let other teams creep up in the race for the Supporters' Shield, but six of the club's final eight games are against teams not currently in playoff position, including a pair against last-place Portland and a pair against a Chivas USA side that has scored just 17 goals. The Earthquakes are no longer a run-away shoo-in to have the most points in the league, but they are still as good a bet as there is to finish atop the league table.
Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls, meanwhile, play each other three times down the stretch -- twice at Red Bull Arena -- with every meeting meaning something new for the top of the Eastern Conference standings. By contrast, Houston, a team waiting for those two to beat each other up, finishes with three of four games at home -- where it is unbeaten -- and all four of those games are against teams not currently in the postseason picture.
Then there's the games-in-hand conundrum facing some teams. Coaches hate being asked about games in hand, because those points can't be accounted for, allows for players to operate with a false sense of security and it typically means having to play through a more bunched-up schedule at a time when fresh legs are at a premium. For teams hanging on to postseason hopes on both sides of the imperfect scheduling problem like Chivas USA (23 games played), Columbus (24) and Montreal (28), it is just another factor to take into account.