Zlatan Ibrahimovic - LA Galaxy - Points to the sky

“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game's afoot...”
– Shakespeare, Henry V

If you kept your eye on the big, league-wide picture on Saturday, you might just have heard the gears whirring and clanking, pushing the pieces a few clicks closer to place.

Vancouver knocked off Toronto FC, preserving their own postseason prospects while killing off the reigning champs' final, flickering hopes of defending their title. The LA Galaxy walked into stormy Kansas City and snatched a hard-won road point that keeps them alive. The Portland Timbers stunned Real Salt Lake4-1 in Utah, simultaneously hauling themselves away from the playoff line and sparking tumult among those beneath them.

Montreal whacked Columbus3-0 – the Impact, by the way, are 4-2-3 since the start of August – and on Sunday D.C. United rounded out the weekend with a sweaty 2-1 comeback win over the Chicago Fire, a key result that underlines the potential for disruptive chaos this time of year. The Seattle Sounders are expected to cap Week 32 by reaping maximum points from the Houston Dynamo’s visit to CenturyLink Field on Monday night, but, well, you never know… probably best to tune in just to make sure.

You’ve heard a lot about the “stretch run” over the past few months, and for good reason. But now, we’ve reached the desperate final sprint towards the finish line.

There are less than three weeks left in the MLS regular season, and only seven of the 12 spots in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are spoken for. The horses can smell the barn, as they say. And it appears that not only have the soccer gods blessed the league with a photo finish at the top of the standings, where Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls are neck-and-neck for the Supporters’ Shield, but also a frenzied scramble for the final postseason slots.

Though nerve-wracking for the teams and fans involved, this is very much a good thing for the rest of us. I suspect it’s just what league officials hoped for when they implemented the current playoff format. I, and others, have in the past lamented the existence of that sixth and final berth in each conference – it often seems overly generous – but it’s hard to deny that it stokes the drama at this time of year.

In the East, we basically have two teams, Montreal and D.C., vying for one final ticket. Yes, the Impact could still catch fading, fifth-place Crew SC, but that would require the Impact to take maximum points from their final two games, vs. TFC and at New England, AND Columbus taking just one point from their games at flatlined Orlando City and home to road-shy Minnesota United. Possible, but not probable.

D.C. are the ones Montreal are most concerned about, and rightly so: The Black-and-Red have two games in hand, both at Audi Field, thanks to the home-heavy conclusion to their backloaded calendar, and after their early-season woes are now collecting points at a higher per-game rate than the Impact. United trounced the Canadians 5-0 in their head-to-head meeting last week, inflicting a high-profile psychological wound, yet the Black-and-Red still have work to do.

Two of their four remaining opponents are playoff teams, and the other two, TFC and the Fire, would be delighted to play spoilers. But between their noisy new stadium and their new superstar leader Wayne Rooney, there’s a steeliness about this United team that’s crucial in Octobers like these.

“We have to keep pushing because we have another 'most important game of the season' next weekend against Dallas,” said coach Ben Olsen on Sunday. “That’s just how it has to be for the rest of the year and that’s okay. I trust our guys and know they’re up for it. I don’t think we had the greatest performance today but there is a belief in the group that on days like this we can still get out with three points. That’s extremely important and that’s something we lacked earlier in the year.”

Aside from that strange blowout in D.C., the Impact, too, have stepped up to the challenge. Expect this race to go right down to Decision Day.

The picture is a bit cloudier out West. Depending on how highly you think of the fifth-placed Sounders – and their back-to-back runs to MLS Cup have earned them some capital with me – it’s either four teams gunning for the No. 5 and No. 6 slots in the postseason bracket, or three hunting for that last spot.

RSL’s home loss to the Timbers was quite a damaging setback, ending their 14-game unbeaten streak at Rio Tinto Stadium and shrinking their lead over the Galaxy and Whitecaps to one and three points, respectively. Coach Mike Petke fumed that “We’re going to see what we’re made of,” and they’re further disadvantaged by the fact that they are the odd ones out in this 23-team and thus don’t play on Decision Day, forcing them to watch those proceedings passively.

Only the maximum six points in their final two games will be enough to insulate them from a late charge by LA or Vancouver.

The Galaxy, too, suffered on Saturday night, at one point leading SKC 2-0 only to see a goal waved off by a Video Review offside decision before Johnny Russell struck to salvage a draw for the hosts. A win for Zlatan Ibrahimovic & Co. would’ve pushed them ahead of RSL; now they must try to win at Minnesota, on turf, in front of a 50,000-plus crowd in the Loons’ final game at TCF Bank Stadium, then beat the Dynamo at home on Decision Day.

And the bipolar Whitecaps, despite dismissing longtime coach Carl Robinson and installing their academy director as the interim boss in his place, are somehow still in the reckoning too. They have the hardest road, with playoff teams Sporting KC, LAFC and Portland still to come. But at this point, who knows?

So by my count, that’s an entire year hinging on a handful of October games – six in the East and seven in the West. The pressure will crush some, and inspire others. Fortunes will undulate from moment to moment as the matches unfold. Catch every moment you can.