As the MLS season gets set to head around the final turn, six teams are separating from the pack and jockeying for position in the Supporters’ Shield race.
With most teams down to their final nine matches, the Portland Timbers (6th place) are separated from table-topping Columbus Crew SC by just six points. Not only is the lead crowd tight, but everyone is kicking into high gear; each of those top six teams have posted at least three wins in their last five games.
While I could envision a world where FC Dallas and/or New York City FC get involved in the race, let's focus our attention on what the home stretch looks like for that six-pack of lead Shield contenders.
Columbus Crew SC
Caleb Porter's team was practically on auto-pilot before Toronto FC shut their roll down hard in the second half of Sunday's 3-1 defeat. Four of the leaders' last nine games are against teams below the playoff line, but they'll also have some high-pressure chores along the way.
FC Dallas should be a handful, while dates with second place Philadelphia, season darlings Orlando City SC and a warming NYCFC side also loom. They'll hope to have midfield fulcrum Darlington Nagbe back soon, but even without him they're a well-constructed unit from front to back.
One big concern: Columbus have reliable depth pretty much everywhere on the field ... with one exception. What happens when they need to cover a Gyasi Zardes absence in a key game (or, ya know, just give him a maintenance breather)? Fanendo Adi didn't score in nine games before getting injured and Jordan Hamilton has yet to see the field in 2020. Is Derrick Etienne Jr. the speedy "get behind" plan B? Do they actually know?
A 4-0-1 run has pulled the Union to within two points of Columbus. They'll meet Nov. 1, but it won't be until the penultimate matchday. Until then, Philly must deal with Toronto FC twice amid a handful of tilts against teams more apt for the play-in round race.
The good news is they'll have rising talent Brendan Aaronson sparking the attack whether a reported move to Red Bull Salzburg is completed or not. Philadelphia are also getting fit at the right time. Left back Kai Wagner has already returned, and center back Jack Elliott and other depth pieces should soon follow.
One big concern: Neither Sergio Santos or Andrew Wooten has scored since August. Those guys need to actually find the net a few times if Philly wants to reach the summit, helping to take the pressure off of Kacper Przybylko.
You can never underestimate experience, and Toronto have it to burn. They’ve been through these fights before, and they tend to come out on top more than most. They'll regain even more guile when midfielder Michael Bradley is available again.
The final stretch won't be easy, though. In addition to the pair of showdowns against Philadelphia, Toronto FC must twice tackle a Red Bulls side that's annoyingly had their number in recent seasons.
One big concern: After a rough start to the season, Toronto’s defense has been solid more often than not in recent weeks. Yet they still have coughed up too many leads in the waning moments. It's a bad habit that’s cost them a good seven points this season, and we've now reached "every point counts" territory.
Orlando City SC
The magic is real, my friends. It didn't end with MLS is Back Tournament, and yes, the Lions genuinely deserve their place in the race. That's right, Orlando fans, your boys play engaging, effective soccer now. They've kept rolling despite recently going without Joao Moutinho and Uri Rosell, and both will be back from injury before long.
Oscar Pareja and his charges can't afford to let up now. They still have three combined derbies left against Atlanta United (home and away) and Inter Miami, which are wrapped around clashes with Columbus and NYCFC three days apart in mid-October.
One big concern: I hate to keep harping on forward options, but Orlando are pinning heavy hopes on rookie Daryl Dike turning into a reliable contributor up top. He very well might do that with the Supporters’ Shield chips down, but it’s still an important question mark.
The Sounders, reigning MLS Cup champs, have veteran know-how in spades and an attack that’s blossomed since leaving Orlando. They’re fit and firing, and they just reclaimed a pair of old playoff hands in left back Brad Smith and center back Roman Torres.
Seattle also have something none of the other teams on this handicap sheet: 10 games left on their schedule. Winning that game in hand cuts their deficit on first-place Columbus to three points. There’s one tussle with Portland remaining, but they also get four games against the West's current bottom three.
One big concern: So long as the Sounders and Nicolas Lodeiro are healthy, I honestly have a tough time coming up with one area genuinely worthy of anxiety. There’s been hand-wringing over their center back stable, and yet they’ve leaked less than a goal per game and just added Torres as insurance depth. Maybe it's not a concern after all.
With Sebastian Blanco done for the year, no contender is dealing with as huge an injury. At the same time, no team has a fall-back option like Diego Valeri. He has stellar midfield support and a three-headed strike monster that’s combined for 12 goals. If the Timbers manage games and stay out of track meets, they're a threat.
On paper, Portland might have the biggest disparity in opponent quality left. Their slate bounces back and forth between hardcore exams (LAFC twice, at Seattle) and trap games (four against the West’s current bottom three teams).
One big concern: Before his injury, Blanco had officially taken over as the Timbers' primary attack driver. Of course, nobody should feel too bad for a team that can simply hand the keys back to Valeri, but he’s now 34 and those miles add up. Can he hold up for one more run as Portland's chief architect, especially once the compressed schedule gives way to playoff intensity? That is the question here, isn't it?