Commentary: Race for East's top seeds is dogged, so who's in pole position?

Here we are, closing in on the end of the regular season, and there are three teams – New York City FC, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC – on 48 points at the top of the Eastern Conference, separated only by goal differential.

All three have already clinched spots in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, but there's still a lot of jockeying to do for the home-field advantage and first-round byes that go to the top two finishers. And just to ramp up the stakes, two of the hopefuls claim New York as their own. 

Granted, one of the three has a game in hand, so the playing field isn't entirely level for handicapping purposes. Still, here's how I think the East will finish this season, third to first – and why things will shake out that way.

3. New York City FC

Record: 13-9-9, 48 points
Current Position: 3
Remaining schedule: Friday at Houston Dynamo; Oct. 16 at D.C. United; Oct. 23 vs. Columbus Crew SC
 
NYCFC could win out, finish even with the other two clubs on points and and still end up third in the East, unless the league's worst defense (no, really – 55 goals in 31 games can fairly be called woeful) suddenly finds its form down the stretch and the attack keeps pouring in goals. Midfielder Frank Lampard – out with another calf injury after scoring 12 goals following his recovery from the last calf injury – has another couple of weeks or so to sit out.
 
On the plus side, they still have striker David Villa in the mix – and if anyone can light up the scoreboard, it's him. The 35-year-old Spaniard is only one goal off the Golden Boot pace, with 19 after last weekend's brace.
 
How they could finish first: Sweep their last three matches, ideally by big margins, and hope for favorable results elsewhere. 
 
Why they won't: That defense is going to be facing some significant firepower down the stretch. Houston's Mauro Manotas has to be riding a huge wave of confidence after last weekend's hatty, and Columbus' Ola Kamara has been tearing up the scoring column of late as well. Don't get Matt Doyle started on Patrick Mullins, either.

2. New York Red Bulls

Record: 13-9-9, 48 points
Current position: 1
Remaining schedule: Saturday vs Philadelphia Union; Oct. 16 vs. Columbus Crew SC; Oct. 23 at Philadelphia Union
 
Yes, the Red Bulls lead the standings – for now, anyway, as TFC have a match in hand. Yes, they have Golden Boot leader Bradley Wright-Phillips (20 goals) and top assist man Sacha Kljestan (16). And yes, they have two of their last three at home. 
 
But take a look at the remaining schedule. It's the toughest of any facing a top three team in the East, considering that two of those matches are against a Philadelphia side who currently sit fourth, just six points back. The Union would love to make some late noise, and the schedule gives them that chance. In between, they host Columbus Crew SC, who have found themselves in prime spoiler form of late (just ask Orlando City or the New England Revolution) and still harbor hopes of a late climb above the red line.
 
How they could finish first: Get through the meat grinder with at least seven points (being especially mindful of the Crew SC trap game between the two matches against the Union) and cheer like crazy for Toronto's opponents.
 
Why they won't: They have two schedules working against them: their own and the Reds' – which brings us to:

1. Toronto FC

Record: 13-8-9, 48 points
Current position: 2
Remaining schedule: Wednesday vs. Orlando City SC; Saturday vs. D.C. United; Oct. 16 at Montreal Impact; Oct. 23 vs. Chicago Fire
 
It's not just that the Reds have a match in hand, but that's part of it. It's not just that they have a favorable schedule down the stretch, but that's part of it. It's that they are where they are now without Sebastian Giovinco, and they're about to get him back.
 
The Atomic Ant (who has 16 goals and 13 assists this season, even with a month off) has been out since late August with a collection of muscle strains. The timer is about to ding for his return – and even if he doesn't get back for either of this week's matches, with a Saturday return the more likely scenario, he should be good to go for the last two fixtures. Throw in Jozy Altidore's second-half surge after early hamstring problems and a defense that has conceded only 33 goals this season, and the Reds have the clearest path to a first-place finish.
 
How they could blow it: Complacency kills in a salary-cap league. The Reds can't take anyone lightly – starting with Orlando City, Wednesday night's opponent. The Lions' defense has been rancid of late, with 12 goals conceded in their last three matches, but TFC can't assume that will happen this time out. (OK, it very well might, but you never know.)
 
Why they won't: You heard it here first. This TFC team is too solid, back to front. The talent is there, the defensive resolve is there. Get the passports out, folks; for the Eastern Conference, the road to MLS Cup is going to run right through BMO Field.
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