Eleven Major League Soccer matches will kick off simultaneously on Sunday, and every single one will have playoff implications riding on the result.
Some, like San Jose’s visit to Seattle, have only modest implications, while others, like Los Angeles FC’s trip to face Sporting Kansas City, will determine the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Then you have the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy, two teams that can secure playoff spots with victories on Sunday. The Crew have stumbled late in the season, but face a very reasonable task, needing to beat Minnesota United to ensure their place in the postseason. The Galaxy also face a winnable home game against a Houston Dynamo side playing out the string.
The league’s two best teams won’t be facing each other on the field, but they’ll be competing all the same when Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls take the field with the Supporters’ Shield in their sights. Both teams could break the MLS records for points in a season, but only Atlanta can grab the shield and top seed in the MLS playoffs with a win.
Here are the key things to watch for this weekend in MLS:
More than playoffs on the line for Crew, Berhalter
Columbus Crew fans will have their first chance to cheer their team on since news came out that new owners had emerged to help potentially keep the Crew in Columbus. Those fans will converge on MAPFRE Stadium hoping to urge the Crew on as they try to save their season.
A win over Minnesota United ensures a playoff place for the Crew, while a a draw or loss would open the door for the Montreal Impact to leapfrog them in the East standings with a win at New England.
The Crew have hit a slump at the worst possible time, managing just one win in six matches to slide from fourth place to trying desperately to hold on to sixth place.
That late-season slide has also thrust Gregg Berhalter into the spotlight. Berhalter has been the frontrunner for the U.S. national team head coach position for months, but that candidacy will look highly questionable if the Crew fail to reach the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Luckily for the Crew, they are facing a Minnesota United side that has the worst road record in MLS (1-13-2).
Can NYCFC stop the Union and halt slide?
When Domenec Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira as New York City FC head coach during the summer, he began his MLS tenure winning five of six matches, and looked like the ideal replacement for Vieira.
Things have turned sour since that promising start, with NYCFC having won just two of its past 12 matches. That slide has led to NYCFC going from contending for a top two spot in the East to now being in jeopardy of sliding all the way to fifth and playing on the road in a knockout round match.
NYCFC can still salvage its hold on third place in the East, but must beat a Philadelphia Union side that is 7-2-2 in their past 11 matches. The Union are coming off a 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, but they gave the Red Bulls a tough test and will head to Yankee Stadium with the confidence gleaned from settling a new team record for points in a season.
If the Union beat NYCFC, they would secure third place in the East and would host a knockout round match. A loss could drop the Union all the way to sixth place, meaning a road trip for their first playoff match.
Sporting KC and LAFC battle for first in West
Sporting Kansas City and Los Angeles FC have both been building serious momentum in recent months, and now will square off with the top seed in the West playoffs in their sights.
Sporting KC has marched to first place in the West with an 8-2-2 record down the stretch, capped by last week’s big road win at FC Dallas. Up next is a home match against an LAFC squad that has turned on its own hot streak, suffering just one lost in its past 10 matches. Bob Bradley’s squad has coped with the departure of central defender Laurent Ciman, The LAFC defense has held its own, but the attack has been the driving force behind the expansion team’s surge.
A road win would give LAFC the top seed in the West, while a draw or loss would likely force LAFC into third place, and a knockout round match, unless FC Dallas stumbles against the Colorado Rapids.
Galaxy must be careful with dangerous Dynamo
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s heroics have been a big reason for the LA Galaxy’s climb back into the playoff race, but it has been the improvement of the Galaxy’s defense that has pushed them to the brink of a return to the playoffs.
The Galaxy have gone four straight matches without allowing multiple goals, surrendering just two goals during a 3-0-1 surge that has them on the verge of snatching sixth place and a playoff berth away from Real Salt Lake. Interim head coach Dom Kinnear has helped solidify things defensively, settling on the American center back tandem of David Romney and Daniel Steres, with Jonathan Dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget working in central midfield.
The Galaxy must defeat the Dynamo on Sunday and on the surface that seems a simple enough task. The Dynamo haven’t won a road game since May, and have nothing to play for. That said, Houston still has a dangerous attack and has scored multiple goals in three of its past four matches.
The attacking trio of Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto will be a handful for the Galaxy to handle, but their defensive improvements and recent attacking form should give the Galaxy a very good chance of holding off the Dynamo and securing their place in the playoffs.
Supporters’ Shield still up for grabs
Toronto FC shattered the MLS record for points in a season a year ago, and on Sunday the reigning MLS champion will do its best to keep Atlanta United from breaking that record at BMO Field.
Atlanta United can secure the Supporters’ Shield with a victory in Toronto, but must do so without injured star Miguel Almiron. The Five Stripes will take on a TFC side finishing up a forgettable season, but with the weapons to play the spoiler role perfectly. Jozy Altidore is out, but Sebastian Giovinco will lead a TFC attack that will try to give their fans a consolation win to close out the season.
A TFC victory could also wind up being a dream gift for the New York Red Bulls, who are poised to snatch the Supporters’ Shield away from Atlanta United if TFC can pull the upset. The Red Bulls face lowly Orlando City, and will look to add to their league-best total of 13 home wins. The Lions have shown they can play the spoiler, knocking off the Columbus Crew last week, but beating the struggling Crew at home is a far different task than trying to become the first road team to win at Red Bull Arena since July.