For the second straight year, the New York Red Bulls playoff hopes will rest on the outcome of the final games of the MLS season. In 2011, the Red Bulls needed to tie or win their last game against the Philadelphia Union to hold off D.C. United for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. This year, the Red Bulls can clinch at least a Wild Card spot with a win at home against Sporting Kansas City in their next to last match on Saturday night, or if the sixth place Columbus Crew loses to or ties D.C. United.
The format for the playoffs is different this season from years past, and every point will count in their last two games as the Red Bulls are not only looking to make the playoffs but also avoid the play-in game and ideally enjoy something resembling home field advantage. The road to MLS Cup gets a lot tougher if New York's finish lands them in the Wild Card play-in game on October 31, just four days after visiting Philadelphia for their last regular season match and a few days before the Eastern Conference home-and-away semifinals begin.
Two teams, Sporting Kansas City and the Chicago Fire, have already qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs, but the standings are so tight that if the Red Bulls win their last two games and Kansas City loses both, New York could still win the Eastern Conference as long as Chicago and D.C. drop points in their final games. Besides their trip to Red Bull Arena, Kansas City closes their season in a midweek home game on October 24 against Philadelphia, which gives the Union less than seventy-two hours to fly home and prepare to close out their season against the Red Bulls on Saturday afternoon.
On the flip side, New York can lose both its remaining games and still make the postseason, albeit through a play-in game, if the Houston Dynamo or Columbus don't both pass the Red Bulls in the standings. Houston has a game at home against Philadelphia and a trip to face the Colorado Rapids left on their league schedule but also their last CONCACAF Champions League group stage match sandwiched between the two. Luckily for Houston, they sit three points ahead of their opponent, Olimpia, have a goal differential advantage of +4, and are playing at home.
On Saturday, the Columbus Crew will visit D.C. United, who is also fighting for playoff positioning, and then close out the season one week later hosting the worst team in Major League Soccer, Toronto FC.
If New York wants to guarantee that their season will extend beyond October 27 in Philadelphia (a terrible place to end a season), they need two points from their last two matches. Actually, one of the few positives for New York is they have pretty much wrapped up the tie-breaker with 54 goals scored thus far in 2012, so if they finish level with any other Eastern Conference team they will be the higher seeded team.
Think New York can recover from a tough loss to the Chicago Fire and finish the season strong? Would missing the playoffs be the biggest disaster in franchise history? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.