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Where is D.C. United going to finish in MLS’s Eastern Conference?

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As we enter the final stretch, let’s talk over United’s probable playoff seed

D.C. United is going to be a playoff team in 2019. The job isn’t completely done yet, but when you’re 8 points clear with 3 games to play and none of the teams on the bubble are in remarkable form, you can go ahead and start penciling in a postseason game on your planner. Don’t just take it from me, a writer at a fan site that is emotionally invested in this team going to the playoffs: At the moment, FiveThirtyEight has the Black-and-Red’s probability of making the playoffs as being over 99%.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that United doesn’t lose their three remaining games (two of which are at home, and one of which is a home game against a historically bad FC Cincinnati team), and that two or fewer from the Red Bulls (44 points), Revs (40), Montreal (37), Chicago (37), and Orlando (36) get themselves to 45 or more points. That’s what it would take for D.C. to end up on the outside looking in.

As such, it’s appropriate to start looking at how the playoffs are going to shape up. Where is United going to finish? Who could they end up playing? Where will that game be? Let’s talk about it!

First up, a reminder on the playoff structure this year. It has been radically changed, with 7 teams from each conference getting in. The conference leaders both get byes into the conference semifinal, while the 2nd seed plays the 7th seed, 3rd vs. 6th, and 4th vs. 5th. Those are single-elimination games played at the higher seed’s place, so United must finish in the top 4 to guarantee a playoff game in the District.

The playoffs, for reasons that defy explanation, do not re-seed, so the winner of the 4v5 game will advance to face the conference winner on the road, again in a single-legged tie. The 2v7 and 3v6 winners will meet in the other conference semifinal (which, as you might be realizing, means that finishing 6th means a better chance of hosting a home playoff game than finishing 5th), and the highest seed left standing hosts a one-game conference final with a spot in MLS Cup on the line.

Got all that? Alright, here is where United sits in relation to each playoff spot:

1st place

Mathematically, United cannot push up to win the East. NYCFC already has 3 more points than the Black-and-Red can possibly acquire, so that bye and home field guarantee is off the table.

2nd place

United can finish here, but it is extremely unlikely. The Philadelphia Union have 52 points, they have a game in hand on United, and while United could conceivably get level on the first tiebreaker (games won), they’d have to make up a 10-goal difference in the second tiebreaker (goal difference). The Doop Respecters do not have the easiest schedule (at NYRB, at San Jose, at Columbus, and home against NYCFC), but they only need to win once or pick up three draws to ensure finishing above United.

3rd place

This one is also more or less impossible. Atlanta United (51 points) have 16 wins, so even if United managed to gain 6 points on ATL in their remaining games, they would lose out on the tiebreak: DCU’s maximum total wins are 15. So if Atlanta wins one more game, or gets three more draws, United will be stuck behind them. The Five Indeterminate Number Of Stripes host San Jose, then travel to NYCFC and Montreal before finishing the season up with New England at the Benz. Gotta think they win at least one of those, and again, even if they don’t, United would have to win all three of their remaining games. This D.C. team has yet to win three straight games in 2019 (though they might finally fix that on Sunday), so yeah...don’t bet on a top three finish.

4th place

Hey, now we’re talking! United is currently out of this spot based on goal difference. Toronto FC has 45 points and 12 wins, just like United, but they’re +4 while the Ben Olsen’s squad is +2. Yes, that terrible non-call in Portland is looking very important indeed. Of course, you could also also point out that United having only 40 goals all year (only three teams in the league have fewer!) robs them of much of a right to gripe about it.

Here’s the good news: TFC has the tougher run-in. They’re at LAFC on Saturday night, then at Chicago before hosting Columbus on Decision Day. They’ve also got to tackle the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup final in the middle of next week, meaning they’re probably going to punt at Banc of California Stadium and possibly send out a rotated team in Bridgeview as well. United’s schedule isn’t a cakewalk, but home against a short-handed, short rest Seattle and Cincy sandwiched around a short trip up to Red Bull Arena feels like a far easier path to wins for sure.

For the record, this is where I think United is going to end up. I think TFC is only going to take 4 points from their remaining games, and I don’t see the Red Bulls doing better than 5. United’s schedule is kind enough to realistically expect 6 or 7. This doesn’t feel like a team that merits a home playoff game, but they might just get one anyway.

5th place

This is where United is right now, so let’s talk about their remaining schedule:

  • home vs. Seattle: The Sounders have one fit and available center back, and just ground out a 0-0 draw on Wednesday night against FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field. They didn’t rotate much, and they’re going to be tired. United failing to take three points in this scenario would be some combination of irritating and discouraging.

Of course, we’re all familiar with the Black-and-Red’s home record (6W-5D-4L, the worst among teams currently in a playoff spot), so the chance of being irritated and discouraged on Sunday night is still one we have to acknowledge.

  • at NYRB: I don’t really think the Red Bulls are very good at all this year, but we need to grapple with some tough facts here. United hasn’t won an Atlantic Cup match since May 16, 2016 (that’s 9 straight games), and they haven’t won in Harrison since this happened:

You’re damn right I didn’t miss a chance to link to this video, the best thing on all of YouTube. Anyway, that’s 10 straight trips up there without a victory, and if we throw out the playoffs, you have to go back to July 9, 2011 to find a road D.C. victory over the Red Bulls.

That said, a draw would give United a real edge in terms of maintaining their current edge over their old rivals.

  • home vs. Cincinnati: If United can’t win this game they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.

6th place

The Red Bulls are sitting in 6th at the moment, and they got within a point of United by going to Portland and winning 2-0 on Wednesday. They’ve got a home game against Philly this weekend, then United’s trip up to Harrison, and then they’re on the road against Montreal to finish the season.

If Montreal is out of the picture by then — we’ll address them in a bit — the Jersey boys could actually have a pretty viable path to leapfrog United and TFC. If the Union can get a win at RBA this weekend, that draw for United at the same venue we mentioned a moment ago would probably go a long way to ensuring that the Black-and-Red finish ahead of their old foe for the first time since 2014.

Before I forget, the Red Bulls currently have 13 wins, so a scenario where they pick up 5 points and United takes 4 (entirely possible if they finish tied on 9/29) would see them push ahead of United.

7th place

The Revolution (remember them?) are currently hanging onto the final playoff spot thanks mostly to to the post-Bruce Arena-hiring bump. That boost has mostly worn off, with New England bleeding goals regularly during their current 1W-4D-2L run. In any other year, the Revs wouldn’t be a playoff-caliber team, but this expanded field and the East being particularly mediocre this year has kept them alive.

The Revs have a game in hand on everyone that hasn’t already clinched their spot, which they’ll make up on September 25 at Portland (which is to say, they have a mid-week game in the Pacific time zone). They’ll host RSL this weekend, then have NYCFC at Gillette Stadium the weekend after that. Their season finishes with a road trip to Atlanta, where they’re probably going to get shredded. If that holds true, the Revs have to beat two good teams at home just to stay in the conversation for a higher seed.

Most likely, they’re going to stay right where they are, but if they beat RSL and Portland back to back, they’re alive. Extremely unlikely, but this is MLS, where extremely unlikely is a thing you should expect.

8th place

It’s wild that any of the next three teams are still alive, but again: the East is full of teams that are shrug-worthy or worse. And so, this year’s Montreal Impact, who have already lost 16 times and have a -15 goal difference, can still leapfrog New England. It won’t even take much: if the Impact win their next game while the Revs lose to RSL, Montreal will be above Bruce Arena’s side. It’s perverse...and it’s so MLS.

That said, the Impact don’t feel like a team that’s going to win that aforementioned next game (which is a road game against the Galaxy). They’re 1W-1D-5L in their last seven games, and they have the Voyageurs Cup final’s second leg in the middle of next week. Protecting a 1-0 lead over your most hated rival with a spot in the Concacaf Champions League on the line is probably top of their list, but Wilmer Cabrera will have to choose between punting a game he can’t just throw away in MLS play or being at full strength against TFC next Wednesday.

The Impact finish the season with two home games, but they aren’t particularly easy. They host Atlanta on the 29th, and then host the Red Bulls on Decision Day. Most likely, they’re going to have to take 6 points from those games to stay relevant in this race.

If United somehow slips down and finishes here (or lower), it will absolutely be time to clean house. It would be an all-time collapse.

9th place

Our friends at Hot Time in Old Town came to accept that the Fire weren’t going anywhere this year back in June, but thanks to an East that just won’t outright kill off any of its characters, Chicago could make a soap opera-worthy playoff appearance.

Obviously they need the Revs to blow it, as a starting point. They’re also going to have to get a win or two on the road, which is asking an awful lot for a team that is 1W-4D-10L away from SeatGeek Stadium.

(let’s take a quick pause here for every United fan reading this to let out an exasperated sigh upon realizing that one of those draws is at Audi Field)

However, their schedule isn’t that difficult: at Cincinnati, home against TFC (who will be on short rest after that Voyageurs Cup match I keep mentioning), and away against Orlando, a team prone to dramatically screwing everything up.

Even if they pick up all 9 points left available to them, United can ensure a finish above them with a win or two draws. The Fire also have just 9 wins on the season, significantly harming their chances if it comes down to the tiebreaker. On the other hand, they somehow have a +5 goal difference. Finishing level with the Revs probably means winning one more game than they do in this home stretch, so they just might be able to squeak in somehow.

10th place

I don’t think there’s a scenario in which United can fall all the way to 10th, because Chicago and Orlando play each other, but we should discuss the lowly Lions. OCSC doesn’t face a current playoff team for the rest of the year (they’re at Houston and at Cincinnati before that 10/6 home game against the Fire), and they did just come from 2 goals down to keep themselves alive in a 3-3 draw against New England.

So as much as some of us might enjoy seeing Orlando’s season once again end before the postseason, it feels premature to write them off. If the Revs lose against RSL this weekend, and Orlando can go to Houston and win, we’re talking about a one-point margin, and the Revs face only playoff teams from here on out.

Orlando could actually catch DCU, but it would take them winning all of their games, United losing three straight, and scorelines that make up for the difference between D.C.’s +2 and the -4 goal difference the Lions are working with at the moment. So, we can probably rule that out...but a 7th seed for this deeply flawed team? They’d be one of the least impressive playoff teams in MLS history, but it’s still on the table.