This weekend's win over the Columbus Crew was a big one. Not just because it was three points. Not just because it was on the road. Not because it was their first win over one of the league's elite teams.
All of those things are undeniably true, but the really significant aspect of the victory is its effect on the playoff race.
A loss would have left the Sounders just two points up on Toronto FC and, more importantly, three points up on the Kansas City Wizards, a team that has two games in-hand on the Sounders.
Instead, the Sounders retained significant leads on both of those teams, while also all but eliminating Chicago (10 points back) from the conversation.
The win over Columbus was unexpected, but it was definitely a welcome development as it gives the Sounders some very real breathing room. Instead of facing nail-biters at Chicago (Saturday) and Kansas City (Oct. 9), those matches could end in ties without any real deleterious effects on the Sounders' playoff hopes.
Still, the playoff spot is far from locked up. The Sounders will likely need somewhere between 5-7 points in their final five matches to start feeling comfortable.
With that in mind, I figured now's as good a time as any to take a closer look at the three teams (the Wizards, Fire and TFC) with any reasonable chance of stealing the Sounders' spot.
Kansas City (30 points through 23 matches)
Back when I first starting looking at shots for/against data, the Wizards jumped out at me. All season, they've been outshooting opponents by significant margins (they currently do so at the third best rate in MLS), but until recently hadn't been getting results that reflected this dominance.
A third straight loss on July 10 -- at home to Chivas USA, no less -- left them at 12 points through 14 matches, tied with DC United for the second fewest points in MLS. The shots for/against numbers, though, indicated there was something there. At the time, they had the second best shot differential in the league (11.93-9.07 per match), but were being outscored 19-11. The totals were so stark that it made me question the entire relevancy of looking at these numbers.
Since then, however, the Wizards' performance actually seems to suggest the exact opposite: That shots for/against are good indicators of future performance. The loss to Chivas USA has been followed up by a run that has seen the Wizards lose just once in nine matches (a 1-0 loss at San Jose), claim 18 points and climb from 14th overall to 10th. They are now close enough to the final playoff spot that winning their two matches in hand would tie them with the Sounders.
The Wizards still have a long way to go, though. Games in hand are a lot different than points in hand and the Wizards still have some tough matches ahead of them. With seven matches remaining, let's assume they'll need to collect at least 11 points just to have a chance.
They've got a home match this week against Houston that is an absolute must-win. Their other three home matches are against much tougher competition -- vs. FC Dallas (Sept. 25), vs. Seattle (Oct. 9) and vs. San Jose (Oct. 25). If we grant them five points in those matches that leaves them at eight (along with the three points against Houston). Assuming all this, Kansas City will need to find at least three more points in their three remaining road matches -- at New York (Oct. 2), at Chicago (Oct. 12) and at New England (Oct. 16). Essentially, this means Kansas City can probably afford to lose two more matches and still have any hope of making the playoffs.
If we set that bar at 43 points -- probably a more realistic playoff cutoff line since the Sounders would need just five points in five matches to reach 41 -- that margin for error shrinks considerably. In this scenario, the Wizards could only afford to lose one more match this season.
Sagarin projects them as the ninth-place team, behind the Sounders. My form projected standings also peg them as No. 9.
Toronto FC (31 points in 25 matches)
The Reds' ship has been taking on water ever since their eight-match unbeaten streak was snapped on July 17 with a loss at Philadelphia. But it really started sinking after the first of two consecutive losses to the New York Red Bulls. A 1-0 loss on the road was followed 10 days later with a 4-1 thrashing at the supposed fortress BMO Field.
Those two losses kickstarted what eventually became a six-match winless streak that culminated with a loss at home against DC United. If not for last week's win at Houston, I don't think TFC would be even worth mentioning here.
Toronto was the mirror image of Kansas City when it came to my shots for/against theory. As coincidence would have it, TFC was at its high water mark the same week KC was at its worst. At the time, TFC had the worst shots differential in MLS (7.64-11.29), but had a very respectable +2 goal differential and 22 points through 14 matches. Although their shot-differential has improved somewhat (now just 13th at -2.50 per match), their goal-differential seems to have corrected itself (-5).
As it is, they'll need to make up five points without any matches in hand. They'll have to do that while only playing two matches at home, both of them far from guaranteed points (vs. San Jose on Saturday and vs. Columbus on Oct. 16). To get the 10 points they'll at least need to make a run at the playoffs, four points from those matches is an absolute must. That would leave six points needed from their three remaining road matches (at Seattle on Oct. 2, at Chivas USA Oct. 9 and at DC United Oct. 23). I'd say losing at Seattle would just about kill their chances in this scenario (since it would leave Seattle needing just two points in their other four matches), so winning at Chivas and DC are absolute musts.
Simply put, if Toronto loses another match this season, they are all but finished.
Sagarin projects them as the No. 11 team, while my predictor has them finishing with just 36 points and in 10th place.
Chicago Fire (26 points in 23 matches)
About a month ago, the Fire looked to be a team on the rise. They had just signed Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, had oodles of games in hand on their competition and a win over New England had given them a three-match unbeaten streak. Even a 4-3 loss at Houston, after which Freddie Ljungberg said the Fire played Houston "off the pitch", seemed to be a mere speedbump as they got ready for their match at Seattle.
We all know how that turned out. Instead of tormenting his former team, Ljungberg was on the wrong end of one of the great finishes in Sounders history as Fredy Montero headed home the game-winner in stoppage time. The Fire have not won since then, a winless streak that has now stretched six matches and resulted in just two points.
Half of those games in hand are now gone (from four to two) and the gap between the Fire and the playoffs is as big as it's ever been (10 points).
The Fire will need at least 15 points in their final seven matches to have any hope, and that will undoubtedly need to start by beating Seattle at home on Saturday. Even a tie would make a comeback almost impossible.
A win on Saturday would leave the Fire needing 12 points in their final six, three of which will be at home (vs. Columbus, Kansas City and DC United from Oct. 8-16). Seven points from that stretch would leave the Fire still needing five points in their final three road matches (at San Jose on Sept. 29, at FC Dallas on Oct. 2 and at Chivas USA Oct. 23). I figure Chicago can afford to lose one match, and it better not be against Seattle or Kansas City, and still have any hope of playing beyond the regular season.
The longest the Fire have averaged 2.0 PPM (a figured they'll have to eclipse) was a four-match stretch from May 27-June 27 that was interrupted by the World Cup break. The Fire have never claimed more than 2.0 PPM in any stretch they've had to play for more than three consecutive weeks. To get to 41 points (which we've noted as a potentially too low a bar), they'll have to play better than that for the five busiest weeks of their season. To call them the longshot is probably giving them too much credit, no matter how much star power they've accumulated.