Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Weekend Cheat Sheet: Ranking the playoff stakes in Week 34

Only one thing matters now: making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. With that in mind, this weekend’s preview is entirely focused on the task at hand. Nine of 14 postseason places are still unclaimed. Seeding is largely TBD (except New England). The winners will take the spoils!

Also: Do yourself a favor and check out the Week 34 playoff clinching/elimination scenarios. A lot can happen.

Let’s rank the matches from smallest playoff implications to the greatest. Here’s your Week 34 cheat sheet!

11. FC Dallas vs. Austin FC

WHEN: Saturday, 8 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: Dallas -120, Tie +275, Austin +280

No playoff implications in Texas! They’re playing for the Copa Tejas. If FC Dallas tie or win, they’ll be the inaugural champions in the MLS division. If Austin FC win, they’ll jump from third to first and pick up a nice consolation prize in Year 1.

  1. Houston Dynamo (2-2-2) – 8 points (first on H2H record vs. FC Dallas, 1-2-0)
  2. FC Dallas (2-1-2) – 8 points
  3. Austin FC (2-3-0) – 6 points

Why I’m watching: Ricardo Pepi. Remember, the first United States vs. Mexico World Cup qualifier is in two weeks. Pepi came off the bench in FCD’s past two matches. I want to see him get 90, and so would the scouts, I’m sure.

10. Houston Dynamo FC vs. Colorado Rapids

WHEN: Sunday, 3 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: Houston +150, Tie +250, Colorado +155

Nothing existential here. Houston are PFP (playing for pride). The Rapids are already in, basically guaranteed a top-three finish. The question is seeding.

No matter what happens this weekend, Colorado can’t move up or down in the standings. Robin Fraser’s boys will end Sunday at third place in the West no matter the results. With a win and some help, the Rapids leave open the possibility of catching the Sounders or perhaps even Sporting KC on Decision Day.

Why I’m watching: Jack Price’s right boot. Nobody has gotten less than the Rapids from their Designated Players this year. That’s sort of by design for Colorado – Younes Namli is their only DP, and he’s been injured most of the season (1 goal in 470 minutes) – and you could argue their real “DP” is set pieces, and thus Price’s delivery. He leads MLS with eight assists from dead-ball situations this season.

He’s much more than a set-piece specialist, though. He’s Colorado’s captain, emotional leader and a darkhorse Best XI shout.

“Everyone looks at the assists, which are fantastic, and his set-piece delivery is literally second to none in my opinion,” Fraser told The Denver Post at the end of September. “But things that you don’t talk about are the unselfish moments where he runs to cover or defend or runs through the land beyond the defenders because it’s just what has to be done.

“Or the times he will take the ball in very difficult places with lots of people around and because of his awareness he’s able to find the right path to not only get us out of that but to actually start the attack. There’s so much to his game that makes him an excellent player.”

9. Philadelphia Union vs. FC Cincinnati

WHEN: Sunday, 7:30 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: Philadelphia -300, Tie +400, Cincinati +750

  • OUT: FC Cincinnati (PFP, Wooden Spoon)

The Union are in the same basic boat as the Rapids – playing an eliminated team, won’t drop out of the top four this weekend barring their +11 goal differential gap on Orlando evaporating. But Philly’s position is far more precarious than Colorado’s. Jim Curtin’s team would be in fourth place and clinging to a home game by tiebreaker should they lose and both NYCFC and Orlando City win. In theory, the Union could still be caught by six teams below them in the standings! On the flip-side, they could clinch a top-four seed in the East and a playoff spot. Which version do we see?

Those scenarios get a lot less worrisome with three points against FC Cincinnati (PFP) at home. A win could jump the Union above Nashville SC. A win gets them closer to a home playoff game. Would you want to leave it until Decision Day and a trip to Yankee Stadium? Me neither.

Why I’m watching: It sort of feels like every Cincinnati game is a little bonkers right now. The goals are certainly flowing – certainly for opponents and sometimes for FCC, too. This one has real #MLSAfterDark potential!

8. Inter Miami CF vs. New York City FC

WHEN: Saturday, 1:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)

BetMGM ODDS: Miami +290, Tie +250, New York City -115

  • DOUBTFUL: Inter Miami (technically alive, but effectively eliminated)

NYCFC are in the same position as the Union, but with three fewer points and therefore less room for error. They are a bubble team, but the good news is that they control their own destiny.

If they win, they’ll end the weekend in either third or fourth and in position to lock up a home playoff game on Decision Day when hosting Philly. If they draw, they could fall as low as sixth. If they lose, the blue side of New York could drop all the way down to seventh with either the Red Bulls or Montréal (whoever wins Saturday) breathing down their neck with a game in hand.

Why I’m watching: Will the underlying numbers, which love NYCFC, be reflected in their performance and the scoreline? If that starts happening, this team can absolutely make a run to MLS Cup.

7. Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes

WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)

BetMGM ODDS: RSL -165, Tie +300, San Jose +425

  • OUT: San Jose Earthquakes (PFP)

Real Salt Lake really needed that comeback win on Wednesday night. They have the advantage of playing three more games while their competition has but two bites at the proverbial apple. That’s reflected in the probability of the club making the playoffs.

However, they are still in seventh and San Jose is their only remaining “easy” game. They could drop right back out of the playoff field should Minnesota United win. Then, after the Quakes come to Sandy, RSL host the Timbers (fighting for a home game, 6-1 winners in the two teams’ last meeting) then go to Kansas City (fighting for the No. 1 seed) on Decision Day. Those odds are going to drop quickly if they drop points at home.

Why I’m watching: Damir Kreilach. I’ve got him fifth in my MLS MVP ballot right now.

6. Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC

WHEN: Saturday, 6 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: Atlanta -225, Tie +350, Toronto +550

  • OUT: Toronto FC (PFP)

Atlanta are one of seven clubs bunched on the East’s bubble (from NYC in 4th to the Crew in 10th). Win at home and it’s all good. They could even push up into the top four and a home game. Draw and they’ll at least stay in the playoff field. Lose and they could drop below the line on a tiebreaker if other results don’t go their way.

Why I’m watching: Jozy Altidore in Atlanta. He’s back to scoring goals and breaking hearts, and we all remember that post-Couva welcome by the Five Stripes faithful. That, plus Atlanta’s bevy of must-watch attacking talent and see-saw playoff positioning, make this a real winner for neutrals.

5. Orlando City vs. Nashville SC

WHEN: Sunday, 4 pm ET
WATCH ON: UniMas, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)
BetMGM ODDS: Orlando +120, Tie +225, Nashville +220

You can make a credible argument that this game deserves to be fourth on this list. I’d argue that this game is important for seeding, but doesn’t have the same win-or-your-either-done-or-probably done vibes that will run through #DCvCLB.

Orlando certainly aren’t a lock for the playoffs after taking two of nine possible points from their last three games. Nashville are close to locking in a home match (top-four seed) but need three points to avoid tiebreaker situations given they don’t have an advantage on wins.

Why I’m watching: This could easily be a playoff preview. Both these teams have the talent to go to MLS Cup. Which group will deliver with the playoffs, and eventually, MLS Cup up for grabs? We’re in the midst of answering that question for both.

4. D.C. United vs. Columbus Crew

WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: D.C. -150, Tie +280, Columbus +375

Win or PFP for Columbus. The Crew’s only chance is to win out. Even if they manage six points the rest of the way, their probability of making the playoffs is slim. Barring a miracle, they aren’t going to be defending their MLS Cup championship. Lose on Saturday and the season will be over, officially.

D.C. United need, at minimum, one win in their final two games to have a realistic chance of staying above the line. Their home record is 11-4-1, second only to the Revs. Their road record is 2-10-4, the worse among teams with a realistic shot at making the postseason. They have just one home game remaining: this one. They could drop BELOW the line with a loss. They could realistically JUMP all the way to fifth with a win.

Why I’m watching: Do D.C. have any gas in the tank left at the end of Hernan Losada’s first year in charge? If so, do they have enough difference makers, as Losada wondered aloud after the win against the Red Bulls? This is the biggest game of the season and one that may set the tone for the preparations/transfers for 2022.

3. Seattle Sounders vs. LA Galaxy

WHEN: Monday, 10 pm ET
WATCH ON: TUDN, Twitter (English audio)
BetMGM ODDS: Seattle -115, Tie +260, LA +290

Monday night game, I like it as a viewer. As for the playoff stakes, I can’t decide if it’d be nice to know what you need to do ahead of time or better to just block out the noise in the moment and hope for the best when the final whistle blows in your ear and around the league.

Seattle are chasing the No. 1 seed … and form/momentum/health. They haven’t won in four matches, the first time that’s happened this year, and are now 15 points back of the Revs and, much more importantly, tied with Sporting KC on 58 points and 2nd in the West on goal differential. Sporting also have an extra game to play. They’re not on the mat by any means, but, excluding myriad injuries to their best players, this is the first real competitive gut-check moment of the year for Brian Schmetzer’s squad.

The good news is that Seattle’s playoff seed cannot drop this weekend. The Rapids’ 15 wins to the Sounders’ 17 mean the latter hold the first tiebreaker no matter what happens in Week 34. Depending on the result in Minnesota, however, they could reclaim the top spot in the West with either a win or draw. A win would also lock Seattle into, at minimum, the No. 2 seed regardless of Decision Day results. Again, the wins tiebreaker.

The Galaxy are a bubble team, but they have the advantage of knowing what their fellow bubble teams did over the weekend AND knowing they’ll face another bubble team (Minnesota United) on Decision Day. That means that, while this game is hugely important and could basically guarantee their spot in the postseason, LA know they’ll live to play another day no matter what and they’ll know even more about the potential scenarios come Monday night. The worst-case scenario is a must-win at home to make the playoffs, which isn’t bad, all things considered.

And yet, Seattle are winless in four, and a win on the road at Lumen Field could be a season-defining moment. The 4th seed is still up for grabs. Two wins might get the Galaxy a home game and one would really take some pressure off. They could even get that “x” next to their name on Monday night based on how Minnesota and LAFC fare and if LA pull off the upset.

Why I’m watching: Jordan Morris to feature for Seattle Sounders against LA Galaxy. That’s the headline that went up on Friday after Brian Schmetzer gave a revealing interview on Seattle radio.

“Jordan Morris is going to feature in that game against the Galaxy, I know that,” Schmetzer said. “The doctors have given him the medical clearance so he will feature against the Galaxy.”

I guess there wasn’t room in the word count for “If Nico Lodeiro’s knee feels good and doesn’t swell, he will likely start.” Or, “Raul Ruidiaz is close to return, but Sounders focused on getting him fully fit for the playoffs, where he is an absolute killer.”

That’s just the Seattle side. Chicharito. Julian Araujo and Efra Alvarez. Samuel Grandsir, who has been pretty darn good this year, and Kevin Cabral, who can be really dangerous, too. The dramatic conclusion to Greg Vanney’s first year. Da Boy. Sacha Kljestan off the bench.

All that, with massive playoff stakes and under the lights in Seattle on Monday night futbol.

2. New York Red Bulls vs. CF Montréal

WHEN: Saturday, 4 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: New York -140, Tie +260, Montréal +360

What luck! We couldn’t have asked for a more fitting matchup. Both New York and Montréal are below the playoff line, both have 43 points, both have played 31 games and both control their own destiny thanks to the additional game remaining on their schedule. It’s basically a sprint to Decision Day, three games to jump into the top seven, and both teams have the exact same starting point … and play each other. Whoever wins this one has a big head start.

Why I’m watching: Gerhard Struber vs. Wilfried Nancy. Two men at the beginning of their managerial journeys lead young, talented teams into a make-or-break game. This one is for the MLS nerds.

1. Minnesota United FC vs. Sporting Kansas City

WHEN: Sunday, 1 pm ET

BetMGM ODDS: Minnesota +100, Tie +260, Sporting +240

We’ve got both existential and big-time seeding/CCL stakes in this one! This is the game I would watch if I could only watch just one. Neither team can afford to throw away points, though Peter Vermes has three games in eight days (four in 11 including last Saturday's win at Seattle) and a banged-up attacking unit to manage around.

Straight up, this is a must-win for Adrian Heath’s team ahead of a trip to LA on Decision Day. If they can get three points against SKC, their final game against the Galaxy will be for a playoff spot. Should the Loons lose, they can be eliminated this weekend – a downfall of their own making.

Sporting Kansas City are playing for a Round One bye, home-field advantage and a Concacaf Champions League spot in 2022. The top team in the West gets both. There’s a lot at stake.

Why I’m watching: See above! The playoffs are essentially already here, just not in name!