We’re halfway through September, almost exactly 75 percent of the way through the regular season. Time is running out. Fates are crystalizing, and the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs are coming into greater focus every single week.

Win or watch from home come November. Let’s dig into Week 26.

Inter Miami CF vs. New York Red Bulls
Are Inter Miami for real?

WHEN: Friday, 7 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
ODDS: Miami +110, Draw +220, RBNY +240

I went on a two-week vacation and suddenly Inter Miami CF are all the way back from the dead. Or, at the very least, they’ve got a hand thrust through the playoff soil, just a result or two from pulling themselves all six feet out of the hole they buried themselves in earlier this year.

Remember when Phil Neville’s side took that embarrassing 5-0 home beatdown on July 21 against the Revs? Neville said afterward that the loss felt worse than unacceptable, that it was the “lowest in terms of my feelings after a defeat that I have had since I came to this football club – and we have had some disappointments.” The whole project, on the heels of an offseason of significant organizational change, seemed to be hanging in the balance yet again.

Here are Miami's results from the 11 games since that home loss to the still-rampant Revs…

  • D vs PHI
  • W vs MTL*
  • D at ORL*
  • W vs NASH*
  • L at NYC*
  • W vs CHI
  • W vs TOR
  • D at ORL *
  • W at CIN
  • W vs CLB
  • W at TOR

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That’s a 7-1-3 record and 24 points from 33 available, including a 2-1-2 mark against Eastern Conference playoff teams (the starred matches above). It felt even better Tuesday night when Miami ended the evening in 5th place, but 8th and within a point of the playoff line is an incredible accomplishment no matter how you spin it.

Right now, the spin is good, but Neville’s got a management challenge Friday against the Red Bulls. Maybe you missed it on Tuesday, but Miami fielded a six-man bench. Victor Ulloa, Ryan Shawcross, Kieran Gibbs, Joevin Jones and Ventura Alvarado are all out. Gonzalo Higuain ought to be back for Friday’s home match, but it doesn’t seem likely Gregore – the team’s most important player, not just my opinion – and Robbie Robinson will take part.

That would have sunk old Inter Miami. It was a challenge to overcome for this version, which used the Revs game as a springboard for real change, tactically and emotionally.

One notable change was Neville’s shift to a 5-3-2/3-5-2 against Orlando at the beginning of August. It took a few games for the shift to truly take hold, but the switch to three central defenders gave Miami more defensive clarity and stability. Lewis Morgan’s move to wingback clicked almost immediately. Rodolfo Pizarro, Robinson and Indiana Vassilev have been more dangerous as floaters in and around behind Higuain than they were as true wingers in a 4-3-3.

As Matt Doyle pointed out on Monday, Neville’s decision to make Gregore the captain also pushed the right buttons and seemed to harden the team’s resolve (four straight shutouts).

If Miami love winning so much, they better handle the nosediving Red Bulls (one win in 11) at home. Go back and look at that game-by-game rundown again. There are a lot of wins against bottom-table teams in there. That’s fine. The Red Bulls are a bottom-table team, too. Miami need points. They can’t be choosy about who they come against.

In many ways, Gerhard Struber has swapped places with post-Revs loss Neville. Let’s just say it’s getting a little existential in Harrison – a league-leading 21 points dropped from leading positions and just 23 in the bank overall – and that 11-year playoff streak is close to becoming a memory instead of reality.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
Six-pointer in Atlanta!

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WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Free on Twitter
ODDS: Atlanta -105, Draw +240, D.C. +270

If I could only watch one MLS game this weekend, I’d make it this one. Here are three reasons.

1. Atlanta United = Back?

The Revs are going to win the East, but everything else is wide open.

The only teams I would definitively put above this full-strength “BAMM” Atlanta United side right now are Nashville SC, recent 2-0 winners at the Benz, and the Revs. Other than that, just six points separate teams three through nine. Anybody can beat anybody. Any seeding order would make sense come Decision Day.

So are the Five Stripes “back” amid a six-wins-in-seven-games stretch to start the Gonzalo Pineda era? Sure, why not? The vibes are good. I absolutely want to believe, but I also want to see what happens when Hernan Losada and D.C. United turn up the intensity on Saturday. They didn’t lack for chances on Aug. 21 when Atlanta won at Audi Field.

2. Ezequiel Barco is playing like he wants to go to Europe

On Tuesday’s Twitter Spaces Power Rankings show – Matt Doyle and I dig into the top 10 every Tuesday at 11 am ET on my Twitter handle with guests from around the league – The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas told us that those Thiago Almada rumors aren’t going away. Winter is the window, and if that’s true, that means at least one Designated Player has to cease being a Designated Player to make room.

Seems to me like now-ish was the general timing Atlanta United were thinking when it came to a Barco sale. He just hasn’t quite hit the way his talent had us expecting. Well, the man is hitting now, and it sure helps having an in-form Marcelino Moreno, potential Newcomer of the Year Luiz Araujo and a recovering Josef Martinez around him. He’s absolutely worth watching.

3. Ola Kamara and RESPECT

Turns out a cross-section of D.C. United supporters were NOT happy that I proclaimed Ola Kamara’s MVP campaign over before it had even begun. I just don’t see a scenario that would allow that to happen. Maybe if Kamara breaks Carlos Vela’s goals scored record … and D.C. finish second in the East … but then wouldn’t Carles Gil still win as the best player on the best team?

Anyway, the point is that I have a ton of respect for Kamara’s return to the elite echelon of MLS finishers. Going back to his Crew days, he’s always been capable of Golden Boot form. Let’s just say some of the club situations he found himself in were … not ideally suited to his skillset. Not so with Losada’s D.C. United, which prizes direct play above all else and understand that finding Julian Gressel in wide positions with runners in the box is a proven recipe for success.

Above all, I want to see players and clubs thrive. Kamara is thriving and we can all appreciate that even if it’s not an MVP season.

Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City SC
From Supporters’ Shield to __?

WHEN: Sunday, 4 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
ODDS: Philadelphia -125, Draw +260, Orlando +300

You’ve got to be at least a little bit concerned if you’re Oscar Pareja. That loss to CF Montréal was so frustrating that Papi apologized for it! The Lions are 4-3-7 in their last 14 games. That’s not bad, per say, but it is a little lifeless, which outside dominant stretches by Nani and Daryl Dike has been the issue for Orlando since the MLS is Back Tournament.

Orlando City may have lost two straight games to Conference bubble teams (against Atlanta United and CF Montréal), but they’re still third in the conference. Everything is fine, right? Ehhhhh, not so much.

Third place, yes, but also just five points above the playoff line. They’re closer to Chicago Fire FC than they are the Revs. Oh, and these are their wins so far in 2021: CIN, @DC, TOR, @TOR, SJ, @MIA, PHI, ATL, CHI, CLB. Those dubs are not particularly impressive. Just two wins against playoff teams, and that was injury-ravaged D.C. United, not the current version.

What I’m saying is that Pareja can’t let his team get comfortable. They’re not a bubble team just yet, but they could be soon, perhaps even at the end of this weekend.

The Union are absolutely a bubble team right now. They may have last year's Supporters’ Shield, but that high is in the past and Jim Curtin’s boys are back to fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch. There was no shame in their Concacaf Champions League loss to Club America. If anything, a hard-luck 4-0 aggregate loss was encouraging given Philly’s league form.

“I think if we play like this in the league, there's no doubt that we should be in the playoffs and beating most teams,” captain Alejandro Bedoya said.

As Charlie Boehm pointed out on Wednesday night, that sounds good, but it doesn’t really jive with history. CCL hangovers are sorta the rule, and nobody takes shots to the dome all the way to the semis just to bounce out of bed the next morning noticeably better than before. Given the Union already seemed sluggish compared to their 2020 selves, they’ve got some work to do to avoid missing the playoffs following a joyous Shield year.

To avoid that unfortunate fate, they’ve also got to find a consistent source of goals. This is not what you want to see if you’re Curtin or Ernst Tanner…

2021 TOP UNION SCORERS

  1. Kacper Przybylko – 6
  2. Corey Burke – 4
  3. Sergio Santos – 4
  4. Jakob Glesnes – 3
  5. Jamiro Monteiro – 2
  6. Quinn Sullivan – 2
  7. Five players – 1

I am here to tell you that defense is not the problem. It’s hard to maintain the helter-skelter pace that was so effective in 2020, and the Union might not have enough “special” attacking players to make up for it. Time will tell, and we’ll know if that CCL hangover is real come Sunday.

Portland Timbers vs. LAFC
Guess who's back?

WHEN: Sunday, 7:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
ODDS: LAFC +135, Timbers +170, Draw +250

Sebastian Blanco's back. It’s not the only reason the Timbers dug deep and saved their season on the road with their best player back in the starting lineup, but it absolutely helped and it changes the trajectory of their season.

On the LAFC side, Cristian Arango seems like a hit, which matters given the potential upheaval coming in the offseason. The question for both these teams is not whether they can score enough goals to win. It’s whether they can keep enough out to have their attacking talent matter.

So whose chances of contending (or even making the playoffs) are more real? Charlie Davies and I dug in on Thursday’s Extratime. We said the Timbers.

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