Armchair Analyst: What's at stake for all 22 MLS teams in action in Week 34

The regular season's penultimate weekend. At this point you probably know – broadly speaking – every team's tactics. So let's take a look at what's at stake in all 11 games this weekend.

Bear in mind that the Revs, who were throttled 4-1 at RSL on Thursday night, are the only team who won't take the field.

Here we go:

The Early Games

Atlanta United vs. Chicago Fire
3 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The Supporters' Shield, maybe? Home field throughout the playoffs? Maybe a good chunk of Tata Martino's legacy – and Josef Martinez's – before he maybe heads south to take over El Tri?

What Tata's built has been magnificent, and this team will be remembered for a good, long time, no matter what happens. But in order for the Atlanta United Way™ to become the league blueprint, it needs to be sealed with more than just big transfer fees and individual accolades. Martino's team needs to win a trophy, and it's hard to imagine they'd win one if they figure out a way to drop home points to this Chicago team at this stage in the season.

Josef, meanwhile, needs to make one last push to cement his MVP credentials. It was unquestionable at this time last month, but he's gone dry while Zlatan has led the Galaxy on something of a playoff push. This game, with Miguel Almiron out and silverware in the balance, is the perfect venue to remind people of whose team it is.

The elephant in the room is Ezequiel Barco. With Almiron out, it seems like this is the kid's chance to take the reins:

He has the on-the-ball skill to play that role. So far he has not displayed anything close to the kind of vision necessary.

At stake for Chicago is absolutely nothing but pride. I was surprised that Veljko Paunovic was so sanguine about his future in Bridgeview, but there it is.

D.C. United vs. NYCFC
3 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The old axiom is "games in hand don't mean anything unless you use them" and I'll go ahead and say it: No team in MLS history has used its games in hand as well as D.C. United. A win here and they are officially into the playoffs, and will have gotten there by going 11-2-3 since the midway point of the season. Here's what that climb looks like:

They could be in fifth by the end of the weekend (unlikely since Columbus play Orlando City, but still), and possessed of an outside chance at winding up in fourth place (and thus staying at the friendly confines of Audi Field for the Knockout Round) by the end of Decision Day presented by AT&T.

Which tells you what's on the line for a reeling NYCFC team. D.C.'s great run of form started on July 28, while on July 29 NYCFC forgot how to soccer and haven't rediscovered it since. They're 2-5-4 in their last 11 games and are in danger of playing themselves into a road trip for the Knockout Round – deadly for a side that's been not great away from Yankee Stadium.

A single point for the visitors here would be ginormous as it would virtually guarantee home field in the Knockout Round.

Montreal Impact vs. Toronto FC
3 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

It's win or die for the Impact, who've gone 10-5-4 since the start of June and have really, really had their moments. But they've had some notable lapses as well, including a pretty comprehensive 3-1 loss to this same TFC team at the end of August.

For the Reds there's nothing but pride and hatred of a rival on the line. There's obviously no salvaging this season for TFC – that ship sailed sometime in late July, and has been making for the horizon ever since – but at the very least they could do the honors of knocking out their most loathed enemy. I personally find the ability to deliver a helping of schadenfreude to be good fuel.

Orlando City vs. Columbus Crew SC
3 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Crew SC fans were big winners last week, and are on the verge of doubling it up here as a win against the worst team in the league (sorry Quakes, I know what the standings say but c'mon) gets them through to the playoffs and keeps alive the fight for home field in the Knockout Round. As it stands they're fifth behind the Union, but Philly have much tougher games down the stretch – home vs. RBNY, at NYCFC – than Columbus do (at Orlando, home vs. MNUFC).

Friendly reminder that the last time these two teams met, the Purple Lions took Columbus deep into stoppage time before Wil Trapp found the game-winner from 35 yards:

Columbus don't need more of that, though. They're still in desperate need of goals from their wingers, and until they get that they should be considered prohibitive underdogs once they get into the playoffs (which they will).

Orlando are 1-19-3 since their six-game unbeaten run ended back in May, taking six of the last 69 points on offer. On Wednesday they lost 2-1 at home to a shorthanded Seattle team, in the process setting a new record for defensive futility (their 72 goals conceded is the most in MLS history). They've not had a nice season.

My colleague Bobby Warshaw detailed their midweek struggles HERE

Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
3 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

All that stuff at the top about the Shield being on the line for Atlanta should they drop points to Chicago? That's predicated upon the idea that the Red Bulls will get full points here, which is not a particularly great bet. Philly are unbeaten in four, and are 9-3-2 in MLS play since the middle of July. In the Eastern Conference just D.C. and RBNY have had better records (and only slightly better).

And these teams have already met twice this year. Philly got a scoreless draw in Harrison back in May, and then been RBNY 2-1 in Open Cup play in Chester a month later.

This all by way of saying that the Union have been really, really good for about the last six months, and if they win this they come pretty close to solidifying home field in the Knockout Round.

RBNY, meanwhile, need three points or their Shield hopes are pretty close to done. Both teams should throw caution to the wind here because a draw helps neither.

The Late Games

FC Dallas vs. Sporting KC
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Dallas remain atop the West despite their indifferent second half of the season form, as they've gone just 6-5-4 since the midpoint of 2018. Obviously that's not so great, and obviously the problem is their attack. While they've had some good moments, those have come in fits and starts and have proved to be unreliable/unrepeatable.

To that point: In their past five games they've been shut out three times and have scored just two goals from the run of play, both of those against what is literally the worst defense in MLS history. On top of that, they've only beaten one playoff team in the second half of the year.

Of course that playoff team was Sporting KC, at Sporting, back on July 28 in a fun and high-scoring 3-2 affair. We were all so young then.

If FCD lose here then SKC jump them and move into the top spot in the West, and LAFC most likely skip past them as well. It's not nothing – I'm sure they'd prefer to have the whole week after Decision Day to rest up, rather than having to play in the Knockout Round – but it's also not the biggest deal in the world, either.

SKC were sluggish and bad for their first 60 minutes on Wednesday in Vancouver, then fun and rampant for the final 30 of a 4-1 win:

Busio's fun, but with Felipe Gutierrez back it's unlikely he plays much this weekend.

Anyway, Wednesday's big win means it's super unlikely SKC will fall out of the top four and into yet another road Knockout Round game, but that chance does still exist. A single point here guarantees (not mathematically, but there's no way the Timbers are making up 17 goals worth of tiebreaker in the final two weeks) fourth place at the very worst, and a home playoff game in Kansas for the first time since everybody froze to death at MLS Cup 2013.

Houston Dynamo vs. Seattle Sounders
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Let's give it up for the Sounders, who dug an even deeper hole in the first half of 2018 than they had in 2017 or 2016, and responded by putting together literally the longest real(*) winning streak in league history, and the best half-season PPG in league history. They are playing good, pretty and winning soccer no matter what Bobby says.

And on Wednesday in Orlando, without Nicolas Lodeiro or Gustav Svensson or Raul Ruidiaz, they calmly and comprehensively clinched a playoff berth for the 10th straight season. 

Here's the kicker: Their work's not done yet. Given how their respective schedules map out, it seems pretty likely that we're destined for a Seattle v. Portland game in the Knockout Round. And while the Sounders are currently in fourth, it's only by two points and the Timbers have a manageable final two games. Seattle need to keep their run going unless they want to open the playoffs on short rest at their biggest rival's home.

Since they raised the US Open Cup trophy last month the Dynamo have been playing like a team making offseason plans, including a 4-1 loss to this same Seattle team. 

LAFC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Vancouver's season ended over the past 48 hours. Not mathematically as they can still get to 49 points and 14 wins, but they're not making up a -14 goal differential. It's done.

So what do they throw out there against an LAFC team that's made a habit of carving up bad defenses, and are 6-1-2 in their last nine?

Honestly, it shouldn't matter. If LAFC are as good as I think they are, and as good as they're supposed to be, they'll go out there and win this one comfortably no matter how the 'Caps line up.

This tweet is correct, by the way:

This is what needs to continue for the Wingdings. And I need to see them be a little smoother playing from the back than they were last week.

Minnesota United vs. LA Galaxy
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Minnesota United finished last year on 36 points, with 70 goals conceded and a -23 goal differential.

In 2018 they signed one home run of a DP in Darwin Quintero, and with two weeks left are on... 36 points, with 65 goals conceded and a -19 goal differential. Injuries have made for some extenuating circumstances, but 1) there has been minimal improvement, and 2) I don't entirely believe this:

If Minnesota finish their season with a home loss to the lowly Rapids, and then a home loss to the Galaxy, and then go on the road and lose at Columbus (which I'm pretty sure they will), and show basically zero year-over-year improvement, it's fair to assume their brain trust has been graded on a curve.

It's simple for the Galaxy: They win or their season ends.

It's safe to assume there will be major changes coming to Carson this offseason regardless of whether LA make the playoffs or not, but guys are very much playing and coaching for jobs here. Also bear in mind that the MVP race could actually get pretty real, and if Zlatan – who is, by the way, in the process of setting a league record for goals + assists per 90 – really is the god he says he is, this would be a good weekend to show it.

Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

If RSL hadn't come out on Thursday night and absolutely drilled the Revs, this would be hands-down the biggest game of the weekend. Worth noting, for those of you with ESPN+ and a hankering for USMNT candidates: In a must-win game, in the playoff race, rookie Homegrown Corey Baird put in the best attacking performance any American's had this year in MLS. He utterly dominated the first half, and while I'm not screaming "cap him now!!!!111" I am, at the very least, saying "bring him to camp in January!"

Baird kind of flew under the radar because he chose to go to Stanford at age 17 instead of signing a pro contract. And he could've signed a pro contract either in MLS or Europe, and has spent most of this season going out there and proving why. His 8g/5a in 1900 minutes this year compare pretty favorably to other youngish attackers Albert Rusnak (10g/7a in 2500 minutes), Alphonso Davies (6g/11a in 2250 minutes) and Michael Barrios (6g/6a in 2350 minutes).

So yeah, Thursday night took a lot of the drama out of this game – which, for clarity, is RSL's last of the year – but not all the drama because the Galaxy are still lurking and Zlatan is still talking big. If RSL lose or tie, and LA win out, they jump the Claret-and-Cobalt in the standings and another season in Utah ends before November arrives.

There is also a non-zero chance Portland miss the playoffs, though it is small: They would have to lose this game and their Decision Day trip to Vancouver, and LA would have to win out. It would be a pretty crazy confluence of events, but this is MLS and this is the year 2018, so who's brave enough to bet against it?

But the more realistic "what's at stake?" answer is "playoff seeding." Just like Seattle don't want to start their playoffs on the road against a rival, same goes for Portland. That trip up I-5 has not treated them kindly over the years.

Quick reminder that, two weeks ago at Rio Tinto, Portland stuffed RSL in the trash.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Colorado Rapids
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

There is nothing at stake in this game except pride, and maybe the chance for a few Quakes players to impress future head coach Matias Almeyda.

EDIT: Somehow I forgot about #WondoWatch. He'll probably bag a brace now and claim the record in front of his home fans, which would be pretty dope.

One More Thing to Ponder

That's a single image. Perspective is fun.

Happy weekending, everybody.

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