A pair of midweek matches tonight — amidst the backdrop of worldwide soccer excitement over the pending 2018 World Cup final — could be instrumental to how the Eastern Conference standings shake out, with four playoff-positioned squads looking to move closer to solidifying their spots as the season heads down the home stretch.
New York City FC vs. Montreal Impact
The Montreal Impact are riding the crest of a four-match win streak into Yankee Stadium, where hosts NYCFC could move within three points of conference-leading Atlanta United with a win. Meanwhile, the Impact find themselves in sixth place in the East with their two closest conference challengers playing each other in the other match on Wednesday night.
New NYCFC coach Dome Torrent, fresh off a win over his team's crosstown rivals, noted on Tuesday, "I'm very happy to have been able to beat the Red Bulls, but the Derby is over. The most important thing is to try to win the next game."
He notes the Impact's defending will present particular challenges for his squad's attackers. "They bring many people near to the 18-yard box," he said of the Impact's tactics, saying the wingers drop back to create what is effectively, at times, a six-man backline. "It's not easy to attack this kind of defense.
Torrent's counterpart, Remi Garde, acknowledges the challenge NYCFC presents.
"It will be a very complicated game," Garde said on Monday. "They've won almost all the games they've played."
Though NYCFC aren't on a current win streak, they have gathered results in four of their last five matches.
Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union
The Fire host the Union tonight in a match featuring the current seventh and eighth place teams in the East — though both have shown signs at points throughout the season of being able to finish in the top six.
Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic praised Philadelphia on Tuesday, ahead of the match.
"We have an opponent that is a direct opponent at this point of the season. I think it's going to be the same through the rest of the season for a playoff spot. It'll be a challenging game against a team that is playing good. Even though they lost their last game against Atlanta, I thought they had a very good game. We know it's not going to be easy at all, but we always have to be at our best. We always have to try to challenge and expose our opponents."
Paunovic indicated that defense will be a particular focus — albeit against a team struggling to score goals, as the Union have netted just 21 so far this season. Only the Seattle Sounders have scored less at this stage of the 2018 campaign.
Union coach Jim Curtin, seeing positives from their most recent matches against top teams, knows both teams are cognizant of playoff position.
"The importance of this game is clear ... against the teams around us [in the standings], we have to get maximum points."