All five teams in the Eastern Conference may have already clinched their spots in the playoffs, but the seeding has not yet been decided. D.C. United could finish anywhere between first and fourth.
United got the win to seal a spot in the playoffs, and that's great. But the match this coming Saturday against the Chicago Fire might actually be even bigger. Why? Because this match will actually determine United's opponent in their first playoff series. And if the team has to start with the 4th/5th play-in match, or if entrance into the playoffs proper is assured. This match determines exactly how many games the team will have to play before it can reach MLS Cup 2012.
It would be easy to say that United should just win in Chicago. Obviously we all hope that happens. But the other MLS playoff scenarios are worth exploring. So what happens if...
If United Beats The Fire
United would finish on top of the East and would be the second overall seed in the playoffs if Sporting Kansas City loses to the Philadelphia Union. This would also give D.C. an inside track on securing a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions' League.
But if the Sporks beat or tie the Union, then United would lock up second place in the East and third place overall in MLS, meaning that the San Jose Earthquakes would be the only team that we'd have to face on the road in the MLS Cup Final. A second place finish would have United hosting either the New York Red Bulls (if they win on Saturday) or the Fire (if New York loses or draws) in the return leg of the Conference Semi-finals on Wed. Nov. 7.
If United Ties The Fire
Since D.C. currently holds a one-point lead on Chicago and a three-point lead on the New York Red Bulls, a draw on the road this Saturday would also clinch second place in the East for United. But it wouldn't necessarily clinch third place overall. With a draw, United would finish the season with 58 points, meaning that the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake (both currently sitting on 56 points) could eclipse United's point total with wins of their own. This would decrease the chances that MLS Cup Final could be held at RFK Stadium.
If United Loses To The Fire
This one is a little bit trickier. To start, Chicago would obviously leap over D.C. in the standings and claim the No. 2 spot in the East. The Red Bulls could also climb above United with a win against the Union on Saturday, which would knock D.C. down into fourth place and set up a visit from the Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium on Halloween. If the Red Bulls lose or draw, United would finish in third and would host the opening leg of a playoff series against the Fire on Sat. Nov. 3.
Now if you want to go really far into the weeds (sure you do!), there's actually a possibility that United could lose to the Fire, the Red Bulls could beat the Union, and we'd STILL finish in third place, ahead of New York. This would require our match to have a final score of 4-3 and the Red Bulls to win only 1-0, which would put D.C. and New York even on points, even on the first tiebreaker (Goals For), AND even on the second tiebreaker (Goal Differential). The seeding would then be decided by the third tiebreaker, which is Fewest Disciplinary Points. Fortunately, Rafael Marquez.