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Here’s how D.C. United can make the playoffs

We did the math so you don’t have to

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It was wild and wacky, and D.C. United showed plenty of character, but Sunday’s 4-3 loss at New England was not helpful as far as the club’s scramble for a playoff spot goes. United went from tied for the final spot and only outside the playoff picture based on tiebreakers, to one point out (which, thanks to those same tiebreakers, is effectively two points). FiveThirtyEight rates United’s chances of getting in at 17%, which is...not high.

The results elsewhere on Saturday, while not as helpful as Wednesday’s virtually perfect out-of-town scores, still kept the door open. Atlanta United’s win was not great news, but Toronto FC came back to beat Inter Miami, and Orlando City’s win over the Montreal Impact may prove critical. United doesn’t completely control its own destiny, but they are very much alive for what would be the least likely playoff berth in the club’s quarter-century history.

First, let’s take a look at the standings:

Eastern Conference Standings

Team Place Points PPG GP Wins GD GF
Team Place Points PPG GP Wins GD GF
Montreal Impact 9th 23 1.045 22 7 -11 30
Chicago Fire 10th 23 1.045 22 5 -5 30
Atlanta United 11th 22 1 22 6 -6 22
Inter Miami CF 12th 21 0.955 22 6 -11 23
D.C. United 13th 21 0.955 22 5 -15 23

With that in mind, here’s what has to happen between now and Sunday for United to keep this season alive for at least one more game:

United must beat Montreal

No exceptions here. If United gets a draw, they can’t vault ahead of Montreal on points, and even if every other result goes the way we’d like, United would be trailing Atlanta and possibly Chicago on the first tiebreaker (games won), which is a recipe to finish in 11th or 12th. If D.C. is going to the playoffs, it’s 24 points or bust.

Now, if United beats Montreal, they’re at the very least going to finish ahead of them and Cincinnati, who have locked up the bottom spot. That means United can finish no worse than 12th. More importantly, it would mean that if everyone else chasing these spots loses, United would finish in 9th place.

Some help, but not necessarily all the help

Finishing ahead of Montreal gets United one-third of the way there. They’ve got to climb above two more teams in the trailing pack, which means getting help in at least two other games. For the sake of our sanity and yours, in this section we’re gonna push Chicago off for a second and focus on Atlanta and Miami.

A win for Atlanta means they will finish ahead of United, full stop. Now, the good news is that they’re on the road (where they’re a middling 2W-2D-5L) against Columbus (who are 8W-1D-0L at Mapfre Stadium). The bad news is that, after appearing to enter a doom spiral, they beat Cincinnati on Sunday, so they might have some fight in them yet.

However, assuming a D.C. win, handing the Crew a loss in Ohio is the only way Atlanta could finish ahead of them. A draw gets them 23 points, which would be just fine from the Black-and-Red’s perspective.

Miami, like United, is sitting on 21 points, but since they’ve won 6 games, they’ve got the tiebreaker edge on the capital club. United’s result on November 8th has to be better than Miami’s to finish ahead of the expansion side. In other words, United needs Miami to draw or lose to...brace yourself for the bad news...FC Cincinnati. You know, the worst team in the league. Good luck to Jaap Stam and co., but this feels like the biggest stretch from a DCU perspective. The most likely scenario in which United is in the playoffs involves Miami taking the other available spot.

The Chicago situation

Update: Initially, this section got into a bunch of different situations involving points-per-game, because Minnesota’s recent positive Covid-19 tests had put their game against Chicago in question. Good news: there were no new positive tests in the Loons’ camp.

Even more good news: Last night, the Fire drew 2-2 with Minnesota United. It was extremely nervy — Robert Beric scored in stoppage time, beating teammate Mauricio Pineda to a loose ball, only for the goal to get called back for offside; if Beric had just chilled for a second, the Fire win this 3-2 — but it was ultimately a good result for United.

The Black-and-Red can now finish ahead of Chicago even if the Fire get a draw. That would see both teams get to 24 points, but United would have the games won tiebreaker over Chicago by virtue of having won six times as compared to Chicago’s five. A Fire loss is obviously also just fine for the Black-and-Red.

Listen man, I heard you, but this is too complicated and I faded out. Give me the short version.

First of all, kind of a jerk move on your part. But we’ve come this far, so here’s the cheat sheet: United needs to win, and between Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago, they need two teams to not win. All three can draw, and one can even win, but no more than one. If everyone loses and United wins, they’ll get up to 9th place.