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Setting the stage for October: D.C. United's destiny is in their hands

September was an up and down month for D.C. United, but all's well that ends well, and October opens with the hometown team controlling their own destiny.

We salute you, Mr. Willis (and all the other players who helped D.C. United clinch their CCL group).
We salute you, Mr. Willis (and all the other players who helped D.C. United clinch their CCL group).
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The final month of the MLS regular season is upon us, following on the heels of a below average, but adequate, September for D.C. United.  Who will win the Supporters' Shield?  Who will win the Eastern Conference?  Where will average home attendance end up for the Black-and-Red?  All these questions and more will be answered during the next few weeks.  So let's set the stage for all the fun.

1.  September's MLS Results. September wasn't a great month for D.C. United in league action (1-1-2, 5 pts, 1.25 pts/gm), but their sterling CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) results, which have seen them already clinch a spot in next spring's quarterfinals, help take the sting off.  Fortunately for United, the month was good enough since no one in the East was able to take advantage of their middling league results, so D.C. United actually extended their conference lead (it was 4 points entering the month, and 6 points exiting the month).

The table below, ordered by total points, shows each team's results during September.  The New England Revolution (4-1-0, 12 pts, 2.4 pts/gm) was the best team on a total points basis (and closed their distance behind D.C. United from 13 points at the start of the month to 6 at the end), while the best team on a points per game basis was the Columbus Crew (3-0-1, 10 pts, 2.5 pts/gm).  The worst team for the month, by any measure possible, was Chivas USA (0-5-0, 0 pts).  And worst of all for them, word of their impending hibernation leaked during the month as well.  Sleep well, Chivas USA, we hope you turn into a beautiful butterfly in a few years (or something like that). Interestingly, the two tenants of StubHub Center were at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to goal differential during September.  The LA Galaxy ended up at +11 for the month, while Chivas USA was -14 for the month.

1a.  All-Time Major Trophies Won by Active MLS Teams. September also saw the first major trophy be awarded for US teams in 2014.  With their victory over the Philadelphia Union in the US Open Cup final, the Seattle Sounders now have four major trophies in only their sixth year in the league.  They are now only behind D.C. United (13 trophies), LA Galaxy (11), Chicago Fire (6), Columbus Crew (5), and Sporting Kansas City (5) in total trophies won.  They are also now very close to United on most major trophies won per season:  0.68 for D.C. compared to 0.67 for Seattle (the Montreal Impact also have a 0.67 trophy/year rate).  Feel free to chime in below on whether Canadian Championships should count as major trophies.  As a note, teams are ordered by the year they came into the league, with teams having won more trophies within their year group ordered to the left.

2.  MLS Supporters' Shield Standings. The Supporters' Shield race is essentially a two-team sprint at this point, and these two teams are knocking on the door of reaching the elite 2.0 points per game level.  Both Seattle and LA control their own destiny, but if they were to draw both of their games against each other later in the month, it might open a hole for D.C. United to sneak through if they have an otherwise perfect month.  But, as you can see in the magic number column below, it will be shocking if the Shield isn't raised in either Seattle or LA later this month.  BTW, look at the Galaxy's ridiculous goal differential for the season (+33)!  That's an amazing number.

As always, we now look at our efficiency table to see which front offices are doing the best job with their resources at hand.  This month, we have new player salary figures from the MLS Players Union.  Of interest, D.C. United now sits at the top of the table as the most efficient team on a salary dollar per point basis. Additionally, D.C. United now falls 15th out of the 19 MLS teams in total player salary (they were 10th in total salary before the new numbers were published).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Toronto FC is last by a huge margin over the field.

Now let's take a look at the weekly Supporters' Shield standings.  As a reminder, we've charted each team's position in the overall league table as of each Sunday night during the season.  For ease of review, we've highlighted D.C. United's, New England Revolution's, and Sporting Kansas City's journey through the season.  Other than the first three weeks of the season, D.C. United has been the steady performer of MLS this year.  Unless like the Revs and SKC, United has avoided a major downturn at any point in the season.  They are being rewarded for their consistency right now with a 6-point lead in the East with four games remaining.

3.  Inside the Supporters' Shield Standings. This month, we look at the total dollars a team spends on salary compared to the total points they've earned in 2014 to date.  In the chart below, the size of each box is based on total player salary (using the new Player Union numbers) and the color is based on total points (high point values in dark green while low point values are in dark red).  As we've known for a long time, spending a ton of money in MLS is no guarantee for success.  If the goal of MLS is to ensure teams at all spending levels can succeed (or fail), then the current model is working just fine.  (Just hover over any cell in the chart below to get the specifics on individual teams.)

4.  Current Eastern Conference Standings. If the playoffs started today, D.C. United, New England Revolution, Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew, and New York Red Bulls would represent the Eastern Conference.  Out West, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, and Vancouver Whitecaps currently sit in the playoff positions.  In the table below, it is clear Western Conference teams are dominating the top of the league table (D.C. United being the exception which proves the rule), while Eastern Conference teams dominate the middle of the table (can the middle of the table really be "dominated"?  Maybe subjugated, but probably not dominated).

5.  D.C. United and MLS Attendance. D.C. United only had one home MLS game in September, but it was the highest attendance at RFK Stadium this season.  The team is doing a great job offering discounts to attract fans out to the stadium, but they do need to be careful not to alienate their loyal season ticket holders who paid top dollar for their seats (seats which fairly are probably better than the deeply-discounted tickets others are getting).  In the chart below, the home attendance for each game at RFK Stadium in 2014 is shown on the orange line while attendance for home games in 2013 is shown on the blue line.

For 2014 to date, the average home attendance across all of MLS is now 18,974, down slightly from 19,003 at the end of August.  For D.C. United, the average home attendance is now 16,669 (which includes the game at FedEx Field), placing them 13th in MLS overall.  If we just look at average home attendance at RFK, factoring out the FedEx Field game, average attendance is now 14,055, the first time since 2011 that average attendance at RFK has been above 14,000 this late in the season.

6.  October's MLS Eastern Conference Schedule. The games below will decide the Eastern Conference race.  New York and Philadelphia have favorable schedules, both having three home matches and only one road match.  Columbus, on the other hand, only plays once at home, and that after a three-game road trip.

2 Oct (Thurs) 3/4/5 Oct 8 Oct (Wed) 10/11/12 Oct 16 Oct (Thurs) 18/19 Oct 24/25/26 Oct
D.C. United Sporting @ Houston Chicago @ Montreal
New England Revolution Columbus @ Montreal @ Houston Toronto
Sporting Kansas City @ DC Chicago @ Philadelphia New York
Columbus Crew @ New England @ Philadelphia @ New York Philadelphia
New York Red Bulls Houston Toronto Columbus @ Sporting
Toronto FC @ LA Houston @ New York Montreal @ New England
Philadelphia Union Chicago Columbus Sporting @ Columbus
Houston Dynamo @ New York @ Toronto DC New England
@ Chicago
Chicago Fire @ Philadelphia Montreal @ Sporting @ DC Houston
Montreal Impact @ Chicago New England @ Toronto DC

In addition to MLS matches, four Eastern Conference teams will also play CCL games in October (in the final week of the season no less).  D.C. United and Montreal have already clinched their place in the knockout round of CCL, while Sporting has the inside track in their group to qualify.  New York reverted to form and has already been disqualified from moving on in CCL.

21 Oct (Tues) 22 Oct (Wed) 23 Oct (Thurs)
D.C. United @ Tauro (CCL)
Sporting Kansas City @ Saprissa (CCL)
New York Red Bulls Montreal (CCL)
Montreal Impact @ New York (CCL)

We've updated our MLS schedule map with all meaningful games involving MLS teams in 2014.  Just click on the map below to the date you are interested in, and ensure the competition you are interested in is selected as well.

7.  What to Expect from D.C. United. D.C. United controls their destiny in the Eastern Conference race.  With games at home against Sporting and Chicago, and road games against Houston and Montreal, D.C. United has it well within their capability to earn the seven points they need to clinch the conference title.  An interesting dynamic in their final two games is that Chicago will likely be out of the playoff race by the time United plays them, while Montreal is already out of the race.  Also, Ben Olsen will be able to take whatever team he wants on the road to Panama in CCL action later in the month.  If he wants to play for CCL positioning, he can take a stronger team, or he can preserve players for the final game against Montreal if those points are important for winning the conference.

8.  Monthly Poll Question. Last month, only 8% of us thought 5 points or less would be an adequate point total for D.C. United to remain "on track".  Fortunately, the overall Eastern race didn't punish D.C. United for the low point total, and the team's performance in CCL made the month look much better.

For the final time this season, let's vote on how many points D.C. United needs to earn in its four league games to be "on track".

What did you think of D.C. United's performance in September?  What's their key to success in October?