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Playoff scenarios: RSL can decide their own fate

The final couple weeks could see almost anything happen for RSL — from finishing on a high note to crashing out of the playoffs altogether.

With most of the league on hold this week due to the international break, I thought it might be a good time to look at all the different playoff scenarios that RSL could be facing over the final two weeks of the regular season.

It’s no secret that we’re in a slump. It’s been well over a month since RSL’s last win, which came on August 26th at home against Colorado, wrapping up what was a fairly successful end-of-summer run. RSL nabbed 13 of an available 21 points through seven games in six weeks and looked like they were on their way to the top of the table.

In the five games since then, Salt Lake has managed to secure only two of the 15 available points, coming in the form of draws at home against LA and FC Dallas.

Now sitting in fourth place with Seattle and Kansas City hot on their trail, they have two games left — home against Kansas City on October 16 and away at Seattle on October 23.

ESPN’s Soccer Power Index gives Salt Lake a 95% chance to at least make the playoffs, but there are plenty of different ways it could happen. Let’s have a look at what could play out over the next few weeks.

MLS Western Conference standings as of October 4, 2016.
MLS Western Conference standings as of October 4, 2016.

Best case scenario

While highly unlikely, an absolute best-case scenario would see RSL finishing in second place, as FC Dallas (56 points) is already well out of reach. For this to happen, a few things would need to play out perfectly to end the season.

First and foremost, RSL would have to win both of their remaining games. They need all six points for this to even be a remote possibility.

On top of that, the Colorado Rapids, at 51 points, would have to lose all four of their remaining games which include away at Houston this weekend, home against San Jose, away at Portland, and home again against Houston.

Finally, the LA Galaxy with 48 points, would need to get no more than three points from their final two matches. This one is a lot more likely than Colorado losing four in a row, as LA travels away to Houston and then hosts league-leading FC Dallas in the final game of the season.

If this scenario were to come true, RSL would finish in second, skipping the first-round knockout game, and the top of the table would look something like this:

  1. FC Dallas (56+ points)
  2. Real Salt Lake (51 points, ahead on wins tiebreaker)
  3. Colorado Rapids (51 points)
  4. LA Galaxy (48+ points)

Holding steady

Since Colorado plays Houston in the lone MLS match this week, they could put our best-case scenario to rest sooner than we’d like.

The next best thing would be to hold in that fourth place position or even jump to third — both of which would see RSL hosting that crucial first-round knockout game against a lower-seeded team. This scenario is much more likely, but it still needs to see the claret-and-cobalt pick up some points in their last two games.

In order to grab third place, RSL would need to at least be tied on points with LA, as we would hold the edge in the wins tiebreaker. Ideally this means winning both of our last games, but it could also work if we only win one, provided that LA loses both of their last match-ups.

Alternatively, to finish fourth, a few different things could happen.

Seattle has one game in hand on RSL, which they will play on October 12 at home against Houston, so we’ll know where they stand before our next game at home against Kansas City. Luckily, that’s also a double-game week for the Sounders so they could see some tired legs when they visit Dallas just four days later.

If RSL wins both of their last games, that would essentially lock in at least a fourth-place spot, since one of those wins would be against Seattle, which puts their maximum points possible at 50 to Salt Lake’s 51.

If Seattle gets three points from their next two matches and RSL loses to Kansas City, we would fall to sixth place and would need a win against the Sounders on October 23 to have a chance to sneak back up to fourth.

A fifth- or sixth-place finish would still keep us in the playoffs, but the first-round knockout game would be on the road where RSL has only managed to get 14 of an available 48 points this season.

Worst case scenario

Although this is also unlikely, it’s still mathematically possible, so we need to address it. In a worst-case scenario, RSL could still miss the playoffs altogether. Just like our best-case scenario, this would take several things happening simultaneously.

First, RSL would have to lose both remaining games for this to even be a possibility, since just one win would clinch a playoff spot.

In addition, the Portland Timbers (41 points) would need a minimum of four points out of their last two games. Since this setup would have both teams tied on points and overall wins, Portland would need to overcome the goal differential tiebreaker. Right now they’re at a -3 and RSL is at -1, but obviously that would change with two RSL losses and a Portland win.

Alternatively in this same situation, if Portland were to win both of their last games, they would jump ahead of RSL outright on points and we would fall to seventh place and out of the playoffs for the second year in a row.

However, the Timbers have a tough schedule that sees them host the Rapids, then host Saprissa in an important CONCACAF Champions League match, and then end out the season on the road at Vancouver. Portland has yet to win a game on the road this season (0-10-6), and playing three games in eight days will make it incredibly tough for the 2015 MLS Cup champs to lock down a playoff spot.

The overall league playoff race could very well all come down to the last game of the season — Decision Day — when all 20 teams play their final match at the same time on Sunday, October 23 at 2:00pm MT.

At any rate, the most we can do is hope that RSL wins both games, clinches a playoff spot and a home knockout game, and watch as the rest of the Western Conference battles it out for those last two spots.