In the middle of the night, 26 clubs (FC Cincinnati lost their business card) climb into nondescript vans around North America. They breathe deeply, inhaling the sweet-smelling gas pouring from the vents all around them before slumping into their seats for the ride ahead.
Each wakes dressed in an identical jumpsuit with a number written on the chest. The Revs are E1. Minnesota United are W7. Atlanta United are E8. The state of Texas sits in a corner staring at the W11, W12 and W13 sewn into their jumpers. They know numbers larger than seven are a bad omen for what’s to come. Someone looks up, then they all do. The Philip F. Anschutz Trophy hangs from the ceiling above their bare-bones accommodations.
Nervous energy fills the room. Some dread the inevitable. Others see the harsh overhead lighting reflect off the ultimate prize and imagine how it will feel in their hands when they’re the last ones standing. They are all here because their lives are incomplete (and potentially miserable) without it. They are willing to risk it all for the mere possibility that they’ll survive long enough to bring the Cup back to their families and supporters.
Welcome to the Squid Game, MLS edition. Six games (for most) left. Gotta stay above the line if you want to stay alive.
Let’s dig into Week 30 from a strictly playoff perspective. There are going to be a lot of narratives flying around until the final Decision Day whistle on Nov. 7. I’m getting them all down in one swing for me just as much as I am for you.
Will the Revs make history?
I’ve been keeping this breakdown updated and handy for the past month to keep track of New England’s chase for the all-time MLS points record.
- FORM: 4-1 W at MTL, 5-0-1 in past six games
- POINTS RECORD: 65 points (72 is LAFC record) with five games remaining … 80 points max, 8/15 to set new record
- PPG PACE: 2.24 ppg vs. 2.11 for 2019 LAFC
- ON TRACK FOR: 76 points (new record)
- FINAL FIVE: vs. CHI, at D.C., at ORL, vs. COL, vs. MIA
What does that tell you? It tells me that it would be an upset if the Revs DON’T make history. If they win home games against Chicago and Miami – two of the worst teams in the league – they only need a pair of draws or a single win from their three other matches.
Does Bruce Arena care? I think you know the answer to that question.
Who will join Nashville SC as Round One hosts?
Four playoff spots, six teams
You do the math.
Orlando City, D.C. United, New York City FC, CF Montréal, Atlanta United and the Red Bulls are separated by five points. Each have played 28 games. Two teams are going to biff it, one or two will handle their business and avoid stress on the final day of the season and the rest are going to squeak in by the skin on their teeth.
It’s going to be fun to watch, in particular this Sunday’s Hudson River Derby (1 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). Remember when we basically assumed NYCFC were going to host a home game in the playoffs? It wasn’t a question of whether Ronny Deila’s team was good but rather how great could they be given the talent at hand. Well, that narrative broke down.
If the Red Bulls, winners of four of six, take the rivalry spoils and get some help on Saturday, they could jump over the playoff line and tie NYCFC on 40 points (they’d still trail on goal differential barring an epic blowout). Scoreboard watching. Frequent shuffling in the standings. Must-win games. That’s how it’s going to be for these six teams from here on out.
Can the Sounders peak at playoff time?
I wrote “Can the Sounders catch the Revs?” but I deleted it. Why? Because I don’t think that ought to be the goal for Brian Schmetzer, though, should it happen naturally, wonderful!
Would a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup hosting honors, if they advance that far, be nice? Sure, but that’s a low percentage play. As I showed you above, the Revs would have to trip up big time to miss out on history, let alone the Shield. Seattle just need to hold onto first in the West for a playoff bye and hosting reasons – a job that got a little easier with Sporting KC striker Alan Pulido out for three to five weeks – and they can absolutely do that while ensuring they’re peaking come playoff time.
Re: peaking, I mostly mean making sure Raul Ruidiaz, who is in Peru rehabbing a re-aggravated leg injury, is ready to be Playoff Raul Ruidiaz, killer of your club’s hopes and dreams, come November. Also, it’d be nice to use the next month to safely/slowly find out to what degree, if any, Jordan Morris can be a factor in the playoffs. Morris traveled to Houston to be with the team for Saturday’s match against the Dynamo (8:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE on ESPN+). Even if he’s a 15-minute-max player off the bench, that could be the difference between a championship and early exit.
Sporting KC, Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers, but in what order?
Unlike the East, the West’s Round One hosts look close to locked in. Position matters! The lower the seed, the longer you can avoid going to Seattle. If the Sounders lose early – not likely but possible! – hosting honors go the next best record.
Watch out for the Timbers, winners of seven of eight games. They trail Sporting by six points, but Kansas City go to Vancouver on Sunday then to Seattle the following weekend. They could easily lose both games, especially with Pulido sidelined. The Rapids are away to Real Salt Lake then host Seattle on Wednesday before hosting, you guessed it, the Timbers. That five- and six-point gap might look big now, but that can change quickly if Gio Savarese’s squad keeps the winning streak rolling in LA and then against Vancouver at home.
The good, the bad and the ugly
The Eastern Conference’s pack seems to be generally competent. The Western Conference’s cluster is trending toward chaos.
Here’s how it stands right now…
- Nobody believed in Real Salt Lake, and then they overachieved against expectations only for their manager to pack up early. They’ve been riding the win-loss yoyo since the beginning of August. There’s not much middle ground between the good and the bad/ugly for Pablo Mastroeni’s team.
- Nobody’s current form is poorer than the Galaxy’s, who’ve lost five times in nine games and don’t have a win since Aug. 14. Is this a death spiral or a two-month aberration? Likely, somewhere in between. Four of LA's final six opponents are currently playoff teams, starting Saturday against the Timbers, and that includes trips to Kansas City and Seattle. Yikes!
- Here are Minnesota’s wins since the start of August: HOU, at HOU, LA, HOU. That tells you quite a bit about their level of late! No wonder the Loons are clinging to a playoff place.
- The Whitecaps are good and fun (recently, at least!). They have two losses in their last 16 games, and I hope they make the playoffs. Long live Ryan Gauld!
That leaves us with LAFC and San Jose, who are basically playing a playoff Knockout Round game on Saturday afternoon (3:30 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, Twitter). Win and the playoffs are plausible for each team. Lose (and see RSL, the Galaxy, Minnesota and Vancouver win) and hope starts to fade. Not because the math says it is impossible, but form does.
How about some good-ish news for LAFC fans?
I said good-ish! The good is that Carlos Vela may yet play against for LAFC this year. The bad news is that might not be enough to get Bob Bradley’s team back into the playoffs, and it might signal the end of the Vela era in Black & Gold.