The race for the top of the Eastern Conference seems intent on running through Decision Day presented by AT&T. With less than a month left, here's how the top three teams — NYCFC, Philadelphia Union and Atlanta United — shape up.
3. Philadelphia Union, 51 pts
Remaining schedule (5): Sept 14 vs. LAFC; Sept 22 at RBNY; Sept 25 at SJ; Sept 29 at CLB; Oct 6 vs. NYC
Even though LAFC have been less than "the best regular-season team in MLS history" over the past few games without Carlos Vela, they remain the toughest fixture on the schedule. Vela's status for this weekend's trip to Philly has yet to be confirmed, and Brian Rodriguez looked quite good against the USMNT for Uruguay a few days ago.
Outside of facing the runaway Supporters' Shield leaders, Philly have road matches against the Red Bulls, Quakes and Crew before hosting NYCFC on Deadline Day. It's a hellacious run-in and a good test run for the playoffs. They swerved around their first roadblock with hardly a screech, beating Atlanta at Talen Energy Stadium before the international break. The street has another five obstacles in quick succession.
The top of the East is a crapshoot to predict. We're splitting hairs here, but, Philly don't have an easy route to the top.
2. NYCFC, 54 pts
Remaining schedule (5): Sept 14 vs. SJ; Sept 22 at DAL; Sept 25 vs. ATL; Sept 29 at NE; Oct 6 at PHI
The current conference leaders missed a chance to take full control of the East on Wednesday, settling for a point at home against Toronto. Easily explainable, of course, given the team were without their leading goalscorer (Heber), goal creator (Maxi Moralez) and three starting center backs (Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens and James Sands).
With games against Atlanta and Philadelphia left, NYCFC control their own destiny to the top. Between, trips to Dallas and New England won't be easy, nor will welcoming the Quakes to Yankee Stadium. What will Matias Almeyda's chaos look like on a smaller pitch?
They will navigate most, if not all, of this run without Heber. The Newcomer of the Year candidate has been vital to NYCFC's success this season but is out with an injury.
1. Atlanta United, 48 pts
Remaining schedule (6): Sept 14 vs. CLB; Sept 18 at CIN; Sept 21 vs. SJ; Sept 25 at NYC; Sept 29 at MTL; Oct 6 vs. NE
What will two weeks off do for the reigning champs? I'm thinking it'll do a lot.
From July 17 through August 31, Atlanta had 11 games across three competitions. Since? A well-earned mini-break. They return to action Saturday.
Atlanta blazed through a busy summer with a scorched earth policy, winning (almost) everything along their path. The picked up two trophies (the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup), won six of eight MLS games, falling only on the road to LAFC and the Union. It couldn't have realistically been a better summer for the Five Stripes.
They have a game in hand on both Philly and NYCFC, and that extra game is a midweek clash against wooden-spoon favorites FC Cincinnati. Win that and they control their own destiny to top the conference, traveling to Yankee Stadium later this month.
Half of their remaining games come against teams below the playoff line. Atlanta are not definitively more talented at full strength than NYCFC, but they have a slightly easier schedule heading towards Decision Day.
A first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference might come down to 90 minutes at Yankee Stadium on September 25th. If Atlanta cash in three points for that game in hand, they're set well to make a late charge back to first place.