With less than half (actually 38% for the Fire) of the MLS regular season already on the books playoff battles are already starting to take shape. In the Western Conference Real Salt Lake, San Jose, and Seattle seem to have staked a claim to the top of the table with Colorado and Vancouver currently occupying the fourth and fifth spots. Chivas USA, Portland, FC Dallas, and shockingly the Los Angeles Galaxy will certainly be locked in a dog fight for their playoff lives once the international break is over and a full slate of leagues games resumes on June 16.
The East looks to be in similar shape with DC, New York, and Sporting KC looking comfortable at the moment. Columbus, Chicago, New England, and Houston make up the middle of the pack vying for spots 4 and 5 with Montreal not too far behind and Philadelphia and Toronto mired at the bottom after woeful starts. With a change in the playoff qualification format this season to include the top five finishers in each conference, home wins against immediate competitors become vital. The Crew and Revolution held serve over the last seven days and the Fire will have the same opportunity in the coming months.
With a 5-5-3 record - what has to be done to ensure that the club doesn't miss out on playoff action for a third consecutive season? Adding another legitimate threat at striker would be a big step but somehow managing to get to 12 wins appears to be the bench mark.
The 2011 season might have ended a bit differently if just two of those league record 16 draws had been a victory. A record of 11-9-14 would have pushed the Fire past New York for the tenth and final playoff spot with 47 points on the season.
Since MLS abolished shootouts after the 1999 season only once in twelve subsequent seasons has a club with 12 victories failed to qualify for post season play. The Miami Fusion missed out on the playoff tournament by just two points after compiling a 12-15-5 regular season record in 2000. Since then nine teams have failed to qualify with eleven wins but only one managed to win more games than they lost (Kansas City at 11-9-12 in 2005) and even then they also fell short by two points. Furthermore, since the league scrapped the three division format and adopted the East/West Conference alignment in 2002 no team with twelve victories has failed to qualify.
From the inaugural season in 1996 until the end of the '99 season MLS used the shoot-out to break ties and even then only three teams with twelve victories failed to qualify. From 2002 through 2010 when the league switched to the conference format eight teams qualified for post season each year and six teams with 10 wins were able to qualify. Nine and eight win seasons were even enough in some years but those days seem to be long gone even with an expansion to ten playoff participants.
Due to the parity and even nature of the clubs in the East this season it would seem that simply getting into double digits won't do. Eleven may allow a team to sneak in but twelve should do it. Here's a look at the history of bare minimum MLS playoff participants since the introduction of the two conference system in 2002.
Kansas City qualified in the West with a 9-10-9 record while NY/NJ was left out of the Eastern picture with an 11-15-2 mark.
Los Angeles made it with an unimpressive 9-12-9 and DC United got in with a slightly better 10-11-9 record.
New England qualified with an ugly 8-13-9, San Jose also did at 9-10-11, as did Colorado at 10-9-11. Dallas was left on the outside with a 10-14-6 record.
Things got more respectable as every team that qualified managed to record double digit victories while Columbus (11-16-5) and Kansas City (11-9-12) failed to get in. The league increased the number of matches each team played from 30 to 32.
This was the last season that a club with less than ten victories was able to earn a playoff berth. New York got an invite after a 9-11-12 finish. The Conference alignment unfortunately left other teams with more wins out in the cold. Los Angeles (11-15-6), Real Salt Lake (10-13-9), and Kansas City (10-14-8 in the East) all had more wins than the Red Bulls.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco arrived to resuscitate the Fire en route to a 10-10-10 mark and a playoff spot. That club had less victories that season than any other playoff competitor. The league reduced the number of matches each team played from 32 back to 30.
New York gets in from the East at 10-11-9 and Real Salt Lake qualifies in the West at 10-10-10. Colorado (11-14-5) and DC (11-15-4) don't make it.
The minimum number of victories this season is eleven as three teams reach that mark and qualify. FC Dallas however does not at 11-13-6. Toronto FC 10-11-9 and Colorado at 10-10-10 weren't good enough. This was the Fire's last appearance at 11-7-12.
Kansas City finished with an 11-13-6 record but failed to make the playoffs. FC Dallas and Colorado got in with twelve wins apiece.
The league increased the numbers of playoff teams by 2. Ten teams qualified and the fixture list was increased from 30 to 34. The New York Red Bulls squeaked in ahead of the Fire with a 10-8-16 record equaling Chicago in record-breaking draws. The expansion Portland Timbers missed out in the West with an 11-14-9 mark. All contenders were .500 or better.
The Fire are mired in the middle of the pack with several teams in the Eastern Conference after losing road games to teams that were either in bad form or directly below them in the standings. Losses in Portland, Columbus, and New England have put a damper on some optimism after good results against Real Salt Lake and Sporing Kansas City at home. Recent results along with the debacle in the US Open Cup combined with the sour taste of consecutive losses to rivals Columbus and New England heading into a two week break has justifiably left supporters restless but it's not all bad news if you step away and look at the remainder of the home schedule without panic.
After hosting New York on June 17 the Fire will have a chance to return the favor against the Crew on June 23. The struggling Galaxy follow on July 8 and Vancouver comes in six days later on July 14. August has two winnable matches as Toronto FC and New England visit Bridgeview in that month. September is a bit more difficult with Houston, Montreal, and Columbus again coming in. October home matches feature Philadelphia and DC United to close the season. With eleven matches remaining at home and ten on the road it's not inconceivable to imagine a bare minimum of mediocrity at 7-7-7 in remaining games which would likely push them into a playoff spot.
That is not exactly something to aspire to but it's the reality of their current standing in the league. For the record, the goal of management should be to do much more than the bare minimum required to sneak into the playoffs and I'm not advocating mediocrity as something that should be palatable to any supporter. The objective reality is that they're not abysmal and two consecutive losses doesn't signify the end of the season but they also haven't exhibited enough to really consider them as a top club in the East either. This team is much better than the side than that started 2011 with a 1-4-8 record and it shouldn't be confused with that club. That side was boosted by the addition of Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo in July but the rest of the league has adjusted to the tactics that made them successful late in the season.
What can this club do to end the playoff drought? Get to twelve victories it seems.......oh, and add another threat up top.