For the Portland Timbers there are only four games remaining in the club's fifth season in MLS and, despite Saturday's relief-inducing win, their place in the playoffs is far from assured.
Home against Sporting Kansas City, away against Real Salt Lake, away against the LA Galaxy, and finally home against the Colorado Rapids: the Timbers' remaining matches give the team every chance to move up the table and every chance to free-fall down it.
First, the table itself:
All year the Western Conference has been packed in tight and, with the season winding down (and the race for the playoffs winding up), that has not changed. Within three points of the red line are six teams; within six points of the red line are nine. And directly above the red line, walking it like a tightrope, are the Timbers.
As Caleb Porter and his team have alluded to repeatedly, getting into the playoffs is the bare minimum level of success for this team. Squeaking in with a 6th place finish, however, would leave the Timbers with a remarkably hard road ahead: an away wild card game against the number three seed, which at this point will likely be either the Galaxy, FC Dallas, or the Vancouver Whitecaps, in a home and home match up against the number one seed, which could again be any one of those three teams.
A fifth place finish is really no better, again putting the Timbers in an away wild card game, this time against the number four seed, before they can even consider making it to a home and home series against the number one (the top remaining seed plays the lowest remaining seed in each round). The one positive to this scenario is that it minimizes the chance that the Timbers will need to face the Galaxy and their ridiculous home form at the Stubhub Center in a one-off match.
Where things start to get interesting for the Timbers is if they make it to the number four seed. A home match, recent struggles notwithstanding, puts the Timbers in a much better position to advance out of the first round. In 160 games played by Western Conference teams so far this year, home teams are 91-30-37. For their part, the Timbers are on the weaker side of that number on points per game, earning 1.80 points per game at home versus the conference average of 1.96 points per game at home, but in comparison with the Timbers' measly 1.13 points per game on the road, the preference is obvious.
None of the roads to the MLS Cup will be easy, especially if the Timbers can't carry forward their goalscoring form from the weekend, but for the Timbers the fourth place spot should be the goal and achieving that goal starts on Saturday with a win at home against Kansas City.