With just nine games left in the 2014 MLS regular season, the Philadelphia Union are sitting in seventh place and on the outside looking in. But they have been one of the hottest teams in MLS (as evidenced by their eighth place ranking out of the top 100 teams in the United States and Canada) and are just three points behind the Columbus Crew for the fifth and final playoff spot - and perhaps most importantly, they have a game in hand on the Crew. While D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City are basically untouchable for the top two spots (barring a historic collapse), there are three spots for seven teams. Let's take a look at each club's situation:
33 Points - 25 Games Played (GP)
Remaining schedule: vs. Sporting Kansas City (9/3), vs. Chicago Fire (9/7), vs. Montreal Impact 9/13), at Columbus Crew (9/20), at Sporting Kansas City (9/26), vs. Columbus Crew (10/6), at Montreal Impact (10/11), at Houston Dynamo (10/16), vs. Toronto FC (10/25)
Newremaining schedule looks very friendly for them, with all of the matches coming against Eastern Conference teams and five of the nine being played in Foxboro. They also get two matches against Montreal - the only Eastern Conference team I'm not including in this because they're currently thirteen points out - as well as matches against Houston and Chicago, who are bubble teams. While two matches against Sporting Kansas City won't be easy, this team is in a good position and controls their own destiny.
Key Players: Lee Nguyen has been having himself a career year, notching ten goals and three assists this year, and A.J. Soares, Diego Fagundez, and Kelyn Rowe are also putting together solid seasons. The club also acquired USMNT defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones on a Designated Player contract from Turkish giants Beşiktaş. While goalkeeping is always suspect, even Bobby Shuttleworth is putting together a good year, currently sixth in goals against out of all goalkeepers with 10 or more starts.
Projection: New England seems like a team that is coming together at the right time, and adding JJ is going to be a huge boost for the club. While I don't see them going very far in the playoffs, I do think they will make it in.
33 Points - 24 GP
Remaining Schedule: at Philadelphia Union (9/3), vs. Philadelphia Union (9/6), at Chicago Fire (9/13), vs. Chivas USA (9/21), vs. Portland Timbers (9/27), at LA Galaxy (10/4), vs. Houston Dynamo (10/8), at New York Red Bulls (10/11), vs. Montreal Impact (10/18), at New England Revolution (10/25)
Toronto FC was supposed to be the Eastern Conference's best hope of fighting the Seattle Sounders for Supporters Shield supremacy. The off-season saw President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (MLSE - the parent company that owns TFC) Tim Leiweke renew his commitment to the club by giving manager Ryan Nelsen Designated Players Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, and Gilberto as well as taking Brazilian National Team goalkeeper Júlio César on a six month loan. Fast forward to this week, which saw Leiweke announce he would be leaving MLSE in 2015, Ryan Nelsen getting fired, and Jermain Defoe was rumored to be heading back to England to play with Queens Park Rangers. Bradley has been a non-entity in Toronto, which mirrors his play on the United States National Team in the 2014 World Cup. Gilberto has also been a non-factor, and Júlio César is long gone, having gone a measly 3-4-0 in seven games.The team also has a meat-grinder schedule, with a home-and-away series against Philadelphia as well as road trips to Chicago and Los Angeles,
Key Players: TFC has the players, but the sum of this equation is much less than the individual parts. If Bradley can regain form, if Gilberto starts earning his paycheck, if someone else can step up and help carry the load Jermain Defoe has born this season (hey, didn't you use to be Dwayne De Rosario?), and if new manager Greg Vanney can stop the hemorrhaging, there's a chance Toronto could sneak into the playoffs.
Projection: It's not going to happen. This team reminds me of the Hindenburg - a bloated bag of gas that once held the promise of a new era of progress and luxury is crashing and burning in the most spectacular fashion. Leiweke and Júlio César jumped out of the flaming disaster, Nelsen was pushed, and the rest are left in the sinking hulk.
33 Points - 26 GP
Remaining schedule: vs. Chivas USA (9/7), at Houston Dynamo (9/13), vs. New England (9/20), vs. Montreal Impact (9/27), at New England Revolution (10/4), at Philadelphia Union (10/11), at New York Red Bulls (10/19), vs. Philadelphia Union (10/26)
Columbus has a fairly decent schedule, although the away matches against Houston, Philadelphia, and New York will prove difficult - especially since the matches against Philadelphia and New York will most likely determine Columbus' post-season fate. Luckily, the club is able to play most of their remaining matches at home. The club has been very strong as of late, going 4-2-1 since going win less in seven going into the World Cup break. Goalkeeper Steve Clark has been a revelation- his 1.31 goals against average putting him in seventh place for all goalkeepers with ten or more appearances - just behind Bobby Shuttleworth. The Columbus defense has been stingy - only Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United have allowed fewer goals - and Federico Higuain continues to generate most of the Columbus goals, having nine goals and six assists so far this season.
Key Players: The problem is that only Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram come close to matching Higuain's output, and even Finlay (six goals, five assists) and Meram (five goals, four assists) most likely won't be able to keep producing at that pace forever. The defense is key - they have to allow the Crew offense to score first or else it could be a very ugly ride into the end of October.
Projection: Defense wins championships - or in Columbus' case, gets you into the playoffs. If they can continue to lean on Clark for solid outings, there's no real reason this club can't make the playoffs.
New York Red Bulls
31 Points - 25 GP
Remaining Schedule: vs. Sporting Kansas City (9/6), vs. D.C. United (9/10), at Philadelphia Union (9/13), at Montreal Impact (9/17 - CONCACAF Champions League - Montreal, Canada), vs. Seattle Sounders (9/20), at CD FAS (9/24 - CONCACAF Champions League - Santa Ana, El Salvador), at LA Galaxy (9/28), vs. Houston Dynamo (10/4), vs. Toronto FC (10/11), vs. Columbus Crew (10/19), vs. Montreal Impact (10/22 - CONCACAF Champions League - Harrison, United States), at Sporting Kansas City (10/26)
The most difficult of any of the remaining teams, since no other remaining team has a midweek match in El Salvador sandwiched between a visit from the Seattle Sounders and a trip to Los Angeles to face the Galaxy. Seven games in one month would be a lot for most teams, but the Red Bulls aren't a young squad. Thierry Henry just celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday, and teammates Tim Cahill, Jamison Olave, Peguy Luyindula, Kosuke Kimura, Luis Robles, Ibrahim Sekagya, and Damien Perinelle are all also on the wrong side of thirty. The travel will be brutal, and the competition is going to be stiff.
Key Personnel: Bradley Wright-Phillips is MLS' leading scorer, having 20 goals in 24 games played. He will be critical to all success RBNY will have, regardless of the competition. Someone is going to have to step up not only to help fill in when the Over The Hill Gang starts inevitably starts wearing out or getting hurt (Bobby Convey is already out for three to five weeks to repair a deviated septum), and frankly the RBNY depth is thin at best.
Prediction: The schedule and Father Time will prove to be more than a match for Red Bulls. Perhaps they will focus their energy on winning the CONCACAF Champions League, as it seems the most realistic chance of them winning any silverware this season. Even that's a long shot though.
30 Points - 25 GP
Remaining Schedule: vs. Toronto FC (9/3), at Toronto FC (9/6), vs. New York Red Bulls (9/13), vs. Seattle Sounders (9/16 - US Open Cup - Chester, United States), vs. Houston Dynamo (9/20), at D.C. United (9/27), vs. Chicago Fire (10/2), vs. Columbus Crew (10/11), vs. Sporting Kansas City (10/18), at Columbus Crew (10/26)
The Union also have a brutal schedule, with three separate stretches with two matches within a seven-day span - including the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Final against Seattle Sounders. Fortunately, Philadelphia plays all but two matches at PPL Park and has been the hottest team in the league since the World Cup break, only losing two matches out of thirteen. That being said, the hole that they dug under former manager John Hackworth is very deep, and time is ticking away on the Union's chance to sneak into the playoffs.
Key Players: Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux must stay healthy for this team to succeed. The drop off from these two top strikers to their understudies (Andrew Wenger, Brian Brown, Aaron Wheeler) is great - and that's not a slight to the understudies. Wenger seems much better suited on the wing than up top, and while Brown looks promising, he has only seen limited minutes since coming on loan from Jamaican side Harbour View. The team is otherwise stacked in the midfield, with Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira providing the offense while defensive midfielders-turned-center backs Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo help out the Union's defense, anchored by Colombian National Team center back Carlos Valdés. The goalkeeping situation seems to be a bit fluid, with Algerian National Team goalkeeper Raïs M'Bolhi seeming to be the favorite over incumbent Zac MacMath and Jamaican National Team goalkeeper Andre Blake. Remember though M'Bolhi and Blake will most likely miss time due to international call-ups, so don't expect MacMath to just fade away. He's been solid for the most part this season - especially since M'Bolhi came on board.
Prediction: The Union are going all in on the US Open Cup, so the home match against New York Red Bulls might seem like points dropped until you remember they're going into a tough stretch themselves. The Union will play like their lives depend on it, and I'm pretty sure they'll be able to make it to the playoffs, possibly hoisting the club's first piece of silverware in the process.
29 Points - 25 GP
Remaining Schedule: at New England Revolution (9/7), vs. Toronto FC (9/13), vs. D.C. United (9/20), at Houston Dynamo (9/28), at Philadelphia Union (10/2), vs. Montreal Impact (10/5), at Sporting Kansas City (10/10), at D.C. United (10/18), vs. Houston Dynamo (10/24)
The Fire are still very much in this, but their schedule is downright nasty going into the playoffs. Only the Montreal match can be considered a gimme and matches against D.C. United (twice) and Sporting Kansas City will mean Frank Yallop's squad will need to get every point they can muster.
Key Players: Mike Magee hasn't come close to replicating his magical 2013 season. While seven goals and four assists isn't bad, it certainly isn't the output the Fire have needed. Quincy Amarikwa has almost matched Magee, with seven goals and three assists, but the offense has been anemic. Someone has to step up and score.
Prediction: While defense wins championships, you can't win on defense alone. Chicago's anemic offense can't score, and their fans are starting to turn on the Front Office. This is a recipe for disaster, and therefore they will be playing for pride going down the stretch.
28 Points - 25 GP
Remainign Schedule: vs. Montreal Impact (9/6), vs. Columbus Crew (9/13), at Philadelphia Union (9/20), vs. Chicago Fire (9/28). at New York Red Bulls (10/4), at Toronto FC (10/8), vs. D.C. United (10/12), vs. New England Revolution (10/16), at Chicago Fire (10/24)
The Houston Dynamo are a testament to parity. The team as been bad this season, losing more than half of their matches and having a minus eighteen goal differential, yet is still somehow in contention. Their schedule seems somewhat favorable since they only have one rough stretch of three games in nine days. Still, aside from Montreal, all of these teams will be fighting for playoff positioning.
Key Players: Will Bruin has ten goals and an assist, but past him there isn't much. Giles Barnes (five goals, five assists) and Brad Davis (four goals, eight assists) are the virtually the rest of the team's offense. Tally Hall is a stalwart in goal, but he could be out with a knee injury. Regardless, without a good defense in front of him there's only so much he - or any goalkeeper - can do.
Prediction: Houston can't can't score and can't defend. Since you have to be able to do at least one of these things to win, Houston won't be playing in November.
So how do you think the Eastern Conference play off race will shape up? Let me know your thoughts below.