The talking point since First Kick has been the same: the Western Conference is vastly superior to the Eastern Conference. For the past six months or so, we’ve heard about the top teams in the West and their chances of winning the MLS Cup. Recently, with the playoffs looming, the talk has focused on how either FC Dallas or Real Salt Lake will enter the playoffs as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference due to MLS’s weird playoff system. Yet for all the focus the Western Conference has received in the playoff talk, we are witnessing an incredibly exciting Eastern Conference playoff race, where the stakes could be incredibly high.
This past weekend’s results threw the door to the Eastern Conference open and, instead of beginning to clarify the top three teams, kept eight teams in contention for the three guaranteed spots. One of those eight (Toronto) is realistically eliminated, and another (Chicago) would have to go on a tough but possible run of games, but that still leaves six teams within seven points of first place with roughly five matches to go (or more if you’re DC United with games in hand). Teams that had seemingly locked up spots now have to battle to hold on, while teams that faltered earlier in the season now see a path to late season redemption.
The key component to increasing the logjam was the Columbus/Philadelphia match. With the Union able to get back on the winning track and denying the Crew three points, the first place team in the East was kept close to the rest of the pack. If they had found a way to scratch out a win, they would have been four points clear of second place Sporting Kansas City, not an insurmountable lead but certainly a bit of breathing room. As it was, they could not find a way to take advantage of a close Sporting KC loss to Real Salt Lake. Instead of a battle for second, this Friday’s SKC v. Philadelphia match could be for first place.
The teams currently looking up at the top three also shuffled themselves this weekend into a muddle that may go down to the last match to settle. The Houston Dynamo, who looked like a solid bet for a top three spot before suffering a small swoon, are now level on points with Philadelphia after this Saturday being the most recent team to beat San Jose. Their victory kept them ahead of the New York Red Bulls who were involved in the most intense match of the weekend. Despite a late push from FC Dallas, the Red Bulls defense held on to a 1-0 win for their first victory since July 6. The win also moved them two points clear of DC United who lost for the first time ever in Seattle. In fact, DCU was lapped 3-0 by a Seattle team that looked to be firing on all cylinders. However, with their games in hand, DC is still well positioned to make a late move into the top three, especially with road games against Columbus and Philadelphia, as well as a home tilt with Kansas City to close the season.
But as things stand, the East could still sneak two teams into the four wild card places. So why the stress over the top three? Imagine, if the season ended today, the plight of the New York Red Bulls. As the #10 seed, they would have to travel to Pizza Hut Park to face FC Dallas in a single elimination game. If they won, they would then play a home-and-home with the Galaxy which, if they survived, would see them facing the winner of RSL/Seattle. Now consider if they jumped two spots in the East and grabbed the #3 seed. Not only would they now get to sit out the wild card round (huge for an older team) but they would get an Eastern Conference foe in a home-and-home before the conference final. This week will go a long way to determining the favorites for the top three, as not only do we have the Philly/SKC match but RSL makes an East Coast swing to face New York and DC. So while the West may have the better teams, the East has a better playoff race.