The Daily Wave: Handicapping The Western Conference Playoffs

Can Sanchez lead the Rapids to the playoffs? - Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Most teams in the Western Conference have four games left to and thin margins separate a few squads dogging it out for remaining playoff spots. Here's how we think it might shape up.

The men in suits who ran college football in recent years fended off a playoff system by insisting that the illogical and arcane formula used to cobble together a championship matchup meant that every regular season game was like a playoff game.

To lose a game at any point was to risk an appearance in the big dance, they said.

This year's Major League Soccer season has arrived at a similar scenario with one month of regular season games left to go, although not by design. This season's jammed-up standings means that the few remaining games have utmost importance to plenty of teams.

What follows is a series of assumptions about what teams might make the cut for the playoffs for the Western Conference and which ones might not. The Colorado Rapids, a team that few at the beginning of the season thought would factor in any playoff scenario come October, are squarely rounding the last corner of the season neck-and-neck jockeying for the last couple playoff slots.

One of the assumptions we'll start with is that three teams — Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers — are probably going to make the playoffs at this point.

That leaves five teams in contention for two remaining playoff slots. Here's how we think it might go.

Team: L.A. Galaxy

Points: 45 (4th place)

Games left: Oct. 6 v. Chivas USA; Oct. 16 v. Montreal Impact; Oct. 20 v. San Jose; Oct. 27 @ Seattle.

Critical game: L.A.'s toughest tilt here is a road match against Seattle, the hottest MLS team. A draw in Emerald City will feel like a win.

Outlook: Of the four teams grappling for the last few playoff spots, L.A. may have the easiest remaining schedule. Chivas USA amounts to a gimme this late in the season and Montreal continues their spotty, inconsistent play. They could face some lineup absences with the U.S. national team still playing World Cup qualifiers in October, although it's hard to say if Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez will factor into those lineups, given that the USA has punched their ticket to Brazil. But you can't count out MLS' repeat championship team with the kind of talent they have. L.A. will make it and could even leapfrog teams ahead of them like Portland or RSL.

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Team: Colorado Rapids

Points: 45 (5th place)

Games left: Oct. 5 v. Seattle; Oct. 9 @ San Jose; Oct. 19 v. Vancouver Whitecaps; Oct. 27 @ Vancouver Whitecaps

Critical game: Many Rapids fans have their attention turned toward this weekend's game against Seattle, but a road match against surging San Jose is the toughest, most important game left. Colorado has not fared well in San Jose's tiny stadium, making a result here the most important point or points the Rapids could pick up the rest of the way.

Outlook: Colorado has had a brutal schedule down the stretch. The road victory against L.A. was huge, particularly in hindsight because the Rapids failed to get a result in Portland despite outplaying the Timbers. It's hard to argue against the Rapids, given how few games they've lost in the recent months. But it will be interesting to see how they do at home against a streaking Seattle team coming off an idle weekend, games in which the Rapids tend not to put on a good display. With San Jose holding a game in hand, Colorado really does control their own destiny. But still, the schedule doesn't favor them and a playoff berth may come in the final weekend of the season and at the expense of San Jose.

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Team: San Jose Earthquakes

Points: 44 (6th place)

Games left: Oct. 9 v. Colorado; Oct. 20 @ L.A.; Oct. 26 @ F.C. Dallas.

Critical game: The road trip to L.A. will be crucial, particularly since it's bookended by home games. San Jose enjoys a good rivalry against L.A., which could even some of the Galaxy's home field advantage.

Outlook: Of this motley crew of playoff stragglers, San Jose has the fewest games remaining. The Earthquakes were mostly left for dead a month ago, but picking off three points last week against hapless Chivas following a Steven Lenhart ejection late was the most important victory for the Earthquakes so far this season. Their prospects will become clearer this weekend once other teams around them in the standings lose their game in hand. If the Rapids lose to Seattle, San Jose is in very good position to make the playoffs. If the Rapids win, it's a tough hill to climb for the 'Quakes.

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Team: Vancouver Whitecaps

Points: 41 (7th place)

Games left: Oct. 6 v. Portland; Oct. 9 @ Seattle; Oct. 19 @ Colorado; Oct. 27 v. Colorado

Critical game: The last game of the season, if they are still in the playoff picture, will probably be a must-win to eclipse the Rapids for the last playoff spot.

Outlook: Thanks to the boneheaded MLS scheduling scheme, Vancouver has a weird home-and-away against the Rapids to close out the season. That is preceded by two tough Cascadia matchups for the Whitecaps. The 'Caps have faded down the stretch, looking punchless last weekend against RSL. They need a lot of help to make the playoffs. We don't think it's gonna happen.

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Team: F.C. Dallas

Points: 40 (8th place)

Games left: Oct. 5 @ RSL; Oct. 12 v. Chicago Fire; Oct. 19 v. Seattle; Oct. 26 @ San Jose

Critical game: All of them

Outlook: Who didn't see Dallas's collapse coming early this season when they were flying high? Dallas had a good offseason but still lack too many parts for sustained success. Schellas Hyndman might need a playoff berth to keep his job, given the way Dallas has looked listless for what, about three months now? It looks grim for Dallas right now, which may need to win out and rely on an improbable set of losses from teams ahead of them in the standings. It's been a strange year of parity in the MLS, but not strange enough probably to let Dallas in the playoff door.

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