Here are my key takeaways from the Week 24 action.
Another week, another New England win and another phenomenal Tajon Buchanan performance capped with a goal – his seventh of the MLS season. It was also his sixth goal in his last 10 games for club and country. Simply put, he’s at the peak of his powers right now and most definitely one of the in-form guys in all of Concacaf.
The goal he scored in Saturday's win over NYCFC was nothing short of exceptional and he made it look much simpler than it actually was. Lesser players would maybe sky or scuff that shot because if your technique is not on point, it doesn’t take much to get too much or too little on the layoff he received from Carles Gil. As it was, Buchanan got the perfect contact, right in the sweet spot and saw his shot fly beautifully into the net – further evidence of a player currently in what is universally known as the zone. Also, he’d only been on the pitch for four minutes when he did that.
The hardest thing to do in football, and I’d say all of sports, is to be consistent. There’s a reason we admire Messi and Ronaldo above all others. There have been great players, and great goal scorers before, but no one has scored 40 or 50 goals each season for a decade or so at the highest level. Their greatness is due to their consistency.
I’m in no way suggesting that Buchanan is headed down the Ronaldo and Messi path, but the point I’m making is that he seems to be figuring out the hardest thing to figure out in this sport – how to be consistent. It’s all good performing at a high level for one or two games, especially when you’re an unknown quantity, but can you do it at a high level week in and week out as teams start to game plan for you and offer you extra attention? That’s where some promising players hit their ceiling.
They never quite figure out how to do what they do well when everyone already knows it’s what they want to do. Top players know that you know what they want to do, and they do it anyway, The best example of this was Arjen Robben’s ability to cut in from the right wing so he could finish with a left-footed curler into the far corner. You knew it was coming, the whole stadium did, but you couldn’t stop it.
That’s what Buchanan is doing for club and country right now. He’s performing well even when teams are focusing more and more on him and learning his tendencies. It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s the exact reason he is headed to Europe (Belgium's Club Brugge) at the end of the season.
It’s getting to the point in the season where every single result matters. I realize that’s a weird thing to say because the reality is that three points in March or April are worth the same as three points in September, but at the same time, it’s hard not to feel that as the table begins to take its final form, the points you accumulate between now and the end of the season carry more weight.
As things stand, this is especially true of the Eastern Conference where the current playoff picture sees just five points separating fifth-placed Philadelphia and 10th-placed Columbus. This scenario should make for a truly fascinating remaining eight weeks or so.
By my count, there are about eight teams fighting for five spots, as I’m happy to assume that New England and Nashville will 100% be playing late into November. Everyone from Orlando, currently in third, to Columbus, currently in 10th, is fighting for the third through seventh seed.
While there are still so many twists and turns ahead of us, there are some teams who can continue to do what they’ve been doing to ensure a safe passage, while others need a major reset or they will be going into the offseason a lot earlier than expected.
There’s no denying that Columbus are in trouble. At the start of their bad run of form, I found myself completely unconcerned because I could see the quality in the team and just assumed that at some point they’d turn it around. This core group of players did just win MLS Cup last December after all.
But with each passing week, the level of concern among Crew fans continues to skyrocket as they’ve seen their team win just once in their last nine outings. As things stand, they are four points outside a playoff spot but have played a game or two more than the teams immediately around them. Am I prepared to officially count them out? No, not yet. I just can’t bring myself to do it because I still feel they are more than capable of going on a much-needed run.
Elsewhere, both Atlanta and Inter Miami picked up huge wins – Miami’s coming against the Crew – to get within one and two points of the much-coveted red line. Miami even have two games in hand over seventh-placed Montréal. Atlanta have won five of their last six and you’d have to think that if they can even remotely keep this kind of form up, they’ll be in seventh place at the very least.
Despite their huge defeat on Friday night, Orlando, along with NYCFC and Philadelphia are teams that I’d expect to be consistent enough to cement their spots in the postseason. There will be some true six-pointers all over the East as the season winds down, and when it’s all said and done, it’ll be the seven teams who best master the small details that determine winning or losing – winning your home games, being good on set pieces, staying injury free and being efficient in both boxes – that will get the invite to the big dance.
Mad scramble for the West's final spot
It's not only in the East where the battle for the final Audi MLS Cup Playoff places promises to go down to the wire. The top three in the West have a sizable advantage and would need a titanic collapse to miss the postseason. Outside of that, it’s still all to play for as everyone down to 11th-placed FC Dallas have a realistic chance of getting above the red line.
I may not have predicted the exact order of the standings, but almost every team is about where I’d have placed them at this stage of the season, except for LAFC. This is a very important upcoming stretch for them, as they have four of the next six away from home, while being three points adrift of seventh place. Anything less than nine or 10 points in this stretch of games and I simply don’t see them being able to recover from the deficit they’d be in to make the postseason.
It’s a bold thing to say, but I think the top six in the West will all be in the playoffs, which means only one spot remains for about four or five teams to fight for.
Something for Cincinnati and Houston to build on — at last
Both Cincinnati and Houston got much-needed wins for different reasons. For Cincinnati, they’ve had to wait almost four months to finally get a win at TQL Stadium. It was a long wait, but these kinds of wins are always worth it. Two goals, a clean sheet, three much-needed points, and most importantly, a happy group of fans who can finally celebrate winning in a venue they’ve been dying to win in.
For Houston, they ended their 16-game winless streak. It was a shocking run of form for a team that I personally felt could make some real noise this season, but they’ve done nothing close to that. While the playoffs are more of a pipe dream at this point, for a group of players essentially playing for their futures, the hope has to be for this win to spark a run of form in the opposite direction of where they’ve been headed.