Starting XI: Tightest race ever? Can New York Red Bulls hold their nerve? Is Jack McInerney really back?
The top 11 questions heading into the weekend...
11) Is this the tightest playoff race ever?
Fifteen of 19 clubs still in postseason contention, and all of them spaced, top to bottom, just 12 points apart. Six teams with legitimate Supporters' Shield ambitions, yet only two of them officially assured of a playoff berth. Innumerable scenarios liable to unfold over the next two weeks. MLS has seen plenty of fall drama in the past, but this October scrum looks as lively as any.
10) Can Sporting take advantage of a Friday date with D.C.?
Most coaches in these situations insist that players focus only on their own matches – “Worry about what you can control,” goes the old saw – but the reality is that final results elsewhere often intrude on the other teams they affect. This weekend, Sporting Kansas City have the slight benefit of hosting last-place D.C. United day or two ahead of the pack and with a win, can pile just a bit more pressure on their adversaries in the Eastern Conference and Shield races (8 pm ET, NBCSN).
9) Will Toronto FC give their “401 Derby” rivals a hand?
Losers of three straight matches (and five of their last six), the Montreal Impact are wobbling badly at an awkward time. Meanwhile, their antagonists in Toronto can help them out a bit by taking points off the Chicago Fire on Saturday (830 pm ET, MLS LIVE, TSN2/RDS2 in Canada). Montreal can clinch a playoff place with a win at home over Philadelphia on Saturday (2 pm ET, MLS LIVE), but if they don't get those three points, they'll have everything riding on next week's trip to BMO Field.
8) Who will dodge the Knockout Round?
Some teams are gratified just to qualify for the playoffs, regardless of seeding, while others – this year it could be Montreal and Seattle – are left cursing themselves for letting a top-three finish, and the prime postseason positioning it offers, slip away. Teams that advance from this year's Knockout Round (a single game between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in each conference) would be required to play three games in as little as seven days, which are hard, fast miles for aching bodies at this time of year.
7) Can the Whitecaps stave off the bad news for yet another week?
Vancouver fumbled away their promising early-season vantage point in the West race with a sputtering second half of the campaign, though their recent matches have featured some impressive heroics to keep the door from closing for good. Now a schedule quirk means they meet Colorado in both of their final two games, and must – effectively, if not officially – win both, starting at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Saturday (6 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
6) What's next for the Sounders?
Seattle are suffering, jarred by a sudden swing from Supporters' Shield hunters to soul-searching, shorthanded winless streakers. Osvaldo Alonso is suspended, Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are nursing knocks, the goalkeeper spot is in flux and the whole team was disciplined for mass confrontation in last week's tense loss to Portland. SSFC visit fading FC Dallas on Saturday (2:30 pm ET, NBC) and really need to fly home from North Texas with a victory in hand.
5) Is Jack Mac really back?
Union hitman Jack McInerney finally ended four-plus months of frustration last weekend with a vital late equalizer against D.C., his first goal since June 1. Now friends and foes alike will be watching closely to see if he's on his way back to the devastating finisher we saw in the spring – or if Philly coach John Hackworth has even seen enough to restore him to the starting spot he lost in recent weeks.
4) Will the Shield race come down to tiebreakers?
Any number of permutations could unfold among the half-dozen teams sitting within a game (on 51-53 points) of the Supporters' Shield lead, currently held by New York. Several likely scenarios involve logjams at the top, so this might be a good time for a reminder that the tiebreaker order is a bit different for this competition: 1) most wins; 2) goals for; 3) goal differential; 4) fewest Disciplinary Points.
3) Speaking of which, can the Red Bulls hold their nerve?
“That's so Metro” – three words recognized around the leaue that encapsulate the frustrating, self-destructive history of the star-crossed team from North Jersey. But things look different this year under local boy Mike Petke: They haven't lost since Aug. 25 and stand just two positive results away from their first-ever major trophy, not to mention pole position in the playoffs. Longtime RBNY fans may wince just reading this (sorry), but their club's fate is in its own hands, starting in Houston on Sunday (4 pm ET, UniMas).
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2) Will RSL and PTFC keep running and gunning in their fourth tangle of the year?
Another game with huge implications takes place at JELD-WEN Field in Portland as the Timbers welcome Real Salt Lake with Supporters' Shield positioning – and perhaps a playoff preview – in the balance (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE). These possession-centric teams have averaged five goals a game in their previous meetings and JWF's playing surface should help push the tempo.
1) Can the Quakes keep up their clutch ways in Sunday's California Clasico?
Though it may yet prove too little, too late, spare some praise for San Jose's furious fall rally. The Earthquakes are 4-0-1 since LA thumped them 3-0 on the final day of August and thus remain on the playoff bubble despite some dark days this season. But to keep the magic going, Chris Wondolowski & Co. need to take revenge – and all three points – from the Galaxy at StubHub Center on Sunday night (9 pm ET, ESPN).