As we head into the stretch drive of the 2021 MLS season, the schedule will be packed tight with games that are crucial to both combatants.

As such, we've decided to pinpoint the matches that could have the greatest impact on the playoff races in both conferences. Considering how hot the various races are, I could have easily shined a light on 20 games for the East and even more in the West, where all seven places remain very much up for grabs. Not wishing to completely obliterate your workplace productivity, we'll just say eight is enough and leave it at that before the boss gets wise.

Tomorrow we'll run through some of the biggest tilts left on the Western schedule, but first let's identify which games could have the most say in deciding a beastly East.

Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City SC
Sunday, Sept. 19, 4 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes


Sunday's tilt in Chester is one of those games that seems important now, but could look doubly so in hindsight as the regular season wraps. The Lions, who've yet to figure out a way to stop Kacper Przybylko (four goals in four meetings), are in a rough fight for second place in the East. The Union, who are winless in Orlando City's last three visits (0-1-2), will be eager to rebound from a double blow Wednesday night when they were knocked out of the Concacaf Champions League in the semifinals by Club América and saw other results push them out of the playoff places in the East.

Columbus Crew vs. CF Montréal
Saturday, Sept. 25, 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, TVA Sports

Out of all the playoff-chasing clubs in the East, these are the two that have the fewest games remaining against currently close table neighbors in the same brand of playoff-chasing fight. And to boot, they're in the same brand of playoff-chasing fight. The defending champs and Montréal are each desperately seeking to reach at least seventh place. This list is loaded with vital "six-pointer" matches, and this game could be the poster child for that concept.

CF Montréal vs. Atlanta United
Saturday, Oct. 2, 7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, TVA Sports

The Five Stripes are in that same battle to reach the good side of the playoff line, and they're finally hitting stride at the right time. Atlanta United like to get after opponents with the ball and they've suddenly turned into a sneaky good road side. Montréal are a sneaky good home team who loves to catch teams out. Add it all together and this is shaping up to be a good tussle with plenty of meaning for two clubs that are desperate for a postseason party in 2021.

D.C. United vs. Nashville SC
Saturday, Oct. 16, 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+


The Music City band probably don't have a shot at catching New England for the top playoff seed or Supporters' Shield. All they can realistically do is shoot for second. With Orlando City on their heels, they'll want to keep winning, which is what they've impressively done in both lifetime meetings against D.C. United. However, they have also yet to visit Audi Field, home of a club that's won five of their last six in the friendly confines with a +12 goal differential. For a rollercoaster side fighting for their postseason lives, this game should be huge for the capital crew.

New York City FC vs. D.C. United
Saturday, Oct. 23, 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+

The Black-and-Red are in position where anything can happen. They're one point away from being level with fourth-place NYCFC, who have an inside track on the last home game in the postseason's first round. But both teams will also anxiously be looking over their shoulders, with multiple teams below the playoff line within striking distance. And both could easily be in either position by the time this game rolls around. D.C. have only managed two points from seven prior games away to the Cityzens, but both teams could be desperate for points in this one.

Atlanta United vs. Inter Miami CF
Wednesday, Oct. 27, 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Here's another one of those important potential six-point swing contests you're going to be hearing about for the next seven weeks. Both these clubs have heated up over the past seven weeks. Inter Miami moved into the playoff places with their win Tuesday before Atlanta United usurped them with a big win of their own the following day. These teams have evenly split their previous five meetings but haven't really formed an honest good ol' southern rivalry just yet. With a stage as hot as Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this might just be the game to get that done.

Orlando City SC vs. Nashville SC
Sunday, Oct. 31, 4 pm ET | UniMás, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)


Until now, we've mostly discussed "six-pointers" toward the backend of the playoff race. On Halloween, we'll get one near the front of it. Finishing second serves up two nice perks: the chance to avoid New England until the conference final, and the position to snare the Revs' Eastern top seed if they falter early in the playoffs. These clubs (who've fought out tense nail-biters in all four previous meetings) both want second place. This one could get rough.

New York City FC vs. Philadelphia Union
Sunday, Nov. 7, 3:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+

One would like to think both of these teams will rediscover their best form by the time Decision Day arrives. If they do, this should be a monster gloves-come-off bout. As things stand, NYCFC should expect to be in the catbird seat for this match. They currently hold the fourth spot in the East (and the home playoff opener that would come with it), and hold a game in hand on the Union. What's more, Philadelphia typically hates this away fixture, as they're 0-5-1 at Yankee Stadium.