CenterLine Report: Second half season surge perks up playoff possibilities

With only two weeks left in the MLS season, the San Jose Earthquakes stand at the threshold of the postseason, sitting one point below the cutoff for qualification. Yes, the MLS Cup playoffs are firmly in reach for these once left for dead Quakes. And while the 2012 season was marked by Goonies-inspired comebacks on a near weekly basis, this year has been a long-form story of never-say-die.

Just how impressive has the San Jose summer comeback been? Go back to the waning days of June, when the Quakes were completing the first half of their season with a dispiriting loss at lowly DC United, and stare at the standings. 17 games in and the 2013 Earthquakes had earned an anemic 18 points. Only three other MLS sides could claim less production over that time — the aforementioned DC United (9 points), Toronto FC (13), and Chivas USA (13).

The club had made a surprise coaching change earlier in the month, as reigning MLS Coach of the Year Frank Yallop made way for his trusted assistant Mark Watson. A win in his coaching debut at Colorado marked the Earthquakes first road victory of the season. Back home in the Bay Area, Watson guided the Quakes to a memorable 3-2 stoppage time comeback victory over the LA Galaxy in front of packed house at Stanford University. The shock result looked destined to become the highlight of an otherwise forgettable season.

But as the halfway point in the 2013 season slowly dissolved away in their rearview mirror, the Earthquakes raced ahead through their summer schedule and in their last 15 matches have earned more points (29) than any other team in the league. More than current Supporters’ Shield co-leaders New York Red Bulls (28). More than Cascadia darlings Seattle Sounders FC (27). More than So-Cal rivals LA Galaxy (24). In its last 15 matches, San Jose has collected points at virtually the same clip as it did the duration of last year. 

However, the surge of success earned of late will go for naught if the Earthquakes fall short of qualifying for the postseason. Including the team right behind San Jose, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the top seven teams in the Western Conference are separated by only eight points in the standings. In sixth place, the Quakes need only pass one of the five teams above them to earn a precious playoffs bid. So, how exactly can San Jose extend their season past the regular season?

The Earthquakes have won three games in a row, four games in their last five, and likely need to win their final two matches to ensure a playoff spot. Doing so would elevate San Jose to 53 total points — historically plenty of points to make the postseason — and put the onus on its competition to win out as well. Heck, what was a laughable scenario only a month ago remains a possibility — a top-three finish in the West. More possible, and more realistic: San Jose edges out a team above them in the standings and prepare to enter the playoffs via the #4 versus #5 seed wildcard match.

Western Conference

1 Portland Timbers 53 32 1.66 13 5 14 49 33 16 29 18 20 -2
2 Real Salt Lake 52 32 1.63 15 10 7 55 40 15 29 14 26 1
3 Seattle Sounders FC 51 32 1.59 15 11 6 41 39 2 28 14 13 -12
4 LA Galaxy 48 31 1.55 14 11 6 51 37 14 31 23 20 -9
5 Colorado Rapids 48 32 1.5 13 10 9 42 33 9 27 13 15 -4
6 San Jose Earthquakes 47 32 1.47 13 11 8 33 41 -8 21 9 12 -17
7 Vancouver Whitecaps 45 32 1.41 12 11 9 48 42 6 29 10 19 -4
8 FC Dallas 41 32 1.28 10 11 11 45 50 -5 27 5 18 -10
9 Chivas USA 26 32 0.81 6 18 8 29 60 -31 17 -7 12 -24

The Earthquakes season-saving 1-0 win against the Rapids last week has kept this whole conversation going. In fact, Colorado represents the most realistic competitor for San Jose to leapfrog in the standings. In an MLS scheduling quirk — but one that could benefit the Quakes — the Rapids play the Whitecaps home and away to close out their season. The perfect outcome for the Earthquakes from those two games is a Vancouver win and draw (Colorado loss and draw) that would push each sides point total to 49. Even a single San Jose win — enough to reach 50 points — catapults the Quakes above both squads. Go ‘Caps!

Yes, even a loss at LA in this Sunday’s California Clasico might not signal the end of the season for San Jose. But the Quakes are riding a two-game road winning streak, and a victory at the StubHub Center seems much more plausible now than it did the last time the rivals faced off in August (LA cruised to a 3-0 shellacking in that one). A result at LA would be huge toward the Quakes playoff hopes.

Mathematically, San Jose does not control its own destiny in the race to make the postseason. Even with two wins and 53 points, the Quakes could still be surpassed by the Galaxy — wins against the Montreal Impact midweek and at Seattle would secure 54 points. Even recently vanquished Colorado boasts the same potential — a sweep of the Whitecaps elevates the Rapids to that same magical 54 points total. Could San Jose catch another foe instead?

The Sounders, by virtue of a last season slump, sit grounded at 51 points and have to travel to already eliminated FC Dallas before closing out the season at home against LA. If the Galaxy does finish ahead of San Jose, perhaps it will be Seattle that the Quakes catch. Dallas has little to play for, but maybe FCD surprises the Sounders at Toyota Stadium and get a result — a win or tie will suit San Jose just fine. Go Hoops!

Looking higher up the standings, perhaps Real Salt Lake is vulnerable or maybe even table-toppers Portland Timbers. The two teams clash at JELD-WEN Field this weekend with sights set on the #1 seed in the West. A win by either side makes it uncatchable by the Earthquakes, and a draw puts both clubs out of reach. Each team ends its season with a match against cellar-dweller Chivas USA, so unless the Goats get hot, the Quakes can forget pulling ahead of RSL or the Timbers. Still, even Chivas is capable of pulling off the occasional upset. Maybe, just maybe, they still have a role to play in the West and one of Salt Lake or Portland loses twice to close out the season allowing two-win San Jose to move ahead. Go Goats!

So what should Blue-and-Black clad scoreboard watchers look for in the next week? On Wednesday, San Jose’s CCL friends Montreal visit LA with a chance to dent the Galaxy’s chances and resurrect its own flagging campaign to make the playoffs in the East. On Saturday, a draw at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park between Colorado and Vancouver is a dream result while a Dallas shocker against Seattle would please Quakes fans. In the Real Salt Lake versus Portland showdown a winner, no matter which side, is needed. 

As for San Jose, the season is approaching stoppage time, and three-point results are necessary. Get the job done at LA and the following week against Dallas and the Earthquakes stated goal of making the MLS Cup playoffs — the mission statement that was given even during the dark days of June — will all but surely be realized. Now that would be a Goonies comeback story for the ages. 

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


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