Eastern Conference playoff race heading towards photo finish

In crowded East, Philadelphia face critical final stretch

You want parity? Take a look at the Eastern Conference standings. Amazingly, with only a handful of games left in the MLS regular season, only four points separate the top six teams in the table. Four points.

The remarkable balance of power means every remaining game carries playoff-like importance, setting up an entertaining, if nerve-racking, photo finish.

While the Houston Dynamo currently occupy the conference’s top spot with 42 points, they only have three games left. The 40-point Union have five to play, one more than Sporting KC and the Columbus Crew, both on 41 points. The much-maligned New York Red Bulls are right in the thick of the race, a point behind the Union with four remaining games. Then there’s darkhorse D.C. United, currently in the sixth spot but with six games left, the most of any team in the league.

Here’s a look at the top six teams in the East and the remaining matches on each schedule:

1. Houston Dynamo – 42 points, 3 games remaining (CHI, @POR, LA)
2. Sporting KC – 41 points, 4 games remaining (CLB, @SJ, NY, @DC)
3. Columbus Crew – 41 points , 4 games remaining (@KC, DC, @NE, @CHI)
4. Philadephia Union – 40 points, 5 games remaining (DC, @CHV, @SEA, TOR, @NY)
5. New York Red Bulls – 39 points, 4 games remaining (@TOR, LA, @KC, PHI)
6. D.C. United – 38 points, 6 games remaining (@PHI, @CLB, @VAN, CHI, POR, KC)

Any of the top six could feasibly finish atop the conference or miss the playoffs entirely. The Union helped their cause by going 1-0-1 against Columbus and Kansas City, preventing both teams from distancing themselves from the pack. If the season ended today, Philadelphia would make the playoffs as a wildcard. While that wouldn’t be the worst fate, clinching a top three spot and earning the equivalent of a bye is certainly preferable.

A nationally-televised matchup against D.C. on Thursday looms large for Philadelphia. With only two regular season home games left on the docket, the often overused “must-win” label may not be overstating the importance of coming away with all three points.

TICKETS: Union vs. D.C. United

Whether the Union will have the services of several banged up contributors against D.C. is still uncertain. On Saturday, Peter Nowak’s side were missing Sheanon Williams (concussion), Freddy Adu (ankle sprain), Justin Mapp (quad strain), Danny Mwanga (hip strain), and of course captain Faryd Mondragon, who is still on the mend from a finger fracture.

What we do know is that the Union appear to be rounding into form just in the nick of time after struggling through an eight-match winless drought, the longest in the club’s short history. As the Colorado Rapids proved in 2010, playoff seeding matters less than which teams happen to be playing their best when the stakes are highest.

Sebastien Le Toux is leading the charge for Philadelphia with seven goals in his last seven games. However, if the Union are to reach their full attacking potential – and sustain it, which has been the struggle this season -- they’ll need others to supplement the scoring load. While the Union are eighth in the league in goals per game, 16 of 37 have come from four games. Not surprisingly, that means a lot of low scoring efforts. Indeed, Philadelphia have scored one goal or less in 22 of 29 games.

The defense, along with rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath, have performed admirably since a disastrous first half against New England on September 7. Since the worst defensive half in club history, the Union have conceded just one goal in 327 minutes.

So what does it all mean? While only the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders have less losses than the Union, and only the Galaxy less home losses, Philadelphia find themselves in a precarious position. The good news is that the second-year club control their own destiny. A number of teams would happily trade places with the Union right about now. Sure, Philadelphia and their fans would prefer to be cruising into the playoffs – who wouldn’t? But there’s something to be said for the fun of a playoff race with this much uncertainty and drama.

Where will the Union end up in the standings? Tough to say for sure, but when the final whistle blows in the club’s last regular season game against New York – a Thursday night road contest – Philadelphia won’t want to be left tracking weekend results to learn their playoff fate. 

The path to seizing control of their season and locking up a playoff spot continues Thursday.