Saturday's loss to the Sounders means the Vancouver Whitecaps are in tough to take one of the top places in the Western Conference. All the teams above the Whitecaps have far superior goal differentials and excellent squads. We can expect Vancouver to improve as their revamped roster starts to find chemistry, but not to that extent. Whitecaps fans should probably gird themselves to the fact that Vancouver will, in all likelihood, finish fourth or fifth in the West this season and endure an extra playoff round.
Except that, today, that somehow sounds optimistic. Indeed, Saturday's defeat (and the prior mid-week torn-to-pieces-by-injury-and-internationals loss to FC Dallas) has some Whitecaps fans asking if Vancouver will make the playoffs at all.
The good news is that the Major League Soccer playoff picture is actually fairly clear this season. The top five teams in each conference make the playoffs, period. Of those five, the bottom two enter a play-in round; a single-elimination game against the other bottom-two team in their conference. If the regular season ended today, the Whitecaps would play a single match against the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, and the winner would take on the Western Conference champion (currently the San Jose Earthquakes).
Okay, it's not that clear, but believe me some previous seasons have been worse. The point is that, to make the playoffs, the Vancouver Whitecaps need to be in the top five. The top three is better.
It would take some great play for the Whitecaps to reel in the third-best team in the Western Conference (the Seattle Sounders are on 40 points but badly underrated at that; the three top Western teams may be the three best teams in the league). But staying in fifth? That's really worrying some people? While it's conceivable that the Whitecaps might drop out of the playoff picture, it would take a shock of historic proportions.
Here are the facts:
- The Vancouver Whitecaps are currently in the playoffs by five points with a game in hand. This is plenty; only once in the past five seasons has there been a five-point gap or more between the last playoff team and the best non-playoff team. The average margin-of-making-the-playoffs in the past five seasons is three points.
- Dallas is our only realistic worry. Chivas USA is ten points back of the Whitecaps but has four games in hand. If they go on a run they could pass Vancouver even if the Whitecaps win out. But if you think Chivas, who scores 0.68 goals per game and concedes 1.18, is going to make the playoffs you're worrying too much. Chivas is currently running at a -11 goal differential. It wouldn't be unprecedented for a team to make the playoffs with a goal differential that bad (the 2006 Colorado Rapids snuck in at -13 and actually won a playoff round) but it certainly doesn't indicate a team ready for a big push, particularly since so many games in hand means fixture congestion down the stretch.
So the Whitecaps have a larger margin than usual and only one team that could realistically make it up. What are Dallas's chances?
The Whitecaps have a relatively easy schedule ahead. Of their remaining eight games, three (@ Los Angeles September 1, v. Seattle September 29, and @ Salt Lake October 27) are against teams ahead of them in the standings. There is only one mid-week game against the aforementioned not-too-worried-about-them Chivas USA. There are two games against the Portland Timbers, which has the league's worst goal differential and is second-last on points, as well as one against the almost-as-doormatty Colorado Rapids.
So that's four matches out of eight the Whitecaps should win, two tough games against Seattle and Salt Lake, and winnable but interesting road matches in Dallas and Los Angeles. We can confidently expect the Whitecaps to win half of those eight games and it wouldn't be rash to predict, say, 16 out of 24 possible points. That would put Vancouver on 53 and in the playoffs unless Dallas or Chivas won every remaining match.
A worse but still realistic scenario is that Vancouver maintains its current pace through the end of the season, even though there are no more international dates, easier opposition, and hopefully fewer ill-timed injuries and suspensions. To deliberately cherry-pick a bad sample, Vancouver has seven points in their last eight games. If they get another seven from their next eight they'll finish on 44 points.
To get to 44 points, FC Dallas would need twelve points in their last seven games; that's four wins and three losses or three wins, three draws, and one loss. In their last seven games, Dallas has four wins, a draw, and two losses; pretty good! But that includes two games against Portland and one against Colorado whereas, in their next seven, Dallas faces Vancouver, the Galaxy, Seattle (twice), San Jose, and Chivas (twice). Four of those games are on the road. If Dallas does tie the Whitecaps on points it's over; realistically the Whitecaps will have fewer goals for and therefore lose the tie-break.
To get four wins out of those seven games would take Dallas's best form of the season by a country mile. It's not impossible (the return of David Ferreira is helping them loads) but it's unlikely. Combine it with the equally-unlikely assumption that Vancouver will continue to struggle even when every indication says their record should improve, and there's reason for quiet confidence.