Top 5 regular season games left in the 2018 MLS season

Miguel Almiron, Sean Davis - Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls - Close up

We are down to the nitty-gritty of the season, making it easier to identify which remaining matches could hold the greatest table finish implications.

With the playoff race horses set to thunder down the back stretch, we've ranked our top choices so you can start obsessing over these weighty match-ups.

No. 5: Columbus Crew SC vs. Philadelphia Union, Sept. 29

The stakes: Could the Union actually rally from spring oblivion (next to bottom of the East in late April) to host a playoff game for the first time since 2011? The result of this tilt could supply the answer. Gregg Berhalter's Crew SC side are currently three points ahead in the race for fourth place – the minimum required to guarantee a home game in the postseason – with the clubs having played the same number of matches with the same number of wins. 

These teams operate in similar fashions, and there will be fine individual match-ups all over the field. The spotlight, though, will shine a their pair of shining midfield trios. Whichever side wins central park on the day could score an important extra home game to start the postseason. 

The set-up: Yes, Columbus are certainly tough to beat at home. They've won four straight at MAPFRE Stadium and their offense scores over three times more per game at home (1.93 goals per game vs. 0.62 on the road) — but anybody who thinks this game being played in Crew-ville capably predicts the outcome may wish to think again.

Not only are Philly 4-1-1 in their last six road games, but they've actually managed an even 2-2 split from their last four trips to Columbus. It's also worth noting that only one of the last eight meetings was decided by more than one goal. This has become a series of tight contests often decided late.

The real key to this showdown may lie in the teams' slates leading up to it. Both sides have tough league games in the run-up, but Philadelphia also have a U.S. Open Cup final in Houston to divide their attention/energy only three days prior.

No. 4: LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders, Sept. 23 

The stakes: For the Sounders, it may mark the continuation of another stunning season rally toward the top of the West. For the roller coaster hosts, it could be a result that tells their playoff race fortune.

The Galaxy went through Seattle on their postseason path to MLS Cup in 2011, 2012 and 2014. They're probably going to need to best the Sounders early this year just to reach the playoffs.  

The set-up: The home side boasts a spring-loaded (and expensive) attack led by the irrepressible Zlatan Ibrahimovic that hasn't quite been able to keep up with their generous defense. The visitors, on the other hand, own the stingiest defense in the West and a previously dormant offense that's suddenly come to life. 

The Sounders consistently suffered at the StubHub Center once upon a time, but they're 2-0-1 with an 7-2 goal differential in the last three meetings there. Then again, they haven't messed with the Zlatan yet.

No. 3: D.C. United vs. Toronto FC, Oct. 17

The stakes: The narratives are plain to see, with each club featuring its own compelling story surrounding a frantic rush to the East's last playoff slot. And yet, this is very much a pick with contingencies... it could mean everything to both clubs, or it could mean considerably less to both.

After a miserable spring and a slightly better summer, Toronto FC are hoping to have their title defense alive for this bout. Sparked by Wayne Rooney's arrival, D.C. United have rocketed from the basement to serious playoff contention in two months. Both need to pile up some points over the next month to make this game everything it can be.

The set-up: The Reds have turned the tide in this match-up with a 4-1-3 run that includes two wins and a draw in the capital. Much of the credit goes to Sebastian Giovinco, who has six goals and three assists in seven career games against D.C. United. 

Perhaps more importantly, it's a date between a champion trying to regain its identity and a traditional power that has quickly forged a new one in a shiny new home. Toronto FC finally have most of the regulars back from all manner of injuries, suspensions, international absences and UFO abductions, so chances seem better they can make sure this game is a do-or-die doozy.   

No. 2: FC Dallas vs. Sporting KC, Oct. 21...and Sporting KC vs. LAFC, Oct. 28

The stakes: You may consider this a cheat pick. I call it a double-feature to decide the wild West. Current leaders FC Dallas are merely warm at the moment, compared to the hotter form of Sporting KC (one point back) and LAFC (three points back). 

That means either, or more likely both, of Sporting KC's final two games of the regular season may well decide the conference winner and the important second automatic pass to Western Conferece semifinals.

The set-up: The teams all have played 27 games to date, and LAFC are one win behind the other two in the first tie-breaker. They also clearly have the easiest schedule of the trio leading up to this very decisive doubleheader.

Sporting KC are arguably the best road team in the West, but they haven't won in Big D for over seven years. However, expansion darlings LAFC actually have the most road points in the conference (with one more away game played). Put it all together, and we've got what promises to be a tense, anything-can-happen, chips-on-the-table last two weeks atop the West.

No. 1: New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United, Sept. 30

The stakes: It's very simple. Even with both coming off losses their last time out, Atlanta and the Red Bulls have been pulling away as the top two teams in MLS. 

As such, this one is shaping up to decide which big city club heads into the final month in charge of the Supporters' Shield race. Of course, the East rivals will also be tussling to gain home-field advantage straight through to MLS Cup. It doesn't get much bigger than that.

The set-up: Two productive attacks that love to force turnovers, break quickly and tee up their star striker. The two stingiest defenses in the East, each led by a top-shelf center back duo and goalkeeper. It's a dream match-up, and an interesting one at that. 

Atlanta have yet to beat the Red Bulls in three tries, but they'll be glad to know the home team has yet to take a series meeting. There should be award candidates in each lineup aiming to firm up their credentials.