Matchday 35: What to know, how to watch on MLS Season Pass

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The more things change, the more they stay the same.

With only four matchdays left in the 2023 season (and a few makeup games sprinkled in), the logjam between 2nd and 13th in the Western Conference standings is as tight as ever. Meanwhile, two distinct Eastern Conference races – one for a top-four spot, the other for Wild Card places – remain wide open.

Amid the standings tug-of-war, a few teams have made substantial gains in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs race.

Western Conference: The Portland Timbers were languishing around 12th place in the West at the end of August. A 5W-0L-1D record since then has seen them climb above both the playoff line and the Wild Card spots.

Eastern Conference: A top-four finish looked like a distant hope for Atlanta United, but a 2W-0L-2D run in September has reignited home-field advantage aspirations. Given their current form, no team will want to see a road fixture at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on their playoff schedule.

Atlanta United are the lone team on a bye in Matchday 35.

The Big Three

Inter Miami CF vs. New York City FC

Yup, Inter Miami make the "Big Three" again. It's not just big-name bias, though – at least, not entirely.

Since integrating their bevy of summer signings – led by Lionel Messi and his ex-FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba – the Herons have posted a stellar 9W-2L-4D record in regulation time across all competitions. That's a blistering 2.07 points-per-game pace, which is on par with FC Cincinnati's league-leading total (and Cincy still can set the all-time MLS points record by season's end).

Add in a dramatic chase to climb above the playoff line and Tata Martino's squad is essentially must-watch TV until they become mathematically eliminated. Speaking of those big names, Martino said Messi is "game to game" and he expects him to play before the regular season ends.

NYCFC are among the teams in direct competition with Miami for a final Wild Card spot, making this as close to a must-win as you can get before Decision Day.

Toronto FC vs. FC Cincinnati

When a trophy is on the line, that pretty much automatically puts a match in the "Big Three," even when it's one of the few with almost no chance of affecting the playoff picture.

Toronto FC are already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and FC Cincinnati have all but locked up the East's No. 1 overall seed. But the intrigue stems from the Supporters' Shield, which is given to the best regular-season team each year.

Cincinnati can lock up the Shield with a win over the East's last-place team (full scenarios), and doing so would mean securing the club's first title of their MLS tenure and creating an ultra-cathartic moment for fans who endured three-straight Wooden Spoon (last place in the league) seasons from 2019-21.

History can be made in Toronto.

St. Louis CITY SC vs. Sporting Kansas City

More history! St. Louis CITY SC can become the first expansion team to earn their conference's No. 1 seed on Saturday. The West leaders need to beat Sporting Kansas City and have LAFC lose or draw against Real Salt Lake and have Seattle Sounders FC lose or draw against Nashville SC.

That's a lot of "and" statements, but the good news for St. Louis is they've got two games after this to wrap up the West.

Still, it doesn't get much sweeter than making history in front of a raucous home crowd at the expense of bitter rivals. Even more, dealing SKC a loss would put them in a serious hole beneath the playoff line.

Let's see if St. Louis' fairytale season continues.

Quick Passes

Columbus Crew vs. Philadelphia Union

If the race for the top four (and guaranteed home-field advantage through Round 1) in the Eastern Conference is important, then it stands to reason the race for the top two (and guaranteed home-field advantage through the Conference Semifinals) is doubly important.

The Union are in third place at 50 points, one point out of second. The Crew are in fourth place at 49 points, tied on points with the two teams below them. Either club could break into the top two; either club could tumble out of the top four entirely.

New England Revolution vs. Charlotte FC

Fun fact: If the New England Revolution win their game in hand on every team above them in the table, they'd vault back to second place in the Eastern Conference, despite their own internal coaching carousel, key injuries and departures.

Charlotte have a game (or two) in hand on their competition, too. They're closer to the playoff line than their 13th place in the table would imply.

New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire FC

One of the most underrated center backs in MLS just inked an extension through 2026 with the Red Bulls. That's especially good news off the back of a 5-3 win that showed RBNY actually can score goals and, maybe, give Andrés Reyes a lead or two to defend.

Orlando City SC vs. CF Montréal

Orlando City have had one of the subtlest glow-ups of the season, already tying their previous MLS points record of 51. Head coach Oscar Pareja deserves his flowers, as does 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick Duncan McGuire, who's nearly at double-digit goals for the year despite starting the season behind DP striker Ercan Kara (since departed to the Turkish Süper Lig) on the depth chart.

Houston Dynamo FC vs. FC Dallas

Yes, this is a Texas derby. And yes, FC Dallas are in a brutal fight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Houston Dynamo FC, despite sitting in fourth and winning the US Open Cup midweek, could also feasibly miss out on the postseason if they take a sudden dip.

But forget about all that for a moment and appreciate how far the Dynamo, after a half-decade of underperformance, have progressed in 2023.

Minnesota United FC vs. San Jose Earthquakes

Have Minnesota been brutally unlucky, which their expected goals numbers would imply, or are they just fatally flawed in some way that keeps wins out of their pocket?

A home match against a San Jose team they'll likely need to surpass to make the playoffs may be one of their last chances to prove it's the former.

Nashville SC vs. Seattle Sounders FC

The Sounders may have unveiled a new crest this week (launching for 2024), but their tradition of getting hot before the season's end remains unchanged. Unbeaten in five, a difficult road match against Nashville SC gives them a chance to prove a vintage late-season surge is fully underway.

Colorado Rapids vs. Austin FC

Admittedly, the term "last chance" has been thrown about fairly liberally over the last few matchday "How to Watch" articles. But, for real: If Austin FC can't get a result over last-place Colorado Rapids, their season may be cooked.

It won't be literally cooked, thanks to the oft-mentioned Western Conference logjam. But, psychologically speaking, an L in this one would be brutal to take.

LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers

Much like Austin FC, the Galaxy have been navigating a high-wire act for weeks now, wherein a loss could spell the end of the road. Unlike Austin, LA have only lost twice in their last 15, which gives more reason to believe they could actually pull off this great escape.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. D.C. United

The Whitecaps did it. They finished a taxing seven-match road stretch (that featured games in four different time zones) with a playoff spot still in hand. Time to recoup against a D.C. United side that's slipped out of the Eastern Conference's playoff spots after winning only once in their last nine.

LAFC vs. Real Salt Lake

For the second time in 2023, LAFC just watched a trophy go to a Liga MX side at BMO Stadium. First came the Concacaf Champions League (against Club León in early June), then it was Campeones Cup (against Tigres on Wednesday night).

The Black & Gold have also won just three of their last 13 games in league play. It's gut-check time in downtown LA.