It might seem like madness to start projecting playoff matchups when there's still nearly a third of the regular season yet to play, but the results this past weekend clarified the picture in two different ways.
First, the Sounders are almost certain to make the playoffs. This may seem like some uncomfortable pre-hatch chicken counting, but barring a cataclysmic series of injuries (knock on wood) Seattle will be in it. Thanks to the late win over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, the Sounders now have 41 points. Our simulation has shown since nearly the beginning of the season that 45 points would be at or near the cutoff to make the playoffs (it's currently projected at just over 44). So to get to that minimum threshold, we need to pick up 4 points in 10 games, an absurdly low standard that even the Sporks maintained in the first stretch of the season when they were setting records for futility. Given that 6 of those 10 games are at home and only 5 are against teams projected to make the playoffs, I'm pretty confident.
The second question that was largely resolved this weekend was who would win the Supporters Shield (and therefore the first playoff spot in the West). FC Dallas was the LA Galaxy's primary competition (with the Sounders a little behind) but after beating up on the Toros in Carson this weekend, we now have the Galaxy with a 75% chance of winning the Shield. Seattle and FC Dallas are effectively tied at around 10% each, we give Real Salt Lake a puncher's 5% chance, and everyone else is a rounding error.
So with the #1 spot in the West drifting away, the #2 and #3 positions are looking increasingly likely to fall to two of Seattle, FC Dallas, and RSL. And with the Lakers' sudden drop in form and a much harder schedule going forward, the most likely result is that Seattle and FC Dallas split 2 and 3. And one of the quirks of the MLS playoff system is that it doesn't matter very much who takes which. Those two spots play each other in a home and home series to kick off their playoffs. The lower seed will host the first match, and there's certainly some advantage to getting the #2 seed and hosting last, but regardless the faces involved will remain the same.
I've gone through and calculated the probabilities of first round opponents that our sim spits out (including the remote possibility of no playoffs). As you can see, FC Dallas is by far the most likely first matchup:
|Team||Odds of first matchup|
|Real Salt Lake||15.3%|
|NY Red Bulls||4.3%|
|San Jose Eartdquakes||1.0%|
|New England Revolution||0.2%|
There are some interesting results in there. Like the fact that we're more likely to play a bad East team first than a good East team, since the only way we'd play an East team first is to be a wild card and we'd almost certainly be one of the highest seeded wild cards, meaning a likely matchup with a low seed. And the fact that we're more likely to play the New England Revolution in the first round of the playoffs than not make the playoffs at all. But regardless, FC Dallas stands out as the matchup to bet on. It's not greater than 50%, so the odds are actually that it's someone else, but if you had to pick one team to anticipate, that would be the one. And we have a 42% chance of meeting them overall, meaning there's another 7% chance that we don't meet them first but meet them in a later round of the playoffs, so we're almost at a 50/50 chance to face FC Dallas at some point.
But we won't have to wait for the MLS Cup playoffs to see the Texans on the field. After the Sporting KC match, our hardest match remaining on the schedule is unquestionably the matchup in Dallas in a week and a half. It's the only remaining away game against a winning team and it will likely have a significant impact on how the playoff race shakes out. Not only are the conditions likely to be miserable, it may well decide whether we or the Hoops would get the final home match of a two-legged playoff round.
And of course there's the US Open Cup semifinal match at home 10 days later — against that same FC Dallas. After beating the Rave Green in May on a Brek Shea wondergoal, Dallas has proven that they can overcome the home field advantage at Qwest-slash-CenturyLink Field. But can they overcome the advantage in the cozy confines of Starfire? This also has a chance of being the return game for David Ferreira, last season's MVP who's targeting a September return to the team after suffering a broken ankle two days after Steve Zakuani had his leg broken. A loss in that match would be a big blow to Seattle — a city that takes the US Open Cup very seriously.
So by the end of this season, I suspect we're going to have seen more than our fill of FC Dallas.