The Hunt for December Glory Continues: An Analysis of the MLS Western Conference

As the trees begin to change colors and cold weather knocks on the door, the MLS regular season winds down. Major League Soccer has enjoyed enormous success in its 20th season, with higher volumes of tickets sold, greater national broadcast exposure, and intriguing story lines week in and week out.  The quality of play has steadily improved and growing interest in players looking to come stateside has produced stars like Giovinco, Pirlo and Gerrard. This year, MLS has introduced “Decision Day”, the last day of the regular season in which all 20 teams will take the pitch. Let’s take a closer look at the Western Conference standings as teams gear up to fight their way into the playoffs.

Western Conference Recap

This weekend yielded a new leader at the top of the West as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated FC Dallas by a one goal margin. Midfielder Steven Gerrard didn’t hesitate in emphasizing the importance of the match, saying, “We’re at the business end of the season, it’s all about three points and not the individual tallies… that was a big result for us.”  The Galaxy have done well throughout the season to acquire players, namely Gio Dos Santos and Gerrard, and have solidified themselves as the frontrunner for the cup. A win in Seattle this weekend will put the Galaxy into the playoffs.

The Vancouver Whitecaps FC find themselves in 2nd place with 48 points after leading in the standings for the majority of the season. In their last match, the fast-paced Whitecaps attack managed only one goal in a loss to a NYCFC club that has struggled mightily on defense throughout the year. Look for Vancouver to clinch a spot into the postseason this weekend as they travel to San Jose for a matchup against the Earthquakes.

FC Dallas missed a golden opportunity against the Galaxy to climb to the top of the ranks. In the showdown of the weekend, Dallas gave up goals to the Galaxy’s dynamic trio of Dos Santos, Keane, and Gerrard. If they hope to punch a ticket to the playoffs this weekend, they’ll have to defeat the Houston Dynamo and witness the Quakes lose to or tie the Whitecaps.

The real competition lies in the final three playoff spots, with five teams separated by only 6 points. The Seattle Sounders, who currently sit at 4th place in the standings, have had a turbulent season. A span of 8 losses in 9 games throughout the summer months left the Sounders struggling to find their identity. The decision to bring back Coach Schmid for another season began to look questionable and fans were looking sideways at the move. The Sounders managed to turn it around with back to back wins against the Timbers and Toronto FC. Even with 14 losses, the most in the Western Conference, Seattle stands with 46 points and are in prime position to make the playoffs.

Just one point behind them are Sporting Kansas City with a total of 45. SKC played Seattle to a 1-1 draw on Sunday, a result which had little effect on their positions in the standings. Before the game, Kansas City captain Matt Besler spoke about the need to focus on the immediate task at hand, “We have to concentrate of what’s in front of us at the moment. We aren’t emphasizing one game or another.” If SKC hopes to hold on to their playoff spot, that’s exactly what will be required of them.

Then there are the Portland Timbers, in control of the 6th and final playoff spot with 44 points. The road has not been friendly to them, where they have managed to drop 8 games. On Sunday, the Timbers took a big step to turn that around, with a 2-1 victory in Columbus. Head Coach Caleb Porter made no mistake about it, “We showed a lot of character. Our backs were against the wall, and we showed… when you need more you get more out of these guys, and that was a huge result.”

On the outside looking in, are the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo. Sunday afternoon, the Earthquakes came away with a crucial win over Real Salt Lake to bring them within one point of the Timbers. With their playoff hopes dwindling, Perez Garcia struck from 25 yards in the 87th minute, a shot which resulted as the game winner for the Quakes. Captain Chris Wondolowski said of the victory, “A huge relief, we needed a full three points.” At 43 points and 3 games remaining, the Quakes have a very realistic chance of getting into the playoffs.

The Dynamo significantly improved their chances of making the playoffs with a must-win over the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night. Before the game, defender Brad Davis shared surprisingly honest words with the media about his teammates, “Look at where we stand and take accountability… are you going to be a solution or are you going to be a problem?” DaMarcus Beasley added, “It’s going to be difficult, but until we’re mathematically unable to make the playoffs we’re going to fight for that chance.” It’s clear that the Dynamo will show up ready to fight and make their case for the postseason in the few games they have left.

Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids round out the bottom of the table. Both teams have had undoubtedly disappointing seasons, with Real Salt Lake underperforming to the tune of a -7 goal differential while accumulating 38 points. It will take nothing short of a miracle for Real to have a shot at the playoffs. Colorado, meanwhile, was unable to translate the excitement of hosting the All-Star game into any sort of excitement on the pitch. They sit as the worst team in the conference with an 8-12-10 record. Both teams will look to have better luck next season.