CenterLine Report: Late season surge key to playoff hopes

MLS history is filled with late-season Cinderellas - can the Quakes surge forward?

Back in June, the San Jose Earthquakes were riding high as the top scoring team in MLS and sitting comfortably in the middle tier of the Western Conference. The team had shaken off their early season struggles and the coaching staff was using the roster depth available to them effectively. With a summer schedule that was loaded with home games, the stage looked set for the Earthquakes to continue their ascension in the standings and secure their second straight berth in the MLS postseason.

Well, things didn’t work out that way, and following a 4-2 victory away against D.C. United, San Jose has been unable to earn maximum points in their last 11 league matches. Injuries, suspensions, and a congested July schedule required constant changes to the lineup and the team responded with a series of difficult results. Now at the doorstep of the last third of the season, the team finds themselves five points adrift of a postseason position with 10 games remaining.

Clearly the Earthquakes are not mathematically eliminated from reaching the MLS Cup playoffs — even last place Vancouver Whitecaps FC has a shot at making the postseason — but their opportunity to play for the league championship will require a change in fortune. While San Jose’s chances of capturing the Supporters Shield are unrealistic, as is finishing in the top three spots in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes do have a fighting chance to qualify for the postseason as one of the four wild card teams that will enter the competition for the MLS Cup. So, just how mathematically realistic is this goal?

For the first time in the league’s history, 10 teams will qualify for the postseason. The Earthquakes have to date collected 25 points from 24 matches — a conversion of 1.04 points per game (PPG) — which ranks them No. 14 among the 18 teams in MLS. If every team in the league finished out their regular season schedule at their respective PPG average, San Jose would finish nine points out of the last wild card playoff position. Therefore, adding one point to their current PPG would give the Earthquakes a fighting chance to edge out the last team for a postseason berth.

In other words, with 10 games remaining on the schedule, San Jose would conservatively need to finish with 20 points.

That may seem like a daunting point total to earn over the next two months, especially given that in their past 10 games, the Earthquakes have added only six points — all courtesy of draws. If over the course of the rest of the season the team shakes off their midsummer slump and converts those draws into wins, they would finish with 43 points and a potential shot at sneaking into the postseason.

It might seem a daunting task, but recent MLS history shows it has happened before.

  • In 2005, as the Earthquakes were running away with the Supporters Shield and closing out an undefeated home clip, the Colorado Rapids made a late season surge that saw them earn 20 points over their last 10 games and secure the last of eight available playoff slots. That Rapids run included a very respectable 11 points over their last five matches.
  • In 2006, following a tumultuous spring and summer where they ditched their original moniker, the New York franchise sat four points out of a playoff spot with 10 games remaining. While not setting a blazing pace, a 14 point haul to end the season helped them sneak into the MLS Cup playoffs with 39 total points.
  • In 2007, as their fellow mid-table teams played mediocre soccer, the Chicago Fire nearly doubled their competitors’ PPG over the final third of the season, and finished tied with Kansas City for the last playoff spot. They entered the postseason with the second-best record over their last five games, second only to eventual champion, the Houston Dynamo.
  • In 2008, a surprising Chivas USA team led by Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Bornstein met the 2.0 PPG standard over their last 10 games and finished second in a weak Western Conference. A near Supporters Shield squad the season before, the Goats regained their footing in the last two months of the season after a rather pedestrian first 20 games.
  • In 2009, a plucky Real Salt Lake barely edged out their Rocky Mountain rival, the Colorado Rapids, for the last playoff berth. Their 14 points over 10 games earned the bottom seed in the postseason, but a magical postseason run later and RSL lifted the MLS Cup as champions with a penalty-kick shootout win over the LA Galaxy.
  • In 2010, keeping pace just ahead of the Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders FC reeled off a 20 point haul over their last 10 games to atone for a dismal early summer when they won only twice in 12 games. In fact, Seattle’s late season charge included 10 wins in their last 14 matches.

The current Earthquakes have their work cut out for them, but history shows that every MLS season over the last seven has that late-charging darling that roars to life just in time in make the postseason. Will the Quakes be that team in 2011? They have 10 more games — starting with the California Clasico this weekend against the Los Angeles Galaxy — to make their run at the playoffs. The time to make a move begins now.

Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas