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Playoff dreams, seeding and the Shield: What's at stake in MLS Week 34

The penultimate week of the 2018 MLS regular season is upon us, and subplots abound across the league as the playoff and Supporters’ Shield races rumble towards their conclusions.

Here’s a rundown of the key matches of the round, which opens with a busy Wednesday slate rife with postseason implications. Remember: In an effort to foster a level playing field, all Eastern Conference games on Sunday take place at 3 pm ET on Sunday, while all Western Conference matches on Sunday begin at 5 pm ET (see full TV and streaming info here).

Big trips for Seattle and Sporting

Seattle Sounders | USA Today Sports Images

Six teams have double-game weeks – D.C. United, Orlando, *Real Salt LakeSeattle, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto and Vancouver – and the Sounders, Sporting and TFC travel for both, involving significant distances and weighty games.

Entering Week 33 in fifth place in the West on 50 points, Seattle visit Orlando City Stadium in the first game of the week (Wednesday, 7:30 pm ET | TV and streaming info), then head to Houston for a Sunday clash with the Dynamo. Though home-field advantage is notoriously strong in MLS, both these games are against down-in-the-dumps opponents and the Rave Green will likely aim for a full six points.

If they do that, they could vault into the top half of the West’s playoff bracket, which would earn them hosting rights for a Knockout Round game. If they don’t, the road to a third straight MLS Cup berth starts looking a lot longer and steeper.

The stakes are similar for SKC, albeit higher up the pecking order. They face a desperate Whitecaps side who are in a must-win situation at BC Place on Wednesday night (10 pm ET | TSN2 – TV and streaming info), then visit FC Dallas for a massive top-of-the-West clash on Sunday. A good week could end with Sporting atop the table, and a bad one could leave them staring at an away game in the Knockout Round.

*Note: I foolishly overlooked RSL's DGW, which is particularly enormous for them given that they are the odd team out of Decision Day (thus their season ends this Sunday, not next) and they have a quick turnaround from Thursday's home game against New England to Sunday's visit to Portland. If they want to control their destiny, RSL must win both. More on that below...

Spoilers in red?

Toronto FC | USA Today Sports Images

Though TFC’s own postseason hopes are dead, they can inflict major influence on the East’s final standings this week. They visit white-hot D.C. United at Audi Field on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET | TSN2 – TV and streaming info), then lock horns with their Canadian Classique rivals the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo on Sunday.

As you may have heard, D.C. and Montreal are in a mad dash for the sixth and final playoff slot – United just nosed ahead of l’Impact with Saturday’s dramatic 1-0 win over Dallas – and a D.C. win over Montreal would deal another blow to IMFC’s hopes.

Can Toronto match the hunger of this week’s opponents? Will they take pride in throwing a wrench in someone else’s playoff plans? Or does coach Greg Vanney use the Reds’ run-in as a chance to evaluate fringe players and get a head start on planning for 2019?

One from three out West

Vancouver's Kendall Waston battle's LA's Zlatan Ibrahimovic | USA Today Sports Images

RSL currently own the West's sixth and final playoff spot with 46 points. The LA Galaxy are just one point back, and the Whitecaps are two back of them on 43 points, but with a game in hand. One of these teams will make the postseason, and the other two will taste disappointment. All three face treacherous road games on Sunday.

RSL must visit the Portland Timbers team that just spanked them 4-1 in Utah. The Galaxy travel to chilly Minnesota, where the Loons are expecting more than 50,000 fans as they seek to set a new state attendance record for pro soccer in their final game at TCF Bank Stadium. And Vancouver go to LAFC, who have lost just once in 16 games at Banc of California Stadium. 

The West's race for seis could get nutty.

Shield quest

RBNY's Aaron Long and ATLUTD's Miguel Almiron | USA Today Sports Images

Atlanta United are one point in front of the New York Red Bulls in the overall league standings, and will try to open up some distance when they host the Chicago Fire at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday. With playmaker Miguel Almiron week-to-week with hamstring troubles, can the Five Stripes they carry on without missing a beat?

RBNY’s weekend task looks a bit trickier. They journey down the New Jersey Turnpike to Talen Energy Stadium, where the in-form Philadelphia Union would love to improve their own position in the standings and lay down a marker for the postseason by ambushing the Red Bulls.

With Columbus and NYCFC fading in recent weeks, the Union can dream of climbing as high as third place by regular season’s end, and RBNY should beware. The Fire, on the other hand, would be springing a major shock by taking any kind of positive result out of Atlanta. But that’s why they play the games...