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MLS Cup Playoffs chase: Handicapping the race for the Eastern Conference play-in places

With the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs field expanded to a record 18 teams in 2020, the final run-in this year is already shaping up to be unlike anything we've ever seen before.

That's especially true in the Eastern Conference, where every team remains alive for one of 10 playoff berths. The battle for the last four spots is especially fierce, with only nine points separating the seventh-place New York Red Bulls from last-place FC Cincinnati. Whoever secures those four spots will face off play-in matches to make it to Round 1 proper.

It's impossible to predict what might happen. But here's where each team stands, and how their final weeks of the season shapes up after Saturday's action.

The Play-In Places

7) New York Red Bulls

25 points, 3 matches to play: vs. NE (10/28), at NYC (11/1), vs. TOR (11/8)

The New York Red Bulls have drawn three straight games, with forward Brian White supplying a stoppage-time equalizer in their last two. If nothing else, RBNY have shown a commitment and unwavering competiveness which could serve them well if a play-in game is in their future. But they also have a tough schedule to end the year, so nothing’s locked up — a message interim head coach Bradley Carnell will surely be drilling home.

8) Nashville SC

25 points, 4 matches to play: at MTL (10/27), vs. CHI (10/31), vs. DAL (11/4), at ORL (11/8)

When it came to expansion sides in 2020, few picked Nashville SC to be better off in the table at this time of year. Yet the Music City bunch have one loss in their last eight games (3W-1L-4D) and are proving incredibly difficult to play against. Much credit on that front goes to center back Walker Zimmerman, who’s turned in an MLS Defender of the Year-caliber season since being acquired via trade from LAFC.

9) Montreal Impact

23 points, 3 matches to play: vs. NSH (10/27), vs. ORL (11/1), at DC (11/8)

The Montreal Impact have won just two of their last 10 matches following Saturday's 3-1 defeat to New York City FC, and have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 12 games. But despite only having three games remaining, they may have more control over their destiny than most, with two of those games coming against others sides that will be scrapping for one of the last four spots.

10) Inter Miami CF

21 points, 3 matches to play: at DAL (10/28), at TOR (11/1), vs. CIN (11/8)

Inter Miami CF secured arguably its biggest result of the season when Leandro Gonzalez Pirez's 89th-minute header lifted the hosts to all three points in a tightly contested Florida Derby to move above the playoff line. But with two tough road fixtures next, they will probably need all three points again when they host Cincinnati on Decision Day.

The Playoff Chasers

11) Chicago Fire FC

20 points, 4 matches to play: at PHI (10/28), at NSH (10/31), at MIN (11/4), vs. NYC (11/8)

Chicago Fire FC were forced to settle for five points out of nine from a stretch of three consecutive home matches after conceding White's stoppage-time equalizer on Saturday. The good news is they have a match in hand on the two sides directly above them. The bad news is three of their last four are away, where they've failed to win this season.

12) Atlanta United

19 points, 3 matches to play: at ORL (10/28), vs. CIN (11/1), at CLB (11/8)

After their home loss to D.C., Atlanta United are winless in five, losers of three in four and they’ve only scored two goals in their last five. It’s a tough spot for new Designated Player signing Marcelino Moreno, but he could win over fans quickly if he can carry his team down the stretch. If not Moreno, it’s tough to see who else could spark a late surge: Jurgen Damm, Ezequiel Barco and Erick "Cubo" Torres have struggled to consistently deliver.

13) D.C. United

18 points, 3 matches to play: vs. CLB (10/28), at NE (11/1), vs. MTL (11/8)

Just a few weeks ago, D.C. United’s season seemed done and dusted. Ben Olsen departed as head coach after a decade at the helm, all while injuries and losses were both piling up. Yet they’re still alive during this final trio of regular-season games, which is a testament to interim head coach Chad Ashton steadying the ship. They’re 2W-1L-1D in their four games since he took over, even if the performances have been more grit than guile.

14) FC Cincinnati

16 points, 3 matches to play: vs. SKC (10/28), at ATL (11/1), at MIA (11/8)

While FC Cincinnati aren’t mathematically eliminated, their postseason hopes seem far off. Jaap Stam’s team have scored a league-low 11 goals and lost six of seven. For Cincy to muster a miracle run, they’ll need a dependable goalscorer to emerge – a role DP forward Jurgen Locadia has failed to fill so far, scoring only once since arriving on loan from Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion.