Last week saw the end of a 37-year drought as American Pharoah won the Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed did it in 1978. In honor of the three-race format of the Triple Crown, I thought I'd take a look at the MLS standings at this point--about a third of the way into the season.
In our conference DC United is leading the way by seven lengths (or points) over second-place New England Revolution. United has played 16 matches and is sitting on 28 points (1.75 points per match), while New England is on 21 points after 15 matches (1.4 points per match). Of course six of DC's points came at the expense of our lads in purple, and we hope they manage to steal back three of those on Sunday, which will be the last time we meet DC United this season, unless we see them in the playoffs. So this will be an important match from the standpoint of avoiding the season sweep and also hoping to improve our position in the rankings.
The remaining four teams "above the line" in the East are Toronto FC in 3rd place on 19 points after 12 matches (1.58 points per match), Orlando City SC in 4th on 17 points after 14 matches (1.21 points per match), New York Red Bulls in 5th on 17 points after 13 matches (1.31 points per match), and Columbus Crew SC in 6th on 16 points after 14 matches (1.14 points per match).
The teams trying to claw their way into the playoff race from outside in the East are Philadelphia on 15 points, Montreal and Chicago tied on 14 points, and fellow expansion side NYCFC bringing up last place on 11 points. This is a compressed weekend in MLS between the International Friendlies and the Women's World Cup telecasts, so all the matches will be played Saturday and Sunday. Depending on what happens, the best result for Orlando City would be gaining 3 points to 20 and possibly being third in the playoff race. On the flip side, if things go as wrong as possible for our lads, they could wind up falling all the way to 8th or 9th and being on level points with Chicago, with only road goal differential determining which way the sides would slot into the standings. So things could get worse for us a lot more easily than they could get better.
We're fortunate that Brek Shea should be back from International play on Sunday, but Cyle Larin and Conor Donovan will be on International duty. Donovan hasn't figured to contribute much on the pitch for the first team to date, but Orlando City is extremely fortunate that Pedro Ribeiro has recovered from his hamstring injury to be able to play on Sunday at striker. Most fans probably expected Ribeiro to be the starting forward at the beginning of the year, but his injury in the first DC United match opened the door for Larin to begin playing as the starting forward and he has quickly become a fan favorite and is on pace to have a prolific scoring season.
If the playoffs started today, it's unclear how the brackets are set up, but with six teams one would presume that in the knockout round the 3rd and 4th place team would host the 6th and 5th place team respectively, meaning that Orlando City would host at least one playoff match. The MLS web site doesn't have a bracket and the details are a little sketchy on how this all works. But the remainder of the playoffs appear to be a two-legged series, with aggregate goals over the two legs of each pairing producing the winner.
DC United has rushed out to an early lead, providing more separation between themselves and second place than anywhere up and down the table. If they continue on this clip, they will easily secure the top of the table and the spoils that go with it for the Eastern Conference.
Over in the Western Conference, the playoff picture is much more compressed. A total of six points separate first place and seventh place in the Western Standings. Seattle Sounders FC sit atop the table on 26 points after 14 matches (1.86 points per match). Vancouver Whitecaps FC are in 2nd place also with 26 points after 16 matches (1.63 points per match). Sporting KC are in 3rd place on 24 points after 14 matches (1.71 points per match). Portland Timbers are in 4th on 22 points after 15 matches (1.47 points per match) and FC Dallas are in 5th also with 22 points after 14 matches (1.57 points per match). Just above the line in 6th place are LA Galaxy on 21 points after 16 matches (1.31 points per match).
Below the line the Western table is fairly tight as well, with 7th place Houston (20 points), 8th place San Jose (19 points) and 9th place Real Salt Lake (18 points) each separated by only one point. In last place on the table are Colorado on 14 points. With such a tight grouping in the West it's nearly impossible to guess how the season might play out. This weekend alone, if a team gets everything aligned for it or against it, there are no fewer than six squads that could gain or lose as many as 3 spots on the table, easily pushing them into or out of the playoffs.
I'll admit to being in my first year of really paying attention to MLS, and mostly of course to Orlando City, so getting a long-term picture of the trends in the Western table has not been something I've spent much time doing. Because of the nature of the fierce and tough points battle we see on that side of the table, it could mean that those teams are more likely to beat themselves up fighting to reach the playoffs than teams in the East, meaning that the Eastern Champion team may have an edge in health going into the Championship match in December.
Orlando City's Playoff Chances
But I am very encouraged by how the Orlando City squad looked throughout May and early June compared to how they looked in March and April. The younger players on the team appear to have overcome their starry-eyed early matches from sharing the pitch with Kaka and everyone who is logging significant minutes is making solid contributions on the score sheet or in possession and defense. By no means has the team started playing perfectly, but different players show signs of progress every match, and that cohesion is starting to give me confidence they will find a way to keep themselves above the line as they move deeper into the season.
I will put my confidence at 90% today that Orlando City will achieve the club's stated goal of making the playoffs, and I give us at least a 70% chance of being in the Conference Semifinals, and even odds on reaching the Conference Finals. I say this because the team has shown an ability to produce a number of potent scoring threats from players that were expected to be on the bench most of the year, and in the face of short-term and long-term losses of players called up for International Duty (such as Brek Shea and Darwin Ceren) and players struck down with injury (Ribeiro, Aurelien Collin, and Kevin Molino).
Of course, there's also continuous rumors swirling around Orlando City. Arsenal's World-Cup winning striker Lukas Podolski is the latest name of an International star player to be linked to Orlando City, and earlier this week on his radio show, Coach Heath talked glowingly about both Podolski and former Orlando City loanee Dom Dwyer of Sporting Kansas City. The comments about Dwyer got Coach and the club in a bit of hot water with the MLS this week, but I think there's some very compelling reasons that Mr. Dwyer and his lovely bride Sydney Leroux of the US Women's National Team would love to set up a household in Orlando. But more about that in a future post.
All these reasons and more encourage me that Orlando City can reach the stated goal. And even if I didn't think so, Kaka believes the team are playoff quality--and who am I to argue with that guy? The coach is showing confidence and the players are believing in their ability as individuals and their quality as a squad, and that is what will make all the difference.