By Michael Potepan
Every die-hard Quakes fan knows by now that the team's chances of making the 2013 MLS playoffs are hanging by a thread. But exactly how thin is that thread? Can we chart a particular path to the postseason by pouring over the remaining regular season matchups for San Jose and its closest rivals? And if so, how likely would it be for the Quakes to actually thread the playoff needle?
Let's start by examining the position of the Quakes who currently sit eighth in the Western Conference with 37 points, five points behind Colorado who occupy the fifth and final playoff position. By the end of the season, the Quakes would need to overtake three teams to make it into that final position. To even entertain such a notion requires a leap of faith that San Jose will close out the season on a roll. In its remaining six games, the Earthquakes play home matches against each of the three teams immediately above them in the Western Conference table: Vancouver this Saturday, and Colorado and Dallas later in October. They also go on the road for games at Real Salt Lake, Chivas U.S.A., and Los Angeles. Toss in two midweek CCL matches (luckily played at Buck Shaw), and you have the remainder of the Quakes 2013 schedule.
To have much hope of getting to the postseason (based on past MLS precedent), the Quakes, would need to pick up 13 or so points from those six matches to end up with around 50. Put another way, they will probably need to win all three home matches against Vancouver, Colorado, and Dallas, as well as to pick up at least one additional road victory along with whatever additional points they can get from their other two road games. In other words, they probably won't have to win all six matches, but they certainly will need to win at least four of the six. Seen in this light, the home matches become vital, must-win games. Of the road opponents, Chivas (though improving as of late) seems the most beatable. The Goats have lost 6 games at home already, more than any other team in the West. RSL and Galaxy, on the other hand, have each lost at home only twice. So just for sake of argument, let's assume the Quakes do go on a 4-1-1 tear (2.17 points per match), and finish the season with 50 points. How poorly would three of the other teams have to play (besides their hypothetical losses to the Quakes at Buck Shaw) in order for the Quakes to overtake them?
Vancouver, currently level with San Jose at 37 points but with a game in hand, seems the easiest team to overtake. Assuming the Whitecaps lose to the Quakes on Saturday, they later will face RSL, Portland, and Colorado at home, while going on the road to play Montreal, Seattle, and Colorado (again). The ‘Caps have been in poor form since mid-summer, going just 3-5-3 (1.09 points per match) in their last 11 matches. To finish the season even with the Quakes at 50 points, they would also need four wins and a draw. Given the higher quality of the teams they will be facing, that seems more of a reach than any of the other projections we'll consider for the other teams. While Vancouver has lost only two at home this year, it's hard to see them getting outright wins in all three of their upcoming home matches, along with another win and a draw on their travels. Perhaps Martin Rennie will right the ship, but it's probably more likely they will continue to flounder and the Quakes end up overtaking them.
F.C. Dallas, now with 40 points and also with a game in hand, also seems like a possibility to overcome, though probably a less likely one than Vancouver. The Hoops will face off against the Quakes at Buck Shaw for the final match of the regular season in October, but before then, Dallas will play Columbus, Chicago, and Seattle at home, and Colorado, New York, and RSL on the road. Again assuming they lose their match with San Jose, Dallas would need to pick up ten points from their other six matches to end even with the Quakes at 50 points. Dallas suffered through an 11 game winless streak earlier in the summer, but have since steadied things with recent wins over Chivas and Vancouver, along with the 2-2 home draw against San Jose. Of their remaining home matches, Columbus and Chicago seem doable, but Seattle less so. And it might be hard to pick up many points from their travels to Colorado, New York, and Salt Lake. It's possible Dallas could snatch three victories and a draw to pick up 10 points from these six remaining non-Quakes games (going 1.67 points per match), but it would require them to sustain their recent turnaround until the end of the season.
Both Portland (with seven games remaining) and Colorado (with six) currently sit on 42 points, and each would need just eight additional points to end the season hypothetically level with the Quakes at 50. So it's tempting to consider Portland as a possible target. Unfortunately, though, the Quakes have already played all their matches against Portland, so they can't pick up any points that way. The Timbers, formidable at Jeld Wen (having lost there just once this year) face Colorado, Los Angeles, Seattle, and RSL at home, while they go on the road to Chivas (twice), and Vancouver. While three of Portland's home matches are against top teams, it still seems very unlikely that a team of Portland's quality who play four times at home would not pick up at least eight points from seven games (1.14 points per match). So let's consider Portland virtually unreachable.
Unfortunately, overtaking Colorado also appears to be a long shot - perhaps not quite as long as piping Portland, but nearly so. Again we'll assume the Rapids lose their match to the Quakes at Buck Shaw in October, but of their other five remaining matches, three are at home (against Dallas, Seattle, and Vancouver), and two are away (to Portland and Vancouver). To get to 50 points, the Rapids would need eight points from five games (1.33 points per match). Consider as well that this is a team in great form. If you've not been paying attention, Colorado has been on an absolute tear since mid-summer, going 6-1-4 (2.0 points per match) for its last 11 matches. It's difficult to see a team of Colorado's quality finishing their season with only two wins out of five, particularly when facing teams like Dallas and Vancouver at home, and Vancouver on the road. It could happen (anything can happen in MLS), but if it did, it would have to be considered an unexpected late-season collapse.
Since the Quakes still have a slender chance of making the playoffs, they still should go all out to end their regular MLS season in the best possible position. Unfortunately, this means they should not take any chances with the remaining CCL matches that might jeopardize getting MLS results. Without going into the arithmetic, it is virtually impossible for the Quakes to win their group and go through to the quarterfinals now that they have lost the first two matches in the group stage of the competition. At this point, the Quakes need to focus their attention exclusively on finishing MLS in the best position as possible. CCL can only be a distraction at this point. Luckily, the final two CCL matches are at home, and without having to travel, the team can get through them with a minimum of disruption. San Jose should field a reserve squad for these midweek matches, and first team players who will be in the eighteen for the weekend MLS matches should not be given any CCL minutes.
So there you have it. There still is a path for the Quakes to make the playoffs, but it requires San Jose to get very hot, and the Rapids to get very cold. Quakes fans should forget about catching up with Portland and root for the Timbers beat up on Colorado and Vancouver in their matchups later in the fall. Also, when Vancouver and Colorado face each other twice home-and-home in the final two games of the season, we can only hope the Quakes are far enough ahead of the Whitecaps for us to root for Vancouver to get points at Colorado's expense. It will take a lot of things going right for the Earthquakes to make the playoffs, many of which will be out of their control. But ending the season on a high note with around 50 points, even in sixth place would be a real accomplishment, given how poorly things went earlier in the season. And, it would set the up nicely for next year.
Guest writer Michael Potepan can be found at Buck Shaw Stadium on game days.