Take a glance at the current MLS standings and there are a number of things that stick out in this most unusual and unpredictable of seasons.
At the top, there are six clubs separated by just six points in a wide-open battle for the Supporters’ Shield.
But scroll down and there are some big names unexpectedly struggling to even make the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Atlanta United, LAFC and the LA Galaxy all have some of the highest-profile players and highest ambitions in the league. Scrapping to get above the playoff line was not how any of that trio envisioned their approach to the regular season's eventual end.
Here’s the outlook for each MLS giant as they look to avoid the unthinkable come Decision Day presented by AT&T on Nov. 8.
Current position: 11th place in the Eastern Conference – below the playoff line on goal differential
Remaining schedule: at D.C. United (Oct. 3), vs. Orlando City (Oct. 7), vs. New York Red Bulls (Oct. 10), at Inter Miami (Oct. 14), at Toronto FC (Oct. 18), vs. D.C. United (Oct. 24), at Orlando (Oct. 28), vs. FC Cincinnati (Nov. 1), at Columbus Crew (Nov. 8).
Why they will make it: New DP signing Marcelino Moreno should soon be available and will provide a much-needed boost to the team’s creativity. Atlanta also have the benefit of two of their remaining nine games coming against the team currently ranked the worst in MLS — D.C. United. With 10 teams making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, interim coach Stephen Glass has enough quality in his ranks to get them over the line.
Why they won’t: Where are the goals coming from? After losing star man Josef Martinez to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, Atlanta then saw the replacement they brought in, Erick “Cubo” Torres, sidelined for much of the remainder of the regular season. The Five Stripes have scored just 13 goals in 14 games in 2020. It’s not like they’ve been unlucky either; they rank third-worst in the league in expected goals.
Current position: 7th place in the Western Conference — two points above the playoff line
Remaining schedule: at Real Salt Lake (Oct. 4), at Colorado Rapids (Oct. 7), vs. Seattle Sounders (Oct. 11), at Vancouver Whitecaps (Oct. 14), at Portland Timbers (Oct. 18), vs. LA Galaxy (Oct. 25), vs. Houston Dynamo (Oct. 28), at San Jose Earthquakes (Nov. 1), vs. Portland Timbers (Nov. 8).
Why they will make it: There’s simply too much talent at the top end of this team for them not to pick up enough points to make the playoffs. Bradley Wright-Phillips continues to prove himself an inspired signing and 2019 MVP Carlos Vela – while his exact timeline back from a Grade 2 MCL sprain remains unclear – is expected to provide a major boost before the end of the regular season.
Just as importantly, the man who does so much to hold the team together, midfielder Eduard Atuesta, is now fit again.
Why they won’t: LAFC can't stop leaking goals. The defense has been much discussed and, while it's not the only issue, the decision to let Walker Zimmerman leave in the offseason continues to look a costly one. As Matt Doyle said on Monday's Extratime, "It’s not an aberration at this point. This is just who they are.”
Contrary to the top-line statistics, all is not well in the attack, either. While LAFC’s 32 goals scored this season are the most of any team, 21 have come in four games, meaning LAFC have scored just 11 times in their other 10 games. When games are close, LAFC are coming up short by conceding sloppy goals and failing to convert their chances. That could prove costly in a tight run-in.
Current position: 11th place in the Western Conference — three points below the playoff line
Remaining schedule: at San Jose (Oct. 3), vs. Portland (Oct. 7), at Colorado (Oct. 10), vs. San Jose (Oct. 14), vs. Vancouver (Oct. 18), at LAFC (Oct. 25), at Portland (Oct. 28), vs. Real Salt Lake (Nov. 1), at Vancouver (Nov. 8).
Why they will make it: Cristian Pavon. The Argentine international has an argument for being the most talented player in MLS and has shown it for large parts of this season. He's been ably supported by Sebastian Lletget, who's thriving in a No. 10 role and on track for the most productive season of his career. The team even looks to have found something resembling a solution to their defensive woes since the inclusion of center back Nick DePuy.
While there's been much conjecture surrounding Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez's form, he had only been on the pitch for 90 minutes in six months before his return from injury. It's fair to give Mexico's record goalscorer at least a few games to find his feet.
Why they won’t: Now more than a season-and-a-half into his time at the LA Galaxy, there's been ample time for Guillermo Barros Schelotto to impart his philosophy. It’s a major worry then that we still don’t really know what type of team they are.
There was an identity forming in the weeks following the MLS is Back Tournament when they recorded four straight wins, including two over LAFC. But since Chicharito has returned, GBS has failed to get that same level of cohesion, just as was the case last year with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Chicharito may need time to get up to speed, but the Galaxy and Schelotto don't have that luxury. The former Boca Juniors coach has to find a solution, and quick.