We’re officially in the stretch run of the 2016 MLS season.
Clubs have just about a month remaining to work themselves above the red line, with several teams in each conference looking to fend off multiple challengers to hold onto a precious playoff spot.
As I wrote on Tuesday, it looks like the final two spots in the East will come down to Montreal, New England, D.C. and Orlando, with Columbus holding an outside shot at a playoff berth. The West isn't quite as close, but it’s still shaping up to be a real fight. Portland (41 points) and Sporting KC (40 points) hold a solid lead on both Seattle (35 points) and San Jose (34 points), but the Sounders and Quakes both have a pair of games in hand on their red line rivals.
Things are tight at the top of the table, too, with Dallas holding an increasingly narrow lead in the Supporters’ Shield race and quite a few teams battling for the top-two spots – and first-round byes – in each conference.
Nearly every remaining match holds some sort of playoff implications, but a few stick out for how much they’ll shape the race. Here are five contests from Weeks 29 and 30 – we set a cutoff at the Oct. 2-12 international break – that will have a huge impact on the playoff push:
D.C. United vs. Orlando City SC – Saturday, 7 pm ET, MLS LIVE
Both teams will remain alive no matter what happens at RFK on Saturday, but this one could essentially amount to an elimination game in the East.
Orlando and D.C. are tied for seventh with identical 7-9-13 records, both two points behind New England for the conference’s sixth and final playoff spot. They’ll meet again in the season finale on Oct. 23 in Florida, but where they stand heading into that match could in large part be determined by Saturday’s encounter.
On paper, there’s no clear favorite heading into Saturday’s match. United have been only average at home this year, posting a 6-4-4 record through 14 regular season contests at RFK. Orlando have been about par for the course with a 2-6-6 road record, though they’re a solid 1-1-4 in their last six away contests. If the Lions can continue their solid road form and pick up a result on Saturday, they’ll get a big leg up on D.C. as both teams move into their final four matches.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Sporting KC – Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE
Sixth-place Sporting KC will continue their brutal late-season schedule on Saturday, when they’ll play the first of three consecutive road games at ninth-place San Jose.
SKC hold a six point lead on San Jose, but things aren’t exactly comfortable for Peter Vermes and Co. Both San Jose and Seattle hold two games in hand on SKC and Portland, and a win for the Quakes on Saturday would put Kansas City – who play at New England and RSL before closing out the year at home against San Jose – in some serious trouble.
Conversely, a draw or win for SKC would do some serious damage to San Jose’s hopes. A tie would leave the Quakes six points back of the red line, while a Kansas City win – it’s worth noting that SKC are 0-2-0 at San Jose since Avaya Stadium opened last year – would drop the Bay Area club nine points back. Even with a couple of games in hand, that would be a steep margin to overcome.
Columbus Crew SC vs. NE Revolution – Sunday, 7 pm ET, FS1 | MLS LIVE in Canada
There’s a lot more on the line in this one than bragging rights for Kei Kamara, who will be making his first trip back to Columbus since he was unceremoniously sent packing by Crew SC following a media tirade against Federico Higuain back in May.
Columbus have been a huge disappointment all year, but could re-inject themselves into the playoff picture with a home win. A victory would move Columbus within four points of New England, and keep them five back of a winner in the D.C.-Orlando contest. Crew SC have games in hand on their opposition, too, having played two fewer matches than New England and one fewer than D.C., Orlando and fifth-place Montreal.
Winners of three in a row, New England will be looking to firm up a playoff spot in Ohio. They would move 10 points ahead of Columbus with a win, a result that would probably eliminate Crew SC from contention. They’d maintain their two-point lead on a D.C.-Orlando winner, as well, and could move four points ahead of both of those clubs if they draw at RFK. The Revs could potentially pass Montreal this weekend, as well, as a win in Columbus coupled with an Impact loss at New York would move New England into fifth.
New England Revolution vs. Sporting KC – Saturday, Oct. 1, 7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE
If New England and SKC both drop their road matches this weekend, we could be looking at a near must-win situation in Foxborough on Oct. 1. Both teams could theoretically be under the red line at this point, and, with each having just two games remaining after this contest, would likely be facing very little margin for error.
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy – Saturday, Oct. 1, 9 pm ET, MLS LIVE
No, this one won’t have any implications for the red line, but it will be huge in the race for the Supporters’ Shield and the top-two seeds out West.
With both teams having played 30 games, FCD currently hold a four-point lead over LA for the top spot in the league. The two sides have yet to meet in MLS play this year, though Dallas did stun the Galaxy at StubHub Center in the US Open Cup semifinals en route to winning that tournament.
LA could move within a point of Dallas this weekend, as Dallas face a tough trip to Real Salt Lake on Saturday night (9 pm ET; MLS LIVE) before the StubHub Center-dominant Galaxy host Seattle at home on Sunday afternoon (4 pm ET; ESPN in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
If the Galaxy hold serve against the Sounders and FCD fall at RSL, LA would overtake Dallas in the Shield race with a win in Texas on Oct. 1. Even a draw would be a huge result for LA, who would then remain one point behind FCD ahead of the season finale between the clubs in Southern California on Oct. 23.