MLS Week 19: What to watch for this weekend

What to watch for - MLS Week 17

With just four weekends left until the end of the 2020 MLS regular season, every one of them will be pivotal.

Week 19 shapes up to be decisive for more than a few teams in the race of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Who stays alive? Who will see their hopes falter? Below are all the stories to follow in this weekend's slate.

Columbus Crew SC vs. NYCFC

Sun., 6 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

Less than three weeks ago, a massive 13 points separated these two teams in the Eastern Conference standings, with the Columbus Crew the prohibitive favorites to claim the Supporters’ Shield crown and NYCFC still scrapping around for an identity under first-year coach Ronny Deila.

Fast forward and a win for NYCFC on Sunday would see the gap down to one point with the Cityzens having their eyes focused on a top-four spot and a Round One home game in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

NYCFC look set to be boosted in that quest by the return from injury of playmaking wizard Maxi Moralez, which should go some way to compensating for the loss for the season of James Sands.

Injuries remain very much a concern for the Crew. It's hard to escape the fact that their sudden collapse in form (0W-3L-1D) has coincided with Lucas Zelarayan joining Darlington Nagbe and now goalkeeper Eloy Room on the sidelines. All three are due back in the next couple of weeks but the Crew will have to find a way to pick up points before then if they are to maintain their top-four place.

NY Red Bulls vs. Orlando City SC

Sun., 7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

It’s remarkable to witness the injection of hope that a promising young player can provide to a soccer club. We’re seeing it with the NY Red Bulls. Teenage sensation Caden Clark has scored two goals in his first two appearances and both have been enough to secure four points for a Red Bulls team that desperately needed an attacking spark. Clark looks to be able to provide it and how the club decides to deploy him and what he can do alongside Kaku make the Red Bulls a fascinating watch in MLS.

But Orlando, unbeaten in 11, are just the type of team that can potentially quash this feel-good moment. The confident, in-your-face approach that they’ve assumed under Oscar Pareja doesn’t have any room for mushy fairytales featuring a 17-year-old with moppy hair and a smile from ear to ear. They will be uncompromising as they look to carry their momentum to a first-ever postseason berth. And why settle for just having an asterisk next to your name in the standings? The Lions know a win at Red Bull Arena will keep them in the running for the Shield and a top seed in the East. Their last W? A 3-1 win over these Clark-less Red Bulls on Oct. 3.

FC Cincinnati vs. D.C. United

Sun., 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

Might as well just go ahead and call this one a Week 19 playoff match. It’s a must-win for both teams: A loss for last-place D.C. would all but consign them to an early offseason after Decision Day, with only four matches available after Sunday. Second-to-last Cincy have to win in order to stay close or even gain ground on the teams occupying the final playoff spots. They’re just three points out entering the weekend.

And might we be seeing the beginnings of a more daring Cincinnati than the more cautious version of recent months? Buoyed by newcomers Kamohelo Mokotjo and Alvaro Barreal making the starting lineup against Columbus, Jaap Stam’s men took it to the Crew early and actually outshot one of the best attacking teams in MLS in their 2-1 win. The Orange and Blue may have a surprising final stretch in store for their fans, but for anyone to buy into a playoff run, it starts with beating MLS’s last-place team, which will not be as easy it might seem on paper.

Toronto FC vs. Atlanta United

Sun., 7:30 pm ET | TSN 1/4 in Canada; MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US

Last year they met for the Eastern Conference Championship. This year their goals are very different: Toronto FC have emerged as the favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield as the best team in MLS and they will also be favorites to make a run to their fourth MLS Cup final in five years. Atlanta United are looking to stay alive in the playoff race – they currently occupy the 10th and final playoff spot on goal differential but they’re just barely holding on.

Toronto are unbeaten in eight matches with a sparkling, free-flowing attack starring Alejandro Pozuelo, who continues to apply an increasingly tighter grip on the MVP trophy with every passing game. Meanwhile, Atlanta are laboring with just two wins in their last 12 matches as they work on building up new Designated Player Marcelino Moreno, who they hope will become their Pozuelo in time. The good news for ATLUTD is that forward Cubo Torres is back after a five-match injury absence and star winger Jurgen Damm might be ready to carry a greater load in the final stretch. If Atlanta are going to make the postseason, Moreno, Damm and Torres will likely have to be the reason why.

Minnesota United vs. Houston Dynamo

Sun., 8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

It’s round two of the Darwin Quintero Bowl. And after their former star had a man-of-the-match showing in their previous encounter, a 2-2 draw on Sept. 19, Minnesota will want to make certain it doesn’t happen twice, especially as they look to improve a run of form that has seen them win just once — against Cincinnati — in their last six games.  

The good news for the Loons is the Dynamo have endured back-to-back disappointing losses to Miami and Nashville, part of an even longer run of nine games with just one win to show. With just five games left, starting on Sunday, the Dynamo’s chances to turn it around are getting slimmer and slimmer.

Portland Timbers vs. LAFC

Sun., 10 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

The Timbers finally took a tumble midweek, and now head back to Portland to face an unpredictable and absence-ridden LAFC side as they look to regain the form that saw them reel off five straight wins prior to Wednesday. Standings-wise Portland will be looking to keep pressure on Seattle at the top of the West, while LAFC will look to maintain their place in the top four after a narrow loss to Vancouver in which they started 16-year-old Christian Torres and brought on 15-year-old Erik Dueñas.

The Black-and-Gold already surprised Seattle last weekend despite missing a litany of starters, including their vaunted attacking trio of Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez, and Carlos Vela, to injury and international duty — will they repeat the trick against a Portland side in even better form?

LA Galaxy vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Sun., 10:30 pm ET | TSN 1/4 in Canada; MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US

It just keeps getting worse for the Galaxy. They’re now the losers of six straight, most recently a 4-0 drubbing at home at the hands of their oldest rivals, San Jose. LA captain Daniel Steres opined that nothing looks promising right now for the team, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment as a playoff spot starts to slip away.

The Whitecaps, on the other hand, are winners of two straight, are now in a playoff spot and are coming off one of their best efforts of the season in a 2-1 win vs. LAFC. Can big-money signing Lucas Cavallini continue to deliver the goods, as he has with three goals in the last two games?

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders

Sun., 10:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada

The Quakes are flying high, especially after their aforementioned drubbing of the Galaxy, but a significantly tougher challenge awaits on Sunday against the Sounders. Of their last four wins, three have been against teams below them in the standings (Galaxy x2, Vancouver), while one was a last-minute winner at LAFC.

Against the West leaders, Matias Almeyda’s men will have to elevate their game even further. The Sounders, meanwhile, have now had a full week to rest and recover after their loss to LAFC, and despite missing Raul Ruidiaz, Xavier Arreaga and Gustav Svensson to international duty, should still be expecting to beat the Quakes and maintain their place atop the conference standings.