The Playoff Picture coming into focus

by Michael Lewis

The clock is ticking, and time is running out.

The Major Arena Soccer League season has dwindled down to a precious four weekends in the race to reach the postseason.

Eight playoff berths -- two in each of the four divisions – will be secured, with six teams knowing they will place at least one more day in April.

Entering this weekend's action, two of the four division championships have been decided, with the Milwaukee Wave and San Diego Sockers breathing easy these days. Four other teams already have clinched playoff berths but are still vying for first place in their respective division to secure home-field advantage in the divisional playoff series.

Two more playoff spots are up for grabs -- in the South Central and Pacific Divisions. There is a three-way battle in the South Central between Kansas City, St. Louis and Orlando -- while the Tacoma Stars and Ontario Fury are vying for second place and the opportunity to play the Sockers in the Pacific division series.

Some of the 17 teams – yes, even the ones that have been eliminated – might still have a say as spoilers, depending on the results.

Eastern Division
Utica City FC, in its first season in the upstate New York, and the three-time defending champion Baltimore Blast are tied for the first place with 13-6 records with five games remaining in the 24-game regular season.

Regardless what happens, both teams will qualify for the playoffs because the Harrisburg Heat and Mississauga MetroStars have been eliminated from contention.

Utica City FC schedule (5 games remaining, two home, three away): at Mississauga, March 22; at Harrisburg, March 24; vs. Mississauga, March 30; vs. Baltimore, March 31; at Orlando April 12.

Baltimore Blast schedule (5 games remaining, two home, three away): vs. Orlando, March 22; vs. Mississauga, March 24; at Harrisburg Heat, March 30; at Utica City, March 31; at Florida, April 6.

Key match-up: Utica hosts Baltimore on Sunday, March 31, in the penultimate match for both teams. If the teams are still tied entering that confrontation, it might be difficult or impossible for the loser to make up ground with only one game remaining.

Spoilers role: The MetroStars can be major influencers as the Canadian side has three games against the contenders, two vs. Utica City, one vs. Baltimore.

The final weekend: Since Baltimore's final game is set for Florida on April 6, while Utica plays at Orlando six days later on April 12. The Blast, incidentally, will play its final three matches on the road.

South Central Division
With the Milwaukee Wave (17-3) having clinched the division crown, three teams are vying for a chance to play and perhaps upset the Wisconsin side in the divisional playoffs.

The second-place Kansas City Comets (10-10) appear in the drivers' seat at the moment. Time is running out for the third-place St. Louis Ambush (10-12), which has only two games left and the team and needs to win them both if it has a postseason chance. In fact, the Ambush completes its season March 29, meaning it will be watching the remaining two weeks.

On the other hand, the Orlando SeaWolves (8-10), even though it is in fourth place, still has some high hopes because they still have six games to make up. If they run the table, they will finish second. Given so many games in such a small window, the SeaWolves must stay away from injuries, especially to their key players.

Kansas City Comets schedule (4 games remaining, 1 home, 3 away): vs. St. Louis, March 23; at Orlando, March 29; at Florida, March 30, at Milwaukee Wave, April 14.

St. Louis Ambush schedule (2 games, remaining, 1 home, 1 away): at Kansas City, March 23, vs. Milwaukee, March 29.

Orlando SeaWovles schedule (six games remaining, three away): at Baltimore, March 22; at Harrisburg, March 23; vs. Kansas City, March 29; vat Milwaukee, March 31; vs. Utica, April 12; vs. Florida, April 13).

Key match-ups: The Comets host the Ambush on Saturday, March 23. A Kansas City would all but eliminate St. Louis Orlando hosts KC on March 29, which should go a long way in deciding who plays in April and who goes home.

Spoilers role: Can division champions be considered a spoiler? Well, yes they can since Milwaukee plays all three playoff contenders once down the stretch. So, the Wave could have a big say as to which team it hosts in the divisional finals.

The final weekend: If Orlando is still in the running, it will host back-to-back home games on Friday, April 12 against Utica and vs. the Tropics in the final Florida derby encounter of the season on Saturday, April 13. The Comets will face an uphill battle at the Wave on Sunday, April 14.

Southwest Division
Like the Eastern Division, the winner gets to host a playoff match, while the second-place team becomes the visitor. The Monterrey Flash (14-4) and Rio Grande Valley Barracudas (13-5) could have the most exciting divisional race since they play each other twice within a week. Each team has its challenges. Monterrey will finish the season against the once-beaten Sockers and the Tacoma Stars and Ontario Fury, who are vying for a Pacific playoff berth. RGV will play its six remaining games on the road. The Barracudas are 3-3 away and 10-2 at home this season.

Monterrey Flash schedule (6 games remaining, 3 home, 3 away): vs. RGV, March 24; at El Paso Coyotes, March 29; vs. RGV, March 31; vs. Tacoma Stars, April 7; at San Diego, April 13; at Ontario Fury, April 14.

Rio Grande Valley schedule (6 games remaining, all on the road: at Monterrey, March 24; at Monterrey, March 31; at Turlock Express, April 5; at San Diego, April 7; at El Paso, April 12; at Dallas Sidekicks, April 13.

Key match-ups: Monterrey hosts RGV on back-to-back weekends. If either team wins both, it will go a long away to clinching the divisional title and a home game in the playoffs. Given that the Barracudas must play all their matches on the road, those games are a must-win situation.

Spoilers role: The El Paso (3-17) and San Diego play each of the playoff contenders twice.

The final weekend: RGV will play a pair of Southwest teams that have no dogs in the race -- El Paso and Dallas on April 12 and 13, respectively. In contrast, Monterrey will have a much more degree of difficulty, competing in two road matches only 22 hours apart -- vs. the red-hot Sockers and Ontario Fury, which still could be battling for a postseason berth, on April 13 and 14, respectively.

Pacific Division
With the Sockers (17-1) running away with the title with the league’s best record, the Tacoma Stars (10-10) and Fury (9-11) will battle it out for second place. The Stars and Fury certainly face their own unique challenges as Tacoma plays a most of its games on the road, while Ontario finishes up at home against two powerhouses.

Tacoma Stars schedule (4 games remaining, 1 home, 3 away): vs. San Diego, March 31; at Dallas, April 6, at Monterrey, April 7; at Turlock Express, April 12.

Ontario Fury schedule (4 games remaining, all at home): vs. El Paso, March 24; vs. Turlock, March 30; vs. San Diego, April 4; vs. Monterrey, April 14.

Key match-up: None at the present time.

Spoilers role: Turlock (3-17) plays both sides once -- at Ontario on March 30 and Tacoma at home April 12. And yes, another yet division leader, San Diego, can have a word or two in which team it faces, meeting Tacoma on March 31 and Ontario on April 4.

The final weekend: Tacoma will close out the regular season at Turlock on Friday, April 12, while Ontario will play its last game at home against Monterrey on Sunday, April 14. Monterrey could be a tired team that day because it must play at San Diego only 22 hours prior. If the second playoff berth is still up for grabs, that could go a long way in helping the Fury reach the preseason.