The playoffs are getting closer and closer, and it's crunch time for teams around MLS with many counting just four games left on the calendar. Here's a takeaway for each squad as they enter the make-or-break portion of the season:
The bad news is that Atlanta failed to score for the fourth time in six games and remain outside a spot for the play-in games this postseason. The silver lining is that two wins from their final games may well be enough to sneak in. For that to happen, they'll need to get the very best version of Ezequiel Barco, who returned to the pitch this past weekend. He’s inconsistent, but at his best he can be the spark the offense needs to to close out the season. Anything short of that and Atlanta’s season will be done Nov. 8.
The form of Robert Beric is one of the reasons the Fire are now finding ways to get points from losing situations, when earlier in the season they often lost games they played well in. He has six goals in his last eight games and has shown himself to be extremely clinical inside the 18-yard box. At just the right time, he's showing the kind of form that can make the Fire a force to be reckoned with down the home stretch.
Should they be given the chance to play [the games they've missed], their playoff hopes will depend solely on how much or how little this unexpected layoff affects their match sharpness. It won’t be easy to pick up where they left off when we last saw them.
Columbus Crew SC
Say what you want about some of their recent form, but at their best Columbus are still incredibly organized and efficient. A special mention must be given to Pedro Santos, who has come up huge lately with six goals in nine games. His form has helped cover some of the massive holes produced by the absences of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan. I have to think that when they get back to full strength they'll be right back to the Crew we saw six weeks ago — stingy in defense and exciting in attack.
I always feel that we can learn a lot about a team and its players when they seemingly have nothing to play for. With that metric in mind, we’ve learned that this D.C. United team spent most of 2020 woefully underperforming because they’ve collected more points in the past two games than they did in the previous eight. They’ve looked dynamic in attack and had double-digit shots while creating clear goalscoring chances. It may end up being too little, too late, and their fans will be left wondering what could have been had they showed this commitment and fight a couple of months ago.
Cincinnati scored in back-to-back games for the first time since July and despite losing to D.C., their midweek win against the Crew will have been huge for confidence. If they're able to win their next two games — both of which are at home, and several results go their way – there's an outside chance they get into the top 10. That should be the only message Jaap Stam is preaching inside the locker room this week: win our two home games and let’s see what happens.
They probably need nine points to guarantee themselves a playoff spot — even six may be enough — but I think FC Dallas need to find some more consistency before the postseason is here if they want to compete with the West's very best. Their past six games have seen them win two, draw two and lose two. They will need to find ways to turn some of those draws into wins, otherwise I can see them struggling in those close playoff games against teams like Seattle and Portland.
One win in 10 games is not the form you want to be closing the season with. The system is not the issue, though — they try to play the right way. They simply aren’t getting enough from too many players. The talent is there, but they need to see improvements from Christian Ramirez, Mauro Manotas, Ariel Lassiter and Niko Hansen in the coming games to recapture some of the early-season form that made them one of the more exciting teams to watch.
It’s going to take a Herculean effort for Miami to make the postseason, and the odds are already stacked against them. They have Toronto and Orlando as two of their final four opponents, and now they’ll be without Gonzalo Higuain for the Orlando game after he saw red in the aftermath of Saturday's loss to Montreal. To have any chance of crowning this inaugural season with a playoff berth, Rodolfo Pizarro will have to be at his very best against the Lions. He needs to get on the ball as much as possible and allow the team to play through him.
Normally when you win, the problems disappear and people focus on the good. For the Galaxy, the win against Vancouver may actually pose more problems than solutions. They won after Chicharito was relegated to the bench, so the question going forward will be whether Guillermo Barros Schelotto can keep their highest-paid player on the bench again while keeping harmony in the locker room. Every Galaxy win has come without Chicharito starting, though he was on the field for LA's winner.
Will Chicharito accept that the team is best placed to win if he is a late-game sub, or will he demand to be a starter based on his name? If Schelotto starts him next game – and changes a winning team – does that upset the other players? It’s a delicate position to be in – appease the star and lose the team or lose the star and do right by the team?
LAFC badly need their starters back — Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez, Mark-Anthony Kaye and of course Carlos Vela. On paper, their strongest team can absolutely win MLS Cup, but they'll need to get their rhythm and chemistry on the training pitch and in games as soon as possible. That’s what it will come down to for this team — if they're to shed their inconsistent ways, they need to get their very best team on the pitch before the playoffs.
Throwing away a two-goal lead will always hurt, but I like where Minnesota are at. Kei Kamara has settled in well, and he gives them an aerial threat they didn’t have previously. Now that Ozzie Alonso is fit again it’ll be like getting a new signing. He's still one of the best holding midfielders in the league and who, over a six-week period, can turn back the clock and give them a dominant presence in midfield that very few teams can call upon.
There's no question about Bojan’s talent or pedigree, he just hasn’t always shown it in MLS. Few people know him like Thierry Henry, his former FC Barcelona teammate and current coach, who has given him an extended run in the team as of late. The Spaniard has responded with three goals in his last five games and earned Week 18 Player of the Week honors. He’s taken full advantage of Romell Quioto’s suspension and given Montreal the type of playmaking ability only he possesses.
Nashville have been one of the very best defensive teams all year, and if their attack had been on the same level, they’d be a top-three seed. Offensively they’ve struggled, but Hany Mukhtar burst to life last week and helped them score more than one goal in a game for just the second time this season. If they can maintain something close to that kind of offensive output, they're a team that will be tough for anyone to beat simply because they don’t concede very many.
New England Revolution
Home form is a massive concern. New England have won only one of the last seven at home while losing three of them. While they are almost certain to be in the playoffs and should end the season well considering they have three away games – they’ve been good on the road – there's a big difference between winning away from home in the regular season and in the playoffs. It’s been a good season, but it would be a shame to get a home game in the playoffs only to be undone by continued poor form there.
New York City FC
In recent weeks, the games they've won are against teams like FC Cincinnati and D.C. United — teams they should beat. They’ve lost to every bonafide playoff-level team they’ve faced, and that was the case once again when they faced the Crew. They're a good team, but I have my doubts about whether they can compete with the very best in the East. It also won’t help that one of their most in-form players, Alexandru Mitrita, left for Saudi Arabia on loan. Maxi Moralez will need to get up to speed and up to top form ASAP to reach the next level.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls went up against two of the best in the East in Toronto and Orlando and emerged with two draws, but perhaps more encouraging than the results is that they were competitive in both games. Offensively they created good chances in both games, and while Caden Clark has been stealing the headlines, there are several players who’ve upped their games recently, especially on the defensive side. If they can get to a point where they're keeping clean sheets, they're now creating enough chances to find a goal and pick up a couple of wins to finish the season strong.
Orlando City SC
Three draws is in a row isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, but at the same time the Lions will want to get back to winning ways soon. There’s no better motivator than a game against Florida rivals Inter Miami. Although he's still playing well and offers more than goals, Daryl Dike will want to find his scoring boots – just one goal in 11 games – before the playoffs arrive.
Against the Revolution, Philadelphia put in a performance best described as efficient. They were outshot and out-possessed, but were ruthless with the little they did create. Anthony Fontana has only started four games this season, but scored his sixth goal of the season in the win. It was a sublime finish from the youngster that any top striker would have been proud of. Jamiro Monteiro will likely get the playmaking responsibilities in the big games, but Fontana is proving to be a great option whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.
It’s a massive week for the Timbers, since a showdown with their eternal rival looms on Thursday (10:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info). A defeat would give the Sounders a three-point advantage in the West with a game in hand, so even if it’s not quite a must-win, it’s definitely a must-not-lose game. They're in great form, losing only once in their past eight matches, and a big reason is that they're getting good production from their forwards. Felipe Mora has four goals in his last five games, while Jarek Niezgoda has two in two.
Real Salt Lake
Three of RSL's remaining four games are against teams they can either catch or keep directly behind them, and they should be riding high on confidence following the victory against high-flying Portland. I expect Damir Kreliach to have a big say in how their season turns out – he's been in great goalscoring form and has been RSL's best player this season.
San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes are very different than the one that was shipping goals left, right and center just a few weeks ago. Against the Sounders they displayed an incredible intensity defensively – they still man-marked a lot, especially Judson on Nico Lodeiro, but they mixed it up by sometimes covering the space and being first to second balls. Their recent form isn’t a fluke – they’ve tweaked what they needed to and look strong on both sides of the ball.
Revenge is too strong of a word, but the Sounders are fully aware that the Timbers have topped them in the last two meetings. This upcoming game is the most important one, as it will have serious ramifications for the race for the West's top seed. Without Raul Ruidiaz, a man who loves to score against Portland, the hope will be that Will Bruin can open his account. Bruin is a proven scorer, but is coming off a serious injury and is yet to look 100% sharp. The Cascadia Derby would be the perfect time for him to make his mark on this season.
Sporting Kansas City
Sporting are still in the hunt for the No. 1 seed out West, and the recent form of Erik Hurtado has been a bright spot. Every game in their run-in is winnable and they should like their chances of claiming the top spot since Seattle and Portland have to face each other. Johnny Russell carried the offense for a long time, but he’s scoreless in his last five. They’ll need him back to his very best if they're to end the season on a high.
Top to bottom, Toronto are a formidable outfit. It’s easy to see how good the Reds are when they're firing on all cylinders and winning games by two or three goals, but I’m actually more impressed by their recent run of winning most of their games by one goal. Championship teams find ways to win close games – they have ways of outlasting the opponent – and it’s an ability that Toronto have in abundance.
The Whitecaps currently occupy the final playoff spot out West. To ensure they hold onto it, they’ll need to rely on the duo of Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero. That’s where the big goals and creativity will come from. Yes they have some other decent pieces, but the burden to fire this team into the playoffs needs to fall on their two strikers.