In or out? Why these playoff bubble teams should be worried


An expanded Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs format means more participating teams, more games and more high-stakes emotions.

In other words, Major League Soccer’s postseason party got a whole lot bigger and better this year.

But it’s not an all-access party by any means, as 11 teams (six in the East, five in the West) will discover come Decision Day on Oct. 21 – or even sooner.

The following six clubs are dangerously flirting with missing out on playoffs, raising temperatures heading into the regular season's final stretch.

  • Standings: 9th in East
  • Record: 9W-12L-7D; 34 points
  • Games remaining: 6
  • Next game: Sept. 16 at Charlotte FC (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

First things first: Wayne Rooney, in his first full year in charge, has more than improved on a D.C. United side that finished dead last in 2022. In fact, the legendary English striker-turned-manager currently has the Black-and-Red in the ninth-and-final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, good for a Wild Card berth.

And yet, Rooney’s Christian Benteke-centric attack has recently gone the way of the Belgian international, who went more than three months without scoring before netting a brace in a 4-0 blowout of Chicago Fire FC in Matchday 29. That was United's first win by a multi-goal margin since late June (3-0 over FC Cincinnati) and their first home win in that span as well.

D.C. have just one victory since the Leagues Cup break (1W-2L-1D), getting shut out twice in the process – most recently a scoreless home draw against 10-man San Jose. If these types of performances, rather than the Chicago rout, remain the norm in the final stretch, United very well may end up watching the playoffs at home.

  • Standings: 13th in East
  • Record: 7W-12L-8D; 29 points
  • Games remaining: 7
  • Next game: Sept. 16 at New York City FC (3:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

New York's 13-year playoff streak (tied for the MLS record with Seattle Sounders FC) is in serious jeopardy the way things are going. Stuck in a three-game losing skid, without a single winning streak to their name this season, the Red Bulls have struggled for consistency all year.

But they're still in the race, the underlying numbers like them and there are bright spots like John Tolkin, with the rising 21-year-old US international further establishing himself this season as one of the league's best fullbacks.

Still, the Eastern Conference's second-worst offense (24 goals) has struggled to put the ball in the back of the net all year long and just last week lost 2022's top scorer, Lewis Morgan, to a season-ending hip injury.

It's going to take a serious turnaround in the final stretch to make it 14 straight playoff appearances for RBNY.

  • Standings: 12th in East
  • Record: (6W-10L-12D; 30 points)
  • Games remaining: 6
  • Next game: Sept. 16 vs. New York Red Bulls (3:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

No team is safe right now in the Big Apple, with New York City FC experiencing similar playoff worries as their neighbors across the Hudson River. Inconsistent play and poor offensive production are to blame as well.

For NYCFC, the main issue has been finding a true No. 9 up top to replace Taty Castellanos, the 2021 Golden Boot presented by Audi winner who also helped the club lift MLS Cup that same season. The Cityzens took action in the Secondary Transfer Window by acquiring Mounsef Bakrar, with the hopes the U22 Initiative signing could find a spark with club legend Maxi Moralez, Taty's partner in crime during the championship run who rejoined the team over the summer.

Yet those plans were shattered when Moralez suffered a season-ending knee injury during NYC's last match: a 1-1 home draw with Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

We'll see how they react Saturday against the Red Bulls in a Hudson River Derby that has suddenly taken on a life of its own given all that's at stake right now for both clubs.

  • Standings: 8th in West
  • Record: 9W-9L-10D; 37 points
  • Games remaining: 6
  • Next game: Sept. 16 vs. Real Salt Lake (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

After the up-and-down tenure of Matías Almeyda, San Jose transformed this season under first-year head coach Luchi Gonzalez and his calm, composed style of play. This improvement was especially evident early on in the 2023 campaign, with the Quakes winning two of their first three games, led by team leader and Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Cristian Espinoza.

Espinoza is still in the MVP conversation and the Quakes remain in the postseason picture (Wild Card spot), but they've hit a noticeable dip in form since the Leagues Cup break, going 1W-2L-2D in that span. They've also rattled off just two wins since mid-June.

Are San Jose a playoff-caliber team? They have only six games left to prove it.

  • Standings: 10th in West
  • Record: 9W-12L-6D; 33 points
  • Games remaining: 7
  • Next game: Sept. 17 vs. Portland Timbers (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FS1)

The 2023 version of Austin FC has fallen short of the exciting, occasionally dominant Verde & Black side that reached the Western Conference Final last year.

The same goes for club MVP Sebastián Driussi, whose respectable eight goals and three assists this season are dwarfed by his massive 22g/7a from a year ago.

Whether all this is the result of not meeting expectations this season or exceeding them in 2022 (new sporting director Rodolfo Borrell recently said it was the latter), Austin have almost no margin for error heading into their final seven games.

That's an especially daunting scenario for a club that's gone winless in their last four after a lackluster Leagues Cup showing, taking just one point out of 12 with a 0W-3L-1D record in that span.

  • Standings: 12th in West
  • Record: 8W-12L-8D; 32 points
  • Games remaining: 6
  • Next game: Sept. 16 at Minnesota United FC (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

SKC manager/sporting director Peter Vermes was unpleased after Saturday's 3-2 loss at Inter Miami CF – particularly at referee Ismail Elfath for allowing Sergio Busquets' quick re-start and subsequent assist on Facundo Farías' game-deciding goal to stand.

Vermes knows all too well how vital points – even just one – are right now for Sporting, and this latest setback in South Florida could very well end up costing the club a postseason berth for the second year in a row. Even more complicating for Kansas City: all six of their remaining games are against opponents that are above the playoff line.

Despite their late-season surge, will that season-opening, 10-game winless streak have provided too big of a hole to emerge from?