The last time we checked in on the schedule math, the Supporters' Shield was the main goal. While still a possibility, three straight losses have rendered such lofty goals almost irrelevant. The Seattle Sounders have now played four straight games in which a win would have clinched a playoff spot. It's still close to a certainty that they'll qualify, but there's absolutely no reason to take it for granted that it will happen.
With all that in mind, this edition of "Playing schedule math" will focus on what the Sounders need to do in order to avoid the 4-5 matchup in the MLS Cup playoffs. I'll also break down which results will be of most interest to Sounders fans.
If there's any good news, it's that the Sounders still control their own destiny when it comes to avoiding that extra midweek match. If the Sounders beat FC Dallas on Saturday and follow that up with a win against the LA Galaxy on Oct. 27, they'll finish with 57 points and can do no worse than third place.
- Oct. 19 @ FC Dallas: This may come as a bit of a surprise to those who aren't paying super close attention to the rest of the league but no MLS team has fewer wins since the start of June than Dallas. The team that headed into the summer months leading the Supporters' Shield race has gone just 2-9-7 in their past 18 games and have now been eliminated from the playoffs. Their coach appears to be a lame duck, just waiting for the season to end to learn his fate. The players are probably just looking forward to the offseason. I'd say they are still dangerous, if for no other reason than they'll be very loose, but that might not be a great recipe for a team looking as tight as the Sounders. An early Sounders goal would be very helpful. This is obviously a must-win.
- Oct. 27 vs. LA Galaxy: Depending on how the rest of the season plays out, the last game on the MLS schedule could be loaded with meaning or totally irrelevant. The possibilities range from this game determining the Supporters' Shield winner to ending one team's season and everything in between. As long as the Sounders win at Dallas, the nightmare scenarios will be out the window. Still, I'd say this is a game the Sounders at least need to tie as losing at home to the Galaxy in front of 60,000-plus fans would just be too much.
For the sake of this exercise, let's say the Sounders get to 57 points. What's the Sounders' best-case scenario in that instance?
There are currently six teams capable of getting to at least 55 points and four that can surpass 57 (the Sounders' max). The Supporters' Shield is not really a reasonable goal at this point, but here's what each team would have to do in order for the Sounders to have any real chance.
- New York Red Bulls: Currently the team that controls their ability to win the Shield, winning out would give them 59 points and the first tiebreaker. But it won't be a walk in the park for them. This weekend they play at the Houston Dynamo. A tie or loss works almost equally well for the Sounders and sets up a virtual must-win game for them at home against the Chicago Fire in their season-finale. The Fire will probably need at least a result to make the playoffs and as long as the Red Bulls don't get more than two points in the two games, the Sounders are in great position to finish ahead of them in the overall standings.
- Portland Timbers: After beating the Sounders, the Timbers are actually in very good position to win the Shield. They've got RSL at home and Chivas USA away left on their schedule. If they win both of those, I'd put my money on them claiming their first piece of MLS silverware (and by far the most significant trophy in the franchise's history). But if RSL can at least earn a point, the Sounders are still in OK position. Assuming that scenario, the best the Timbers could do is 57 points. The only scenario that sees the Sounders and Timbers even on 57 points means Seattle wins the first tiebreaker (17 wins to 14).
- Real Salt Lake: Like the Timbers, winning out puts RSL in very good position to win the Shield. In fact, I might go as far as to say that winner of the RSL-Timbers game becomes the favorite to claim the title. In a rather shocking turn of fate, RSL will also close its season with a match against Chivas USA. That basically reinforces the point that from a Sounders perspective a tie in the RSL-Timbers game is really key. A tie there would mean if the Sounders win their final two games, they'd be guaranteed to finish ahead of both RSL and Portland. On the flip side, the Sounders will almost surely finish behind whichever team wins that game.
- Sporting Kansas City: Given their remaining schedule, it's hard not to like KC's chances of winning the Shield. Of all the contenders, none have an easier road as KC has a home game against D.C. United and a road game against the Philadelphia Union. Let's go ahead and assume they are going to beat D.C. That puts them at 55 points, but still leaves just a sliver of hope for the Sounders. From a Sounders perspective, a tie against the Union would be the same as a loss as KC would likely hold the tiebreaker if both teams finished on 55 anyway (they'd each have 16 wins and KC has scored three more goals, which is the second tiebreaker).
- LA Galaxy: Although the Galaxy are still three points behind the Sounders, they've got three games left to play which means they can still get to 57 points and finish ahead of the Sounders. Their first game is at home against a badly listing Impact team that has only claimed 1 of 15 points and is in real danger of missing the playoffs. A tie in that game would be great for the Sounders as it would effectively knock out two more teams from the Shield race. But that's probably not the more important game from our perspective. That belongs to the Oct. 20 California Clasico against the San Jose Earthquakes. If the Galaxy can at least get a point in that one, the Sounders would clinch a playoff spot no matter what they do against Dallas. Assuming a pair of Galaxy wins still means the Sounders control their destiny. The downside is that the Sounders would need to win their season finale in order to guarantee finishing ahead of the Galaxy, who would control the tiebreaker if both teams finish on 55 points.
- Montreal Impact: I'm not all that worried about the Sounders finishing below the Impact, given their form and the fact that max points still only gets them to 55. The Sounders would absolutely love to see the Impact beat the Galaxy on Wednesday. The Impact would still need to beat the Union at home on Oct. 19 (which comes on three days rest after flying across the continent) and then win on the road against Toronto FC on Oct. 26 (not the guarantee it may seem) in order to realistically finish ahead of the Sounders, as dropping points in either would leave them with no more than 53.
Avoiding the worst-case scenario
As bad as the Sounders have been, it remains highly unlikely that they'll miss the playoffs. The only team they need to worry about is the Earthquakes, as the Colorado Rapids and Vancouver Whitecaps each play their final two games against one another and are effectively battling for one playoff spot. There is no scenario in which both the Whitecaps and Rapids can pass the Sounders.
- San Jose Earthquakes: It's really quite simple, as long as the Galaxy win the California Clasico on Oct. 20, the Sounders are in the clear. A tie would leave the Earthquakes with a max of 51 points, but unable to equal the Sounders' win total. If the Earthquakes manage to beat the Galaxy and the Sounders lose to FC Dallas, that sets up a very scary final weekend. The Earthquakes would only have to beat Dallas at home and root for the Galaxy to beat the Sounders. The only other thing that could avoid this nightmare scenario from being set up is for the Rapids and Whitecaps to split their games (either a win apiece or two ties). As long as the Rapids get no more than three points and the Whitecaps don't win out, the Sounders would be in no danger of missing the playoffs.
Recapping our rooting interests
I've outlined a lot of various scenarios and I'm sure you'r a bit confused. For sake of simplicity, here are the key games the Sounders will be concerned about:
- Galaxy vs. Impact, Oct. 16: Whichever team loses is no longer in real danger of passing the Sounders.
- Impact vs. Union, Oct. 19: Sounders want a Union victory.
- Rapids vs. Whitecaps, Oct. 19: Sounders want either a tie or a Rapids win.
- Timbers vs. RSL, Oct. 19: A tie is really the only good result for the Sounders.
- Red Bulls vs. Dynamo: Sounders want the Red Bulls to drop points.
- Galaxy vs. Earthquakes, Oct. 20: Right now a Galaxy win is the best result for the Sounders. But if the Sounders can take care of business against Dallas, an Earthquakes win would probably be better.
- Union vs. Sporting KC, Oct. 26: Sounders want a Union win.
- Red Bulls vs. Fire, Oct. 27: Sounders want Red Bulls to drop points.
- Whitecaps vs. Rapids, Oct. 27: If the Rapids won the first meeting, Sounders want a Whitecaps win. If the game tied, Sounders want another tie.
As long as the Sounders can claim at least four points, they have a very good chance at finishing in the top 3 of the West and a decent chance of hosting the MLS Cup if it came to that. Really, that's the easiest way of putting it.