Amid a busy week to kick off Concacaf World Cup Qualifying, MLS action resumed Friday night with four games that continued to shape the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race.
Here are the big takeaways you may have missed.
It was a big night in the Eastern Conference with four of the top five teams in action. It was also a night, though, that reinforced how when it comes to securing the East's top spot come the regular season's end, there's only one team in the race.
The New England Revolution weren't at their best at the Philadelphia Union during a game where both teams were missing key players. But, as so often in recent weeks, they found a way to win. That the 1-0 victory came despite being down a man for more than 30 minutes, after Arnor Traustason was shown two yellow cards, only made it all the more impressive.
The victory means that, after the rare hiccup against New York City FC last time out, the Revs are now back on pace to surpass LAFC's record regular-season points haul. With 54 points from 24 games, Bruce Arena's team has 2.17 PPG, just ahead of LAFC's 2.12 from two years ago.
But Friday was far more than just another good result for New England. It also saw Carles Gil return from injury. While the Revs coped admirably well without their playmaker, they're a different team with him pulling the strings. As evidence of how good he's been in 2021, Gil remains the MVP frontrunner despite a month on the sidelines.
There are now two players, though, who have more goals + assists than Gil in MLS this year. On Friday, Hany Mukhtar joined Daniel Salloi on a league-high 18 after his two-goal effort in Nashville's hugely impressive 3-1 win over NYCFC. And that boxscore doesn't do the German DP justice, as his threatening cross also led to an NYCFC defender putting the ball in his own net for Nashville's other goal of the evening.
"When you think about his development over the course of 18 months, he’s moved into another gear. Another gear," Nashville head coach Gary Smith said of Mukhtar in his postgame availability. "I’ve got to say, the work that [assistant coach] Steve Guppy does with him behind the scenes, you know, there’s a lot of time and effort looking at footage. OK, ‘What might you have done in that situation?’ A lot of individual work on the field, a lot of confidence-building. When things weren’t going well last year – it sometimes takes that patience and that connection to get the very best out of someone. And he’s certainly playing at a wonderful level at the moment."
While the Revs may be in a class of their own, Nashville are now up to second place in the East and no one will want to meet them in the postseason – not even New England. In two games this season, Nashville have taken four points from the Supporters' Shield leaders.
What a difference a week makes. This time last week, the Portland Timbers were on a run of four defeats in seven, including blowout losses to the LA Galaxy and fierce foes the Seattle Sounders, finding themselves outside of the playoff places and in real danger of missing out on the postseason.
Now they have back-to-back road wins, including a helping of revenge over the Sounders, and are firmly entrenched in the Western Conference's playoff spots. And there's plenty of reason to think that the Timbers will stay there and even push on further in the weeks to come.
After next week's trip to take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Portland have three straight home games and seven of their remaining 12 games at Providence Park, where they're 6W-3L-1D on the year. It's not been a great season for Giovanni Savarese and his side to date, but the Timbers have a history of making late runs into the playoffs and creating plenty of noise once there.
Sebastian Blanco's return to the starting lineup after almost a year on the sidelines is another reason for optimism, even if it has coincided with Eryk Williamson cruelly suffering an ACL tear of his own.
The Timbers didn't show too many signs of missing him in Friday's 2-0 win, as Houston Dynamo FC were summarily dismissed thanks to an early goal and assist for Felipe Mora. The Chile international striker has seven goals in his last 10 matches – that makes it nine goals and four assists on the season – and arguably should be getting more recognition.
Equally as important is a sudden improvement in the Timbers' defensive record that, while still the worst in the Western Conference, has seen them keep back-to-back clean sheets.
"A couple tweaks that we have done in making sure that we keep the ideas simple and clear have allowed us to become stronger," said Savarese. "It’s the commitment, not only from the defenders, it’s from the entire team to make sure that we help each other, that we have associations in different areas so we can handle what the teams have been throwing at us. We have done a lot of work to make sure the players understand all the players they are going to face."
Speaking of Western Conference big-hitters that have found themselves unexpectedly struggling in 2021, LAFC gave their prospects of avoiding missing the postseason for the first time in their MLS existence a major boost Friday with a 4-0 win against high-flying Sporting Kansas City.
You would have got long odds on that outcome at the start of play. LAFC were battling an eight-match winless streak and had 13 – yes, you read that right – players unavailable, meaning Bob Bradley was only able to select five substitutes on the bench. Not even counted among those missing was Diego Rossi, who left on loan to Turkey's Fenerbahce this week. With Carlos Vela out injured and in-form Brian Rodriguez on international duty, it was tough to see where the goals would come from.
Enter 18-year-old center back Mamadou Fall. In just his fourth MLS start, the Senegal international rose highest in the box on two set pieces to thunder home emphatic headers and set LAFC toward their biggest win of the season. Sporting KC may have been down to 10 men following Roger Espinoza's red card in the 58th minute but, given LAFC's habit of throwing away leads this season, Fall's second goal to make the score 2-0 shortly after was crucial.
As was the result, which lifts the Black & Gold up from 11th spot in the Western Conference to – at least temporarily – level on points with Real Salt Lake in the seventh and final playoff spot.