Here are my top takeaways from Saturday's 10 games.
Although no team in the playoff running had their fate sealed after the latest round of action, there were definitely some clear winners and losers in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
They may still be on the outside looking in, but the Crew are slowly inching toward that red line and took another huge step with a crucial win against an in-form CF Montréal team, and the Philadelphia Union also knocked off an in-form team as they dispatched Atlanta United.
Along with Montréal and Atlanta, Orlando and NYCFC had a weekend to forget as they dropped games to New England and RBNY, respectively. It was a crazy day in the East, to say the least, but the only question that matters is this: Where does it all leave us?
The team I’m most concerned about is Orlando City. Fans of the Lions will no doubt be having sleepless nights after they’ve watched their team lose four straight and become the only team currently in a playoff spot in the East with a negative goal differential.
Twelve goals conceded during this losing streak points to a team that's lost their way defensively – it took eight games to give up the previous 12 goals. Not long ago, they were viewed as a potential top-two seed, if not an outright Supporters' Shield contender, but now they’re actually closer in points to bottom-placed Toronto than they are to the ever-impressive New England Revolution.
Their midweek trip to Nashville is as must-win as they come – for the points, for confidence, for their fans, they simply must win. A defeat to Nashville, coupled with midweek wins by Atlanta, Montréal and D.C. would actually see Pareja’s men slip out of the playoff spots as we enter the home stretch.
Although NYCFC have one win in six – with three defeats – I’m not as concerned about them since two of the defeats were against the top two teams, and the other was against their heated rival. I believe they’ll ultimately recapture something like their best form and gather enough points to secure their postseason destiny. I can see them being anywhere from a top-three seed to a sixth or seventh-placed team, but they will be in the playoffs.
As for the teams on the outside looking in, I think at least one of Columbus or Atlanta get in, if not both.
I’ve been slow to push the panic button on LAFC, purely out of my belief in their true ability. What they did to this league in the not-too-distant past will never be forgotten by me – the football, the passing and movement, the counter-pressing, the complete dominance from minute one to 90 was truly special.
I got the sense that someway, somehow they’d be able to put a run together and get back to being a feared entity in the West. That hasn’t happened, and the reasons why are many – injuries to key players being chief among them – but in any case, time is running out and they're in serious danger of dropping out of the playoff picture altogether. They leak goals too easily and still have to face Portland, LA Galaxy, the Sounders, Minnesota and Colorado before the season is over.
They just can’t seem to find any type of consistency to put together a sustained unbeaten run. They have three good games, and then three bad ones, a monster win followed by a monster defeat. Their form has been stop-start all year long and I’m afraid it may catch up with them and prevent their season from going beyond the first week of November. They were once able to score at a rate that would make any defensive frailties a moot point, but that ability is currently nonexistent, which is why their destiny is hanging in the balance.
With that said, it could still go either way and if Carlos Vela returns and is fit and ready to go, that alone could potentially be enough to right the ship and make them the team they know they can be. But anything short of an inspired, MVP-level Vela being available to close out the season and it’ll be an early playoff exit or no playoffs at all for this team.
Playoff race tightens in the West
It’s not only the East that has a heated playoff race – the West was full of movers and shakers after this round of action as well. The real Portland Timbers have finally arrived and they look deadly. Organized, disciplined and ruthless with their killer instinct.
Sebastian Blanco’s return has helped but it really has been a team effort – six goals by six different players against RSL will attest to that. Five wins out of six, winning at home and away, and winning in style. They’ve leapfrogged the Galaxy into fourth place – the Galaxy can change that with a win at Austin on Sunday (9:30 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes) – and I can see them giving Colorado a run for their money for that third seed. There’s no reason for them to not aim for that, at the very least.
Vancouver and San Jose were the other big winners as both kept their postseason chances alive with good home wins against Dallas and LAFC, respectively. Both are three points outside the red line, but RSL’s inconsistent form should give both every reason to believe they can still surpass them.
I believe the Sounders, Sporting, Portland and Colorado will all be in the playoffs, which leaves Minnesota, the Galaxy, LAFC, RSL, Vancouver and San Jose fighting for the final three spots.
Zardes shows his worth once more
It hasn’t been a great season for Gyasi Zardes. Injuries and loss of form have hampered him but after his two-goal, match-winning performance against Montréal, he looks poised to play a big role in the Crew’s fight to make the playoffs.
Although he has double-digit goals for the US men's national team and has scored regularly for Columbus for several seasons now, there’s still a large portion of fans who remain unconvinced of his ability. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I get it, but there are few better options in MLS when it comes to consistently putting the ball in the back of the net – the numbers don’t lie.
Don't be surprised if Zardes plays a big role for the USMNT in their upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Maybe missing the last international window through injury will prove to be a blessing in disguise as he looks fitter, hungrier and more motivated than earlier in the season. And if this latest performance is a sign of things to come, then his team has every chance of not only getting to the playoffs but of making some real noise once there.