We are just a handful of weeks away from knowing the eight teams that will make up the Final Series and attempt to wrestle Portland Timbers’ MLS Cup away from them.
It can be a cruel game at times, and some of those involved in the rankings for top six places will feel that the joke is on them in the coming weeks leading up to the MLS crescendo.
Three teams are locked on 48 points at the summit of the Eastern Conference – the two New York outfits, City and Red Bulls, plus Toronto FC. It is the Canadians who hold all of the aces with their game in hand, but a run of just one win in four is a sign of worrying stagnation at exactly the wrong time.
It is no coincidence to learn that Sebastian Giovinco has missed those games, and while Jozy Altidore has stepped up to the plate it is almost impossible to replace last season’s top goalscorer and MVP. With the Italian expected to return against Orlando City, he will be a sight for sore Canadian eyes.
If hitting form at the right time is the secret to ultimate success, then the New York Red Bulls must have glory in their sights.
The New Jersey Boys have the goals of Bradley Wright-Phillips to thank for their ascension, plus the outstanding performances of Sacha Kljestan, who appears to be a shoe-in for the MLS All Star draft. Their success can be attributed to turning the Red Bull Arena into a fortress – W11 D2 L2 is their record on home soil – and with back-to-back matches on their own patch to come you would expect New York RB to secure one of the automatic Final Series places.
NYC, meanwhile, have taken just two points from a possible twelve on the road recently, and the bad news for them is that two of their last three matches will be played away from home at Houston Dynamo and DC United. If they can scrape some points from those, then an eminently winnable last match against Columbus Crew on home soil could bring salvation for Frank Lampard and co.
The former England midfielder has been amongst the goals of late, as has David Villa, but NYC’s key man has been Khiry Shelton, the flying winger who has scored one and assisted three others in his last trio of outings. Hitting form at the business end of the campaign is a very happy knack indeed.
Play Off Push
Only two of the three teams mentioned above can automatically book their places in the Final Series, and the unlucky loser will take their place in the play-off system against the teams finishing fourth, fifth and sixth.
A lack of form from Orlando City (three defeats on the bounce) means that the New England Revolution are surely the only side that can challenge present incumbents Philadelphia Union, Montreal Impact and DC United, and it is the Canadian outfit who look the most vulnerable with three losses in their last four outings.
Montreal and New England will meet on October 23 – the last day of the season, and that match bears all the hallmarks of a classic play-off eliminator.
Wild Wild West(ern)
It’s come up JR Ewing for FC Dallas: after looking dead and buried during mid-season, they are now very much alive and well thanks to a spell of just one defeat in five outings. Five points clear of the chasing pack with just three games to go, they have to be favourites to top the table.
But that’s not accounting for the Colorado Rapids, who not only beat Dallas a couple of weeks ago but also have two games in hand on the leaders. But they are wobbling too with just one win in their last five….does anybody want to win this Western Conference?
LA Galaxy certainly aren’t too fussed if their 2-4 defeat to Seattle Sounders on Sunday is anything to go by; they were completely played off the park by a side who had won just two of their prior fourteen away matches.
With none of the top three making a statement of intent, expect more twists and turns before the dust has settled. It could well be the Rapids’ double header with bottom side Houston Dynamo that decides who makes the Final Series outright and who has to go through the dreaded play-offs.
Sound of the Summer
It has been a wonderful couple of months for the Seattle Sounders, who have gone from also rans to might be’s in the Western Conference after a run of five wins from eight, and with two games in hand on sixth-placed Portland Timbers – with two games in hand – they will be fancied to secure the unlikeliest of play-off berths.
They will surely be joined there by Real Salt Lake, who despite not winning in four outings at least have points on the board, and Kansas City, who have just about done enough to get over the line.
Whatever the make-up of the final 12 that head into the play-off format, punters and pundits alike can expect plenty of thrills and spills in the coming weeks.