Armchair Analyst: A run through all of Sunday's Week 34 MLS action

And now for something completely different:

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United 2, Chicago Fire 1

The Five Stripes stayed atop both the Eastern Conference and Supporters' Shield race with a pretty drama-free win over the visiting Fire. But while it was drama-free and professional and comprehensive and there was really no doubt, at any point, who the better team was... meh. Since autumn began Atlanta haven't much looked like the "We're gonna stuff you into the woodchipper" Atlanta of the summer.

For as good and solid as they are right now, they're not explosive in any sense of the word, and the biggest and easiest way to sum it up is that they miss Miguel Almiron badly. No one else on the roster has shown the ability to both cut players out of the play off the dribble while making the game vertical.

To be fair, who wouldn't miss Almiron? He's arguably the best player in the league and not easily replaced. But they're almost certainly not going to have him next week, and maybe not for the playoffs, and while this team as it's constructed is still good, they are by no means favorites without their No. 10. This is all compounded, of course, by an ill-timed slump from Josef Martinez.

Tata Martino tried to compensate by giving Andrew Carleton just his second start of the year – he can't run away from players like Almiron does, but he's a visionary chance creator – but things didn't quite click. They feel like a team that's searching for a Plan B right now.

Chicago weren't good enough to take advantage of that and punish them. TFC, next week at BMO Field, might be.

Philadelphia Union 0, New York Red Bulls 1

And if Atlanta do slip up next weekend, then RBNY will almost certainly take their third Shield in six seasons. They'll have done it for a lot of reasons – the league's best defense, a few game-breakers in midfield, and a match-winner in goal being three.

That said, the team's best and most important player remains striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. Yet even on a day in which BWP was neutralized like we seldom see...

RBNY found a way.

This was their 11th win of the season against playoff teams, which is an obscene number (Atlanta are second with eight). They know how to make games against good teams into 50/50 battles, and then they are better at winning those battles than anybody else.

And mind you, Philly are really good. Since fully integrating Borek Dockal and Cory Burke in mid-May, they're 17-9-3 across all competitions. That's not quite a Shield-winning pace this year, but it's not far off. And the Red Bulls went to Chester, walked out onto the Union's home field, and outlasted them.

D.C. United 3, NYCFC 1

And yet you could argue that neither Atlanta nor the Red Bulls are actually the best team in the East right now. United toyed with NYCFC (to be fair, everybody's doing that lately) in their final home game of the regular season, capping off a magnificent 11-2-3 stretch in which they climbed from dead last overall to fifth in the East, and with the possibility of getting up to fourth place – and thus earning a home game in the Knockout Round – if things go right.

They did it with style, too. LOOK AT THIS!!!!!1111

Say a prayer for all the defenders that Lucho Acosta turned into ghosts on that play. May their souls find peace in the afterlife.

This was basically more of the same thing we've seen over the course of the last three months from D.C., and that applies equally to the Pigeons. NYCFC are 2-6-4 since the end of July, and could drop from third to fifth next week if they lose to Philly at home on the final day of the season, and if D.C. beat Chicago in Bridgeview.

The one ray of light here is the presence of Yangel Herrera, who picked up an assist in his return to action. It feels like too much of NYCFC is broken – they don't pass the ball from the back like they used to, they don't combine through midfield like they used to, they don't get the fullbacks into spots to create danger in the final third like they used to – for one guy to fix everything. And Herrera probably won't.

But he wins a ton of 50/50s in the midfield, and turns those wins into chances pretty often. In a tight game, that might be enough.

Orlando City 2, Columbus Crew SC 1

Whoever grabs that third spot in the East hunt – Philly if they win at Yankee Stadium next week, and NYCFC if they just get a result – will likely, but not certainly face the Crew. And they it's only likely because Columbus switched off twice when defending deep against a team that had one win in five months. And now the Purple Lions have two.

Simply put: Lack of individual quality in the attacking third is what separates Columbus from the other playoff teams (or the other playoff teams from Columbus, more accurately). The Crew do just about everything you'd want to see from a contender, and still play some of the prettiest soccer in the league. But the guys they rely upon to turn possession into production aren't up to it and haven't been for several months now. It's been hard to watch as the wheels have pretty thoroughly come off their season.

On this day it looked like the strain of protecting yet another razor-thin margin wore on and eventually wore out the backline and defensive midfield. Credit to OCSC for the fightback (and to James O'Connor for trotting them out in a rather effective 5-4-1 formation) for sure, but they were gifted two penalties from Crew defenders who'd mentally switched off.

And like that it's not homefield advantage in the playoffs on the line anymore: It's a trip to the postseason.

Montreal Impact 2, Toronto FC 1

The Impact don't control their own destiny, but they've done well to put themselves in a position to capitalize should Columbus continue on their current massively downward trajectory. They did it by – stop me if you've heard this one before – sitting deep and countering their way to a win.

There's not a ton to say about this game. TFC had chances that they missed, and on the flip side an unnecessary penalty (probably don't want to pull a guy's shirt in the box) and more, um, questionable goalkeeping from Alex Bono sealed the Reds' fate.

Montreal have to go to New England and win next weekend to have a shot.

Western Conference

FC Dallas 0, Sporting KC 3

What do we make of FC Dallas? Their defense is still very good – this game's scoreline wasn't a mistake, but neither is their season-long goals against total – but their attack has gone entirely AWOL over the past two months since moving Maxi Urruti to that "nine-and-a-half" spot. Urruti works hard and delivers a killer set pieces, but he's an inconsistent (at best) finisher and he doesn't create chances from open play.

To that effect: FC Dallas have scored one open play goal in the past six games, and it was against Orlando City (literally the worst defense in league history). They've won some games in that stretch because of that defense, and because they're devastating on set pieces, but this time of year, against teams like SKC, that's not enough. It's not all or even mostly Urruti's fault – Dom Badji had his chances on the day, as did Michael Barrios, as did Santiago Mosquera, as have countless other FCD players over the past couple of months. None have delivered.

Dallas are now 6-6-4 with an even goal differential in the second half of the season. They've been a perfectly mediocre team since July.

SKC look to be much, much more than that. Getting Khiry Shelton back onto the field has absolutely elevated them:

Shelton doesn't score much – he has just 8 goals in 3600 career minutes. But his movement opens up the field for SKC's wingers and attacking midfielders to push forward into space, and his passing touch means those attackers tend to get the ball played directly into stride, running at a scrambling defense.

They're top of the conference and will, at the very least, avoid going on the road for the Knockout Round. It'll be their first time avoiding that fate since 2013, which happened to be the year they won MLS Cup.

LAFC 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 2

To be honest SKC should be sitting in first place tonight only by virtue of goal differential, because LAFC should've beaten Vancouver. But they didn't despite playing at home, despite taking a 2-0 lead, and despite playing a 'Caps team without their leading goalscorer.

The Black-and-Gold's defining characteristic at this point isn't their comfort with the ball or their surfeit of attackers. It's their ability to take the foot off the gas at inopportune times during games they should win:

It is at least a little bit weird to criticize an expansion team that's on 57 points, is certain (not mathematically, but still) to have a home playoff game and still has a chance to win the Conference. But I'd argue that they should've had the conference wrapped up by now, and the fact that they're giving away leads like this at this point in the season is not exactly encouraging for what's to come on the other side of Decision Day.

Vancouver's playoff hopes officially ended in this one, but damn it was nice to see Alphonso Davies have one last monster game in the league. 'Caps fans should give him a 90-minute standing ovation next weekend.

Houston Dynamo 2, Seattle Sounders 3

Try this one out: Seattle have gone 13-2-1 in the second half of the season, and with a win at home next week against San Jose will have posted the single-best half-season PPG in league history. They have been solid at the back and rampant in the attack, and in Nicolas Lodeiro they have a player who is A) recognized as one of the league's best orchestrators, and B) still somehow underrated/underappreciated.

Lodeiro's role, as seen against Houston and really throughout the second half of the year, is told by his passing map:

Go wherever the game takes you. Find the ball. Do sorcerer stuff with it.

Seattle's other players understand that the best way to make the above work is to work for the above – i.e., to be planets orbiting the sun. 

This was not a vintage performance by the Sounders, for what it's worth. But they were on their second road game in four days and didn't miss a beat.

Portland Timbers 3, Real Salt Lake 0

Here is Jeremy Ebobisse's version, which I'm calling our Pass of the Week, of that Khiry Shelton hold-up play above:

Ebobisse's provided exactly the above – rugged target play that frees up the wingers – as he's worked his way into the rotation over the past two months. And that's allowed Gio Savarese to go back to the beginning and finally settle on a pretty basic, but pretty effective 4-2-3-1.

The strength of the formation is that it allows Diego Chara to play in a double pivot, which means 1) he's still a or even the primary backline shield, and 2) he can still push forward on occasion and overwhelm disorganized teams.

The other strength is that it allows Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo – the wingers – to provide the width. Portland had been relying upon overlapping fullbacks through much of the year, and had gone well past the point of diminishing returns in that regard. Both Timbers' fullbacks get into the play when opportunity presents itself now, but not at the expense of breaking the overall team shape.

And with that they broke RSL's season. As Mike Petke said after the game it's a one-in-a-million shot that they make the playoffs now.

It is understandable that the first thing they'd look at is this end-of-season home-and-home with Portland, and there's zero doubt about this: The Timbers were the better team.

RSL didn't lose that playoff spot to the Timbers, though. They lost that playoff spot to themselves on September 15 when they could only manage a 1-1 home draw against visiting Minnesota United. If RSL had done the job then, they'd already have clinched.

Minnesota United 1, LA Galaxy 3

As it is, RSL need Houston to give them a miracle next week in Carson because the Galaxy went to Minnesota and beat the hell out of the Loons. Please note that it is easy to beat the hell out of a team that does not mark Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the back post:

The Galaxy have played gory and glorious Dom Kinnear-style soccer – keep in banks of four, don't get fancy in the middle of the pitch, trust your stars to make game-winning plays – over the past month, going 3-0-1 with 10 goals scored and only two conceded while pulling to within a single point of RSL, and with a (home) game (against the Dynamo) in hand. For the first time in two years, a playoff spot is theirs to lose.

It certainly doesn't look or feel like they're going to lose it. It's not just Ibrahimovic doing the things he does, and the other attackers playing their parts. It's also (or even primarily) come from Sebastian Lletget playing his best soccer since 2016, and Jonathan Dos Santos finally looking like a DP midfielder.

The other big change is even more obvious: Dave Romney and Daniel Steres have been mostly pretty good at center back. That's a damn sight better than what the previous starters brought to the table.

San Jose Earthquakes 0, Colorado Rapids 0

I still love the 2012 Goonies with all of my heart:

There's our Face of the Week.

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