MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Bogert: Three playoff-defining games out West and more on Wednesday

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – LA Galaxy – Grimace

MLS is coming in hotafter the international break, as four matches are set for Wednesday evening.  

The playoff picture continues to become less blurry with every passing match night, and this particular set features several huge games when it comes to the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff race. Let's get after it:

NYCFC vs. Toronto FC (7 pm ET | TSN, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US)

Unbeaten in five and up to sixth in the East, hard numbers would suggest that, finally, Toronto are back. A (very) light examination of those results douses arctic water on that notion. All but one of those five games came against teams below the playoff line and resulted in just two wins.

They last beat a team currently above the playoff line on July 17. Before that it was June 26. Even in picking up wins over lesser opponents, they weren't overly convincing (barring the 5-1 win over FC Cincinnati, and there's no reason to kick Cincy when they're down by spitting up a number of stats to suggest why that result isn't exactly a big deal.)

TFC still are searching for the optimal formation, set of tactics and substitution pattern. The good news? They have Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo leading the attack. Few teams can match that duo in peak form, though that pair hasn't hit peak form since April. More good news? After Wednesday, three of their five remaining matches come against teams below the playoff line. A first-round playoff game at BMO Field is very much a possibility.

NYCFC, meanwhile, are playing for a first-round bye and home-field advantage. They passed their first test without Heber, winning 2-1 against a 10-man New England Revolution side. Consider the below network passing graph, courtesy of Opta, in their last full game with Heber, against the Red Bulls:

Bogert: Three playoff-defining games out West and more on Wednesday -

Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. Heber (No. 9) played alongside Valentin Castellanos (No. 11) with Alexandru Mitrita (No. 28) and Maxi Moralez (No. 10) beneath. 

Then their first game without Heber, against New England last Saturday:

Bogert: Three playoff-defining games out West and more on Wednesday -

Mitrita (No. 28) played closest to Castellanos (No. 11), but naturally drifted wide to space. Jesus Medina (remember him!) came off the bench to score a brace against the Revs. Could he join the starting XI and play closer to Castellanos in Heber's absence or be a direct (positional) replacement for the suspended Moralez? 

Houston Dynamo vs. Minnesota United (8:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada)

Since the No. 2 through No. 8 seeds are separated by just four points out West, taking care of games you should win is vital. Even a midweek road trip down to Houston is one Minnesotashould win, as the Dynamo have spiraled far below the playoff line and have just two wins since early July. 

It still won't be straightforward. The likes of Robin Lod, Rasmus Schuller, Jan Gregus, Kevin MolinoHassani Dotson and Mason Toye are wrapping up international duty, leaving the Loons shorthanded. 

Exciting player personnel news? Young Designated Player Thomas Chacon looks in line for his first MLS start. The Uruguayan midfielder went 90 minutes in the Loons' friendly against Pachuca, in which he looked sharp, took a few challenges and won a penalty. He took the aforementioned penalty, though it was saved. 

"Trust me, playing down in Uruguay, he's gonna have no trouble coping with the physicality, because I've been down there and watched the games," head coach Adrian Heath said of the 19-year-old after the game. "They're tough and they're big and strong. They don't hold back in Uruguay so he'll be fine.”

Wednesday could be a huge night to kickstart his Loons career juuuuust right. 

Colorado Rapids vs. LA Galaxy (9 pm ET | TSN, MLS LIVE on ESPN+)

Everything written above about Minnesota? It also applies for the Galaxy

But it's not a straightforward opponent, given Colorado's form since making a coaching change in May. They've also won their last two games against the Red Bulls and Seattle, but time for excuses is running out. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristian Pavon around, the Galaxy need to elevate their pace.

Currently sitting in eighth place, though with a game in hand over seventh-place FC Dallas, the Galaxy are in danger of missing the playoffs again. To borrow a stat I found in Doyle's Week 26 recap: They've gone just 6-11-2 with a -11 goal differential since the beginning of May. That doesn't look like a playoff team, despite having Ibra, Pavon and Jonathan dos Santos

The Rapids, meanwhile, have played like a playoff team since the end of May, though they likely won't be playing postseason soccer. In Robin Fraser's first game in charge, they came out in a 3-5-2 against the Red Bulls then a 4-3-3 against the Sounders in his second. What will they show against the Galaxy?

Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes (9:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, DAZN)

The two themes of the night: Playoffs and the international break. A midweek MLS special!

Coming just at the end of an international window, neither team will be full-strength in their pivotal Western Conference clash, but that shouldn't take away from the excitement. 

In the teams' first meeting, a late 1-0 San Jose win in July, the Quakes' winner came off a quick corner in the 93rd minute. For most of the game, RSL coped well with San Jose's controlled chaos. Boasting potentially a very makeshift defensive unit on Wednesday, can RSL keep the tactical rigidity to deal with the Quakes or will San Jose find even more space in transition than normal? 

The clubs are separated by a point, straddling the divider between a home or road playoff match in round No. 1. Margins, as you know, are thin in this playoff race. A quick perusal of each side's remaining schedule hints that the Quakes might be more in need of a result, given they exclusively face teams above the playoff line for the rest of the season.