Can FC Dallas Still Make the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs?


Only a scant few weeks ago, some short-sighted soccer scribes were already writing off FC Dallas’ MLS Cup playoffs chances after they lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy at FC Dallas Stadium on July 28.  That setback left FCD eleven points out of the fifth (and final) playoff spot with eleven games to play and multiple teams to pass in the standings.  Since that game, however, the Toros are undefeated (3 wins and 1 tie) and the other teams have done their part and started losing to keep Dallas right in the thick of the race.  But with only seven games left in the season for Dallas, has this sudden resurgence come in time and can it be maintained?

With the top three spots in the Western Conference virtually locked up by the San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake, there are two MLS Cup playoffs spots for the remaining teams to fight over.  We can realistically eliminate Portland and Colorado as both teams are more than ten points back in the standings, and both teams are averaging less than 1 point per game (PPG).  That leaves the Los Angeles Galaxy (currently 4th), Vancouver Whitecaps (5th), FC Dallas (6th) and Chivas USA (7th) as the contenders for those two spots.

An initial look at each team’s remaining league schedule puts FC Dallas at a disadvantage right away.  The Galaxy definitely have to send the league office a nice Christmas card for giving them six of their last eight games at home.  Chivas USA has plenty of opportunity to move up in the standings with four more games (and 12 more potential points) than the Toros and the Whitecaps. Vancouver and Dallas both have seven games remaining, but Vancouver has four home matches to Dallas’ three (fewest of any of the contenders).  Since there is a discrepancy in the number of games each team has left to play and each team performs differently at home and on the road (Vancouver is almost unbeatable at home while Chivas dominates away from Los Angeles), I decided to take more detailed look at each team’s remaining schedule based on season-long form at both home and on the road to project how many points each team should expect to collect in their remaining games.

The following chart projects each team’s final points based on their remaining home and road games and their season-to-date PPG in each.  The last column shows the average PPG of the remaining opponents on each team’s schedule, but is not factored into any of the calculations:

Once again, things don’t look promising for FC Dallas.  The simplistic conclusion is that if each team performs on average as they have for the season to date at home and on the road, there won’t be any change in the standings except that FC Dallas will fall below Chivas USA and well short of making the playoffs.  On top of that, FCD also has the most difficult remaining schedule of the four teams based on opponents’ PPG.  However, the simplistic conclusion does not take into account recent form, injuries, players returning from injury, teams that have clinched playoff positioning (or been eliminated) resting players, schedule congestion, etc.  FC Dallas is getting healthy at the right time and this has showed in their recent form.  And although they do have a difficult slate of opponents to finish the season, they will have at least a week’s rest before every match and four of the their seven remaining games are against the very teams they are battling against for a playoff spot.

Based on the projected final points and remaining strength of schedule, it does almost seem reasonable to eliminate Chivas USA as a legitimate contender in spite of their games-in-hand advantage as they have far too many points to make up, and last night’s 6-2 home loss to Seattle (and overall -15 goal differential) is not exactly an indicator of a team that is ready to get hot for the stretch run.  Two of Dallas’ last three matches are against the Goats, so they will have the opportunity to personally eliminate the other Los Angeles team while strongly positioning themselves to steal one of the final two slots.

The Whitecaps have an easier schedule and more home games to close with, but their recent three game losing streak (including a 2-0 home loss to Dallas) and the fact that they are a second-year team that has never experienced the pressure of late season must-win games, gives a window of hope for FCD. Dallas has a decided advantage playing in pressure-packed situations as they have the experience of 2010’s march to the MLS Cup Final, last year’s semifinal run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and their playoff appearance against New York, plus numerous must-win late season games in the last few seasons.  The September 15 meeting between these two teams at FC Dallas Stadium will be key.

But tonight’s game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas is even bigger for the Toros.  If they win this one, they will be only two points behind the glamour boys and the Galaxy still have a daunting schedule to play once CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) is taken into account.  LA still has eleven games left on their schedule and many of those are midweek games that will be played on short rest. Galaxy gaffer Bruce Arena will have some unenviable lineup decisions to make as his aging stars will simply not be able to play every match.  The club is ambitious and they have previously stated that performing well in international competition is very important to them, so it is doubtful that they will sacrifice advancement to the CCL knockout stages to secure their slot in the MLS Cup playoffs (as many MLS teams have done in the past).  The Galaxy also play their last three matches against the top three teams in the Western Conference (Salt Lake, San Jose then Seattle), and any of these teams would love to eliminate the defending champions from contention for this season’s crown.

The road to the MLS Cup playoffs is still not easy for FC Dallas, but the paths are there and a spot is ripe for the taking.  The first (and arguably most important) step is tonight at 6pm CDT on NBC Sports Network.