CenterLine Report: A perilous path awaits Quakes in push for the playoffs

Robert Jonas analyzes what is needed in last 10 matches of season for a playoff berth

Just over a week ago, the San Jose Earthquakes were celebrating a three game winning streak and a rejuvenation of their hopes of qualifying for the MLS postseason. An 0-for-2 excursion to Canada later — one of those losses coming in the opening round of the CONCACAF Champions League — and the team returns to the Bay Area looking to get back on track toward their goal of making the playoffs.

In a very competitive Western Conference race, the Earthquakes know that if they can string together a series of wins, that goal can become a reality. But just what is it going to take to advance up the table into one of the only 5 available playoff spots? After all, prior to their recent winning streak, the Quakes sat eighth in the standings. Now, a month later, despite collecting 9 points from 4 games, they still sit in that same place — looking up at 7 teams ahead of them and knowing they must pass 3 to make the postseason.

With 24 games already in the books and 10 left in their season, the Quakes boast 30 points and likely need another 20 to have a realistic chance at making the playoffs. Not a guarantee of qualification, 50 points is a good number to aim for in the MLS regular season to ensure November soccer. With 8 teams competitive in striving for the top five spots in the West, anything less than 50 points likely means an early start to the offseason.

The rose-colored glasses news is that San Jose still controls its own destiny when it comes to making the playoffs. A perfect 10-for-10 run to close out the season would double its current points total and clinch no worse than a fourth place finish in the West, regardless of other results in the conference. By virtue of the unbalanced schedule MLS employs — a fantastic system that all but ensures an exciting stretch run in each conference — the teams ahead of the Quakes will be beating up on each other on a weekly basis, giving the boys in Blue and Black a chance to rise above the fray.

A view from a more realistic perch draws back to that magic number 50. Over the course of a 34 game schedule, that translates to a shade under 1.5 points per game (51 points total hits that mark exactly). With 30 points from 24 matches, the Quakes claim a less than impressive 1.25 PPG — they posted a lofty 1.94 PPG a year ago in capturing the Supporters’ Shield. Can the Quakes make up the quarter point difference?

Absolutely! With 30 points still on the table, winning 7 of their remaining 10 matches will push the Earthquakes past 50 points. Such a run of form would match the best the club has put together since they won 7 of 9 matches to start last season. Even 7 wins in a row is possible, as this weekend’s opponent Sporting Kansas City accomplished at the outset of 2012. Certainly, these Quakes have the confidence to get it done, but they will need to raise their performance when compared to their early season form.

Of the 10 games left on the schedule, 5 are at home and 5 are on the road. The good news: The friendly confines of Buck Shaw Stadium, where the Earthquakes have lost only once since the start of 2012, provides the perfect venue to earn 5 of those 7 desired victories. The bad news: The road has not proven hospitable to the Quakes in 2013, as they can claim just a lone victory so far in 12 away matches. Even if they can continue their home cooking, their fortunes away from the Bay need to dramatically improve.

Another consideration is which of their 10 remaining games should be labeled “must-win” in this endeavor. The loss at Vancouver last weekend was especially brutal considering that the Whitecaps were previously one of the three teams the Earthquakes targeted to pass in the table. The Quakes do have 2 games left against each of the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas — two possible targets that could be caught in the standings — but only one of those games, against the Hoops in the last game of the season, is at Buck Shaw. A road match at conference leaders Real Salt Lake looms large, though in fairness it does not qualify as a must win. However, a visit to the StubHub Center in late September to face Chivas USA does.

As stated previously, the Quakes do control their own destiny in the Western Conference playoff chase. But as radio color commentator Chris Dangerfield put it simply during this week’s Earthquakes Hangout, getting help from the teams around them in the table is almost a certainty. For instance, conceding 3 of the 5 postseason berths available to the likes of RSL, Vancouver, and perhaps the Seattle Sounders makes those teams allies in the Quakes quest for the playoffs. Not only will the Jumbotron at Buck Shaw Stadium demand attention from supporters, but also the out-of-town scoreboard as they’ll need to cheer for other favorable results in the West. Sounders and Quakes fans as unlikely bedfellows: A potentially distasteful alliance born of necessity for San Jose to make the playoffs.

For the Earthquakes, the task at hand is simple enough — rooted in the sports cliché of “one game at a time” — control what is in your own power and beat Sporting KC this Sunday night at the Buck. Secure a victory, and the first of what will need to be many well-placed dominoes falls along the twisted path that leads to the postseason. Unequivocally, these are not as of yet desperate times for the Quakes, but a sense of urgency overwhelmingly exists in San Jose.

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