Now it is probably silly to even mention the MLS Supporters' Shield and the San Jose Earthquakes in the same sentence, unless somewhere in there the year "2012" also appears prominently. After all, so far this season the Quakes have failed to even come close to last year's Shield winning form.
As it stands right now, the Earthquakes probably need to win all four of their remaining regular season games just to have a chance at making the MLS postseason. However, with a bit of creativity in divining the results of other games around MLS, a scenario still exists by which San Jose could win the Supporters' Shield outright for the second season in a row. Pie in the sky thinking? Only if you are convinced that the Philadelphia Unions, the Chivas USAs, the Columbus Crews of the league are unable to pull off a miracle season ending run much like would be required from the Quakes.
To be sure, by the end of next weekend, the Earthquakes could possibly be eliminated from the 2013 Supporters' Shield race. Indeed, depending on results around the Western Conference, San Jose might find its own playoff hopes on life support. Without a doubt, it is put up or shut up time for the Quakes in 2013.
But back to defending the Shield -- the new, super-shiny, super-heavy Shield that was introduced this year by the Independent Supporters Council as a replacement for the old matte-finished chevron. The Earthquakes currently have 41 points with 4 matches remaining in the season. Win all 4, and the Quakes push their points total to a not so impressive 53 with 15 victories. (Aside: The first tiebreaker for determining table position is league wins, the second is goals scored.)
Now looking at the current MLS standings, no team has more than 50 points. Quite simply, if the Earthquakes win out and the teams currently at the top do not, then San Jose ascends to the summit and claims its second straight Shield, right? Well, not that simple.
Sure, the Seattle Sounders, which lead the West with 50 points after 28 games, could lose their remaining 6 games and not budge from the half-century mark. However, in doing so, Seattle would be ceding points to teams like the New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids that are also in with a shout for the Shield. The Red Bulls, currently at 48 points, would gladly take a 3-point gift from the Sounders, for that would put them a result away from clinching the Supporters' Shield for themselves. And so, to keep both teams unhappy, their meeting next week most certainly needs to end in a draw.
In playing around with the different scenarios for subverting the standings status quo and vaulting the Earthquakes into the top spot, it becomes apparent that if virtually all other MLS games ended in a draw, then the Quakes road to the Shield would be much easier. Doing so would gift the Shield to the Sounders, as they would finish the season with 56 points -- 3 ahead of the Quakes. Results around the league more in line with the current rate of wins, loses, and draws would definitely paint a more realistic picture in this exercise.
As it stands, only Seattle can draw its way ahead of a winning streak possessing San Jose, so the Sounders are definitely going to absorb some losses in the Earthquakes fantasy scenario. Two draws and four losses seems reasonable -- the Sounders finish with 52 points and rue the missed scoring chances they had in two 1-0 losses at Buck Shaw Stadium earlier this season. Seattle ships 12 points to 4 of the other Western Conference teams (Vancouver, Portland, Dallas, and LA), but not so many points that the Quakes are concerned.
Real Salt Lake has 48 points in the West but, like the Quakes, has only 4 games remaining in its season. RSL gains a point against Portland, but skids to another 3 losses, culminating with an embarrassing loss to Chivas USA.
The Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy both have 5 games remaining and sit third and fourth in the current table with 46 and 45 points respectively. Portland's 3 points from Seattle pushes them near the top of the West, so only a pair of draws, including one against LA, is awarded to the Timbers. LA also has 3 points coming from the Sounders, but that will prove to be its only win to close out its season. Throw in the fifth place Colorado Rapids, with one less game in hand then Portland or LA, drawing machines except for a comprehensive loss at San Jose, and you have to midtable Western teams accounted for.
The big winners in the West, besides those that call a tiny college stadium in Santa Clara home, are the ever so polite Vancouver Whitecaps. The Southsiders will be pleased to learn that the scenario presented calls for them to finish the season unbeaten: A pair of draws against the Rapids, but important Cascadia Cup wins against Seattle and Portland generate smiles north of the border. The 'Caps unbeaten streak catapults them up the table, but sadly they still fall a point short of the Earthquakes. Heck, no one in Vancouver is going to say no to the number 3 seed in the Western Conference MLS Cup playoff bracket (and a tasty first-round match-up with the Sounders).
To summarize "Best-Case Scenario" for final West standings (with seedings):
53 San Jose: Chivas(W), Colo(W), LAG(W), FCD(W)
52 Seattle: RBNY(D), Colo(D), Vanc(L), Port(L), FCD(L), LAG(L); 15 wins
52 Vancouver: RSL(W), Port(W), SEA(W), Colo(D), Colo(D); 14 wins
51 Portland: LAG(D), Vanc(L), SEA(W), RSL(D), Chivas(L)
49 Real Salt Lake: Vanc(L), FCD(L), Port(D), Chivas(L); 14 wins, loads of goals
49 LA Galaxy: Port(D), Chivas(L), Mont(L), Quakes(L), SEA(W); 14 wins, fewer goals
49 FC Dallas: RBNY(W), CBus(L), RSL(W), Chicago(L), SEA(W), Quakes(L); 13 wins
48 Colorado: SEA(D), Quakes(L), Vanc(D), Vanc(D)
35 Chivas USA: Quakes(L), LAG(W), RSL(W), Port(W)
Mission: Accomplished. The Earthquakes win the West with 53 points and dress up Buck Shaw Stadium for another postseason. But for the same hand-wringing at MLS Headquarters that made headlines entering last year's postseason to come about again -- the Quakes finishing top of the league once again with a chance of hosting MLS Cup in San Jose -- the Eastern Conference teams need to cooperate in this scenario.
The aforementioned Red Bulls are the bogey team -- they absolutely must draw at Seattle this Sunday because a winner in that match will eliminate the Quakes from the Shield race -- but Sporting Kansas City and the Montreal Impact consider themselves Shield contenders as well. For the Earthquakes to repeat, they will have to hope the Philadelphia Union, the Columbus Crew, and DC United all get hot to end the season. Turmoil in the East would ensue as no team would make a solid claim for the postseason, but who really thinks a team from the right coast can win MLS Cup? Even the Houston Dynamo, currently fourth in the table, fancies themselves a worthy representative in their third straight MLS Cup Final. Suffice it to say, not a sole Eastern Conference club finishes the season with 50+ points in the Quakes Shield winning scenario.
Will all this play out over the next month of MLS action? Probably nothing close to what has been spelled out. But just like the "realistically eliminated" criteria used to debate playoff qualifiers before the math says otherwise makes for an interesting conversation, so too does the outrageous proposition that the San Jose Earthquakes will defend their Supporters' Shield outright.
That's why its called "California Dreaming."