The race for the red line is well and truly on.

We’ve got barely a month remaining in the 2016 MLS regular season, and while some clubs are on the brink of locking in their playoff place, there are still a couple spots up for grabs in both conferences.

In the East, the final two spots will likely come down to Montreal, New England, D.C. and Orlando. We’ve got a similar equation out West, where Portland, Kansas City, Seattle and San Jose are duking it out for a pair of places in the postseason.

Things are particularly tight in the East. Orlando and D.C. have identical 7-9-13 records and sit just two points behind surging New England for the sixth and final playoff spot. The Revs are charging hard, but the Impact are falling back to the pack – they’re winless in their last three and sit just four points ahead of D.C. and Orlando.

The West isn’t quite as close, but we’re still looking at a dogfight for the final berths. Portland (41 points) and SKC (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. Add in the fact that San Jose and SKC will face off twice in the final month, and it’s clear anything could happen.

With the contenders bunched so tightly, the battle for the last couple of playoff spots in both conferences could come down to a fantastic individual performance or two.

Who are the top contenders to turn in one of those season-defining performances? Here are five players who could have the biggest impact on the race for the final few playoff spots:

Luciano Acosta

D.C. United | 7-9-13, 34 points | T-7th in East
vs. ORL, vs. CLB, @TOR, vs. NYC, @ORL

After a relatively slow start to his MLS career, Acosta has come on hard in recent weeks, recording one goal and five assists in his last three games for United. Acosta, along with forward Patrick Mullins, will have to be huge down the stretch if D.C. – who face off against playoff rivals Orlando twice in their final five games – are to return to the playoffs for the third-year in a row.

Jordan Morris

Seattle Sounders | 10-13-5, 35 points | 7th in West
@LA, vs. CHI, @VAN, vs. HOU, @DAL, vs. RSL

Nicolas Lodeiro is the star in Seattle, but it might be Morris that makes the difference for the Sounders down the stretch. The rookie forward scored a huge goal to give Seattle a crucial 1-0 win against Vancouver on Saturday, his 10th strike of the season and fifth game-winner.

While that total is impressive, Morris has at times been wasteful in front of net this season. If he can clean up his finishing in Seattle’s final six games (which, it should be noted, look pretty tough), the Sounders just might have a shot at extending that seven-year playoff streak.

Kelyn Rowe

New England Revolution | 9-12-9, 36 points | 6th in East
@CLB, vs. SKC, @CHI, vs. MTL

One of the more talented (if underappreciated) attackers in MLS, Rowe has been on fire in September, recording two goals and three assists in his last three games to lead New England to a three-game win streak.

If the reigning MLS Player of the Week can continue his current run of form, the Revs – who only have four games remaining – should be able to make their way into the playoffs. If he falls back a peg and nobody picks up the slack, New England could be in a serious fight with Orlando and D.C. for that final spot in the East.

Matt Besler

Sporting Kansas City | 11-12-7, 40 points | 6th in West
@SJ, @NE, @RSL, vs. SJ

Kansas City have been in a pretty serious rough patch since the start of August, posting a 1-2-3 record in six regular season games over the last six weeks. The backline has struggled in their current downturn – they posted a shutout in the lone win in their last six, but conceded 12 times in the other five games.

Besler, who missed most of the summer due to a combination of injury, international duty and coach’s preference, has returned to the SKC lineup in recent weeks, starting the club’s last four games. His performance will be key as Kansas City look to clean up their defending during their brutal four-game stretch to finish the regular season.


Orlando City | 7-9-13, 34 points | T-7th in East
@D.C., @TOR, vs. MTL, @PHI, vs. D.C.

If Orlando are going to make the playoffs shipping goals in bunches, Kaka will actually have to go out and be Kaka. The Brazilian legend has been excellent at times this year, with his back-to-back two-goal performances in wins against NYCFC and Montreal in recent weeks sticking out as particularly strong.

He doesn’t need to score two goals a game for Orlando to make their first postseason, but if he can set up Cyle Larin, Kevin Molino and Matias Perez Garcia while being goal-dangerous, the Lions should have a good shot.