Four teams. Three places. Too many possibilities.
Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers are fighting it out for the fourth through sixth seeds in the Western Conference playoff bracket, with their ultimate fates to be determined on Decision Day on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.
With just two points separating fourth-place RSL from seventh-place Portland, the permutations are vast. All four teams could finish fourth, which would mean hosting a Knockout Round game. Each of the four could also miss the playoffs entirely.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
4 p.m. ET, CenturyLink Field, ESPN
We’ll start in Seattle, where fourth-place RSL will look to maintain their one-point lead over the fifth-place Sounders in a nationally-televised encounter.
Either team would clinch a playoff berth with a win, while RSL would secure a postseason spot with a draw. Seattle could advance with a draw if either Sporting or Portland draw or lose in their finale. The Sounders could also move into the playoffs with a tie and wins by SKC and the Timbers, but that’d require a bit of help in the goal differential and/or goals scored tiebreakers.
I don’t think Seattle will have to worry about those tiebreakers, however. Even with Sunday’s loss at Dallas and last Wednesday’s home draw against Houston, the Sounders are trending much more positively than RSL, who are winless in their last six and have been shutout in four of their last five.
There’s also the not insignificant matter of RSL’s rough record at Seattle. Salt Lake are 2-6-2 all-time in regular-season contests at CenturyLink Field, and have lost their last five matches there, giving up 14 goals in the process.
Seattle have been beatable at home this year, but I don’t see that happening this weekend. Nico Lodeiro will power the Sounders to another victory, netting Seattle the fourth seed and a home playoff game. RSL’s fate will be left in the hands of Kansas City and Portland.
Sporting Kansas City vs. San Jose Earthquakes
4 p.m. ET, Children’s Mercy Park, MLS LIVE
Sporting are currently clinging onto sixth – tied with the seventh-place Timbers on points, but leading Portland by virtue of the goal differential tiebreaker. Yet the margin is slim: SKC sit -1 on the year, while Portland are -2. That lead could easily shift on Sunday.
If it does, I think it’ll be more down to Portland having an absurd performance at Vancouver than anything SKC does against already-eliminated San Jose. I think Kansas City, who won 2-1 at the Quakes on September 24, will pull a repeat performance and nab all three points on Sunday.
A victory would clinch SKC’s spot in the postseason. If it comes with a draw between RSL and Seattle and they’re able to maintain their tiebreaker lead over Portland, it’d net Sporting the fourth-seed and a home Knockout Round game.
Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps
4 pm ET, BC Place, MLS LIVE; TSN in Canada
Portland kept their playoff hopes alive with a big 1-0 victory against Colorado on Sunday, but it came at a high cost. Both Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell picked up yellow cards in the win, meaning they’ll be suspended for this coming weekend’s huge tilt at Vancouver.
The absences of Chara and Ridgewell will be a big blow for the Timbers’ defense. Those two are perhaps the most important pieces for Portland in the back – replacing them will be difficult at best, season-dooming at worst.
Not helping matters is the fact that this one will be played on the road. The Timbers, who have a must-win CONCACAF Champions League match against Saprissa set for Wednesday, are a putrid 0-10-6 away from Providence Park this year. If they can find their first road win on Sunday, it’d be good enough for a playoff berth. With Chara and Ridgewell sidelined, however, I just don’t see that happening, even against the ninth-place Whitecaps.
I think the Timbers will draw, without getting enough help for the defending champs to make the playoffs, marking the first time in league history that both of the previous season's finalists didn't return to the postseason.
How will it shake out?
I see Seattle beating RSL, SKC topping San Jose and Portland drawing at Vancouver. That’ll set up a 4-5 matchup between the Sounders and Sporting in Seattle, and a 3-6 contest between LA and RSL at StubHub Center, with the Timbers left out in the cold for the second time in Caleb Porter’s four-year tenure.