The race for the top spot in the MLS standings is heading for the home stretch, and as the teams round the final bend, the San Jose Earthquakes are leading the chase by the slimmest of margins. Heading into the weekend, the Quakes have already qualified for the postseason, but looming large is the opportunity to further their credentials for the No. 1 overall seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
What was once just an oddity of a trophy, born from a dedicated group of fans that wanted to see the team with the best regular season record rewarded with some token marking their excellence, is now a significant piece of hardware that teams are aiming to make a part of their trophy case collections. And while the monetary gains from winning the Supporters’ Shield have yet to come to fruition, the award does carry with it a place in CONCACAF Champions League and the potential to host MLS Cup.
So what do the Earthquakes need to do over the next month and a half to keep their competitors at bay? What teams stand between San Jose and the club’s second ever Supporters’ Shield?
A look at the standings, aggregated into a single table from their normal conference breakdown, shows the Quakes with a three point lead and seven games remaining on the schedule. Going into the weekend, only two of San Jose’s next six opponents (they play Portland twice in that span) currently sit above the postseason cutoff line — Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy. The Earthquakes other five games are against teams in the bottom eight of the single-table standings.
Looking at home and away games, the Earthquakes have three games remaining at Fortress Buck Shaw — including a California Clasico showdown on October 21 — and four on the road. Earning points on their home field has not been an issue this season, and the Quakes have five victories in their last six games at The Buck. Conservatively, San Jose should earn seven points in those three games and cap off an unbeaten season in Santa Clara. Added to their current 53 points, those seven points elevate the team’s total to 60.
Forecasting the Earthquakes four remaining road games gets a bit more complicated. Sure, the team appears to have overcome their slight dip in form back in July, but their recent road record is not encouraging. In fact, since Chris Wondolowski’s late goal against Real Salt Lake on June 23 secured three points for the visitors, the Quakes have earned only one point in their last four away contests. A similar run of form in their next four road matches will add just one point to their season total, taking their projected count to 61 points.
Prognosticating results is fraught with uncertainty, especially in a league where parity reigns, but it is hard to argue with the team’s current run of form. A more optimistic outlook emerges when looking at the Earthquakes season-long points per game home and road averages. Playing in the Bay Area, the Quakes have collected 33 points from 14 games for a PPG measure of 2.36. Outside of Northern California, the team has amassed 20 points from 13 games for a PPG of 1.54. Using those averages and San Jose’s remaining schedule, the projected points total jumps to 66 points.
Now, 66 points from 34 games — a 1.94 PPG average for the season — is an impressive haul. However, add two more points to the total and the Earthquakes reach a pleasingly round 2.00 PPG number. Considering the strength of schedule over the last seven games of the season faced by the Earthquakes, and that number does not seem out of the realm of possibility. The implication on the race for the Supporters’ Shield if a 2.00 PPG average is achieved is clear when viewed through the lens of MLS history — only three teams have ever finished at or above that lofty number and all three won the Shield.
The Earthquakes, to be sure, control their own destiny when it comes to capturing the Supporters’ Shield, but what teams realistically remain in the hunt?
In the Western Conference, Seattle Sounders FC looks like a potential foil. In addition to their game against the Earthquakes — a six-pointer in the race for the top spot — they play host to four matches at CenturyLink Field, including struggling Portland. However, their three away matches are at the Timbers, Whitecaps FC, and Galaxy — two against Cascadia Cup rivals and one against the defending MLS Cup champions. Currently six points behind the Earthquakes, Seattle will need to defeat San Jose later this month and then hope they can steal points on the road.
In the Eastern Conference, no less than three teams could ride a late season surge to a chart-topping points total. Each of Sporting Kansas City, the Chicago Fire, and the New York Red Bulls has the horses to make a grandstand run at the Earthquakes. After drawing with Houston on Friday, Sporting are two points back of San Jose, but they have four difficult road matches in their last seven games — twice at New York, and once each at Montreal and Columbus — and could be five points back pending the Quakes’ result vs. Chivas USA. SKC will be hard pressed to continue their season long 1.81 PPG average.
Meanwhile, Chicago has road games at New York and Sporting KC to deal with, plus visits from Montreal and Columbus on the calendar, not an enviable schedule to say the least.
That leaves the New York Red Bulls riding high in the saddle back East. RBNY has a forgiving five of their remaining seven games at Red Bull Arena, where, so far this season, they feature an unbeaten record of 9-0-3. With the aforementioned two games against Sporting and one against the Fire to play at RBA, the regular season Eastern Conference title will be determined in Harrison, N.J. Add in that their two road matches are at woebegone New England and Philadelphia, and the Red Bulls could amass a maximum of 65 points on the season. A potential seven-game winning streak to close out 2012 seems improbable, but it is not unlikely to believe that New York could finish above 60 points.
Should the Earthquakes take a peak over their shoulders at the oncoming competition in the standings or should they take whip in hand and continue their sprint to the finish line? Clearly, pulling up on the reins is not the way to go, rather, just keep doing what they’ve been doing all season and the Shield will be on its way to San Jose.