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Monday, September 24, 2007
Crew, Fire and Rapids chase final playoff spot

Steve Davis, ESPNsoccernet

Does anybody miss the usual September soccer respite? You know, when we all rest up, relax, maybe download some new music or catch up on the latest O.J. shenanigan while generally tuning out Major League Soccer until the playoffs?

MLS matters have always been easy to set aside during its last few uneventful weeks prior to postseason time. September was typically a bit of a yawner, with plenty of fans peeking over toward the NFL scores as they scrolled across flat screens with a decided fall crackle.

But something seems different in 2007. The games of September have been weighted with a bit more bite. There has been some actual anxiety -- imagine that! -- over the playoff races.

The increased clamor is mostly a result of simple math, plus an important tweak in the way playoff berths are determined.

The math: An additional team in the MLS field statistically reduced each club's postseason chances from the outset. (The odds will be even lower next year, with 14 teams instead of 13).

The tweak: Instead of four representatives from each conference, the top two from each get in, followed by the next four clubs regardless of conference affiliation. That reduced the chance that a lesser outfit from a weaker conference could slide into the playoffs through the procedural cracks.

Previously, teams that started well could switch to cruise control by the All-Star break, their playoff passes safely in pocket.

But more matches this September have sizzled with the energy of a bona fide playoff chase. The month started with Red Bull New York facing Chicago in a match dripping with playoff significance. A week later, Chicago had a go at Columbus in the week's big kahuna of postseason impact.

Last week saw two meaningful matches, including another pulsating Red Bull-Chicago meeting (a 2-2 draw) and a crackerjack contest between Kansas City and Columbus. (That match featured an amazing Wizards comeback in a 3-2 win, and yet was merely a rumor for most fans due to the silly exclusivity agreement with HDNet. It would take Jason Bourne and a team of cybergeeks to find highlights of those HDNet exclusives. Let's hope MLS gets that sorted out in the offseason.)

The MLS playoff system remains far from perfect, of course. Four weeks still remain and the playoff question has been more or less answered for 10 of 13 teams. But that represents progress; it's better than having things more or less settled with two months remaining.

Chicago, Columbus and Colorado will scrap it out for the remaining playoff berth. That should be fun to watch.

Red Bull New York and Kansas City need only to watch their backs. Along with FC Dallas, they will receive their invitations to the postseason party barring a spectacular screw-up over the last four rounds. D.C. United, New England, Houston and Chivas USA have officially clinched.

The playoff hopes continue to dangle on the most fragile of threads for Real Salt Lake, Toronto and -- who would have thought in the spring? -- Los Angeles. But realistically everything is an audition for next year at those clubs.

So the remaining playoff fuss really is all about Chicago, Columbus and (for just a little while longer, anyway) Colorado.

Colorado remains in a slumber, muddling along but still harboring hope thanks to a pair of cushy home dates: Real Salt Lake and offensively challenged Toronto have visits scheduled to Commerce City. Mo Johnston's Canadians need 10 goals over their last five matches to avoid an all-time league record for scoring futility.

On the other hand, the Rapids also visit New England and Chivas USA, which is unbeaten at home. That means manager Fernando Clavijo's club probably needs all six points from the remaining pair of home matches. That's real pressure.

New Chicago manager Juan Carlos Osorio had pulled all the right levers since his summer arrival -- until last week. Osorio chose twice to go very defensive with 1-0 leads, and he was burned both times for it. Opposition goals in the 84th minute and 93rd minute meant two points for the week instead of potentially six, which could have put enormous stress on Colorado and Columbus.

The Fire visit Chivas USA and D.C. United, and entertain New England at Toyota Park over the next three weeks. Osorio's men can only hope they are still in the hunt as woeful Los Angeles visits Oct. 21 to close out regular-season competition.

Columbus has a dandy shot if only for the way its schedule falls. Los Angeles and Dallas come to Ohio before road matches at New England and D.C. United. Unless the Supporters' Shield is still there for the taking, the Eastern Conference front-runners will be more concerned by then with staying healthy and rested prior to the playoffs.

That brings us to the races for the top conference spots, which aren't as exciting, unfortunately. D.C. United, New England, Chivas USA and Houston have gobbled up those spots.

FC Dallas has an outside shot at catching Houston, but shows no sign of having the ability to do so. Steve Morrow's team has one win in its past six MLS matches, and the FC Dallas manager must make a tough choice soon on his DP signing, Denilson. So far, the Brazilian World Cup winner has been easily the worst of the five MLS Super Earners.

Red Bull New York still can mathematically slip into one of the top spots, but would need to pretty much win out and then count on a monumental New England collapse. Neither is likely to happen.

So the top four spots are probably set, and the importance of claiming top-four status can't be denied. Finishing first or second in the conference guarantees a host role for the one-game conference championship (assuming the team gets past the semifinal home-and-away series). Since the current playoff format was adopted four seasons ago, the home team is 6-2 in those conference finals.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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