The playoff picture is taking shape after a dramatic weekend across MLS. Liviu Bird breaks it down in his weekly Power Rankings.
After a week in which three game-winning goals and one equalizer were scored in the final 10 minutes of Major League Soccer matches, four teams have officially clinched playoff places. Two others saw their seasons effectively end with official elimination from the postseason.
The late-match drama started with the weekend’s first game, when Álvaro Saborío scored the winner for D.C. United against New York City FC in stoppage time Friday night to clinch United’s playoff spot. It finished with the last game of the week, where the LA Galaxy became the second team in the West to make it despite a last-minute draw against the Seattle Sounders (with former Galaxy forward Chad Barrett doing the honors, no less).
Elsewhere, Orlando City SC needed an 80th-minute header from substitute center back Seb Hines to avoid, or at least postpone, missing the playoffs for one more game. That result also kept Toronto FC from securing its first postseason spot in club history, although that seems all but a certainty as the Reds won again on Saturday.
Here are a few thoughts on the past week in MLS, with an abbreviated three-game week taking place during the forthcoming FIFA international fixture window:
A big week for Kansas City
What a week for Sporting Kansas City forward Krisztian Németh. The Hungarian international scored two big goals for his team in separate competitions, first to equalize in the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday, which SKC won in penalties, then an 83rd-minute strike to defeat the Portland Timbers in league play.
Németh came off the bench in Portland after playing the full 90 minutes (and missing a penalty in the shootout, just to show that he’s human) in Philadelphia. It’s been an inconsistent stretch for Kansas City, which has gone 2-2-1 in the last five games.
But the thing that makes it difficult to count SKC out of any knockout competition, though, is its ability to grind out results as it showed again Wednesday.
As long as Sporting gets into the playoffs, which it should barring some strange results this month, it will be a dangerous team to come up against.
D.C. dramatically ends winless streak
In the first wave of this week’s penchant for late goals, Saborío ensured D.C.’s long winless streak would end with a victory rather than a draw. The extra two points also shot United back up into second place and finally won a postseason berth for the team that once led by a massive margin at the top of the conference.
It was the league-best eighth win this season for D.C. after going down a goal and the joint-most 24th goal in the last half-hour of games. Neither of those come as a huge surprise considering the mentality that courses through Ben Olsen’s team and the motivational ability of the manager himself.
Still, as the last few weeks showed, it’s hard to expect consistent success when conceding the first goal has become a habit. In the nine matches since Aug. 1, of which D.C. won just three, opponents have scored first seven times. That could be especially troubling in the playoffs, where momentum swings quickly and every goal counts in an aggregate-scoring format.
RSL sets up big match with Portland
Real Salt Lake continues to give itself a chance to squeak into the playoffs. A 2-1 comeback win against the Colorado Rapids after conceding in the 16th minute raised the team’s record to 3-1 since the start of September.
After that poor start to the game, RSL roared back much as its season has in the past few weeks. Joao Plata scored his first goal since the 6-4 loss against D.C. on Aug. 1 to pull the match level, and only one team looked likely to score from then on. Luke Mulholland obliged on a rocket, and Salt Lake has hope yet.
A three-point logjam between places six and nine in the West will have to be resolved in the next two weeks. RSL and Portland, opponents in their upcoming Oct. 14 match, are chasing the San Jose Earthquakes. The Houston Dynamo is also in the mix, though having played a game more than the Timbers and RSL.
Bans make tough task harder for Orlando
Kaká and Brek Shea are both out of Orlando’s expansion showdown with NYCFC on Oct. 16 with yellow-card accumulation suspensions. It’ll be a desperate situation and must-win match for each side with a very different feel to it than their first game back in April, when both had hope they could buck the trend of new teams struggling.
Instead, the loser of that upcoming game will be finished. NYCFC might already be without a real chance to make the playoffs, five points behind the Montreal Impact, while the Lions are just one point back.
It’s been an unlucky first year for Orlando in many respects, including injuries and being on the wrong end of some late heroics.
Hines’ last-gasp goal in a tough match against that same Impact on Saturday at least avoided some more of the same, as officials failed to call back Dominic Oduro’s goal for Montreal despite him kicking the ball out of goalkeeper Tally Hall’s hands on the play.
The tipping point for Orlando could come in the upcoming shortened week before the Lions even have their next chance: the Impact can open a four-point gap by winning either of its games. Until it takes the field next, Orlando will cling to any hope it has that that match will have some meaning.
Week 31 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Tim Melia (Sporting Kansas City)
DEFENDERS: Connor Lade (New York Red Bulls), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Kevin Ellis (Sporting Kansas City), Saad Abdul-Salaam (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS: Fabián Castillo (FC Dallas), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Luke Mulholland (Real Salt Lake), Justin Meram (Columbus Crew)
FORWARDS: Harry Shipp (Chicago Fire), David Texeira (FC Dallas)
No slowing down for the Red Bulls even after clinching a playoff spot, as they scored twice in the first 21 minutes to defeat Columbus on Saturday.
After playing on a turf field decked out for the Seahawks NFL game in Seattle, Bruce Arena offered up this gem: “We weren’t sure if we were in the NFL or Major League Soccer tonight, so it wasn’t easy.”
Chad Barrett, who scored in stoppage time to tie the Galaxy, only found out he would be on the matchday roster after downing a soda in the press box while teammate Nelson Váldez limped off injured during warm-ups.
A surprise loss to the Fire on a second-half collapse in which they conceded three goals kept the Revs from securing a playoff spot last weekend.
Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored again for Toronto, which is on the brink of its first playoff qualification in franchise history after eight previous failures.
Dallas exploded for four goals against the Dynamo, two from David Texeira, to slide up into second place in the West and end a streak of two consecutive losses.
Despite jumping to a quick 1-0 lead through Justin Meram, the Crew couldn’t get another shot to fall and lost to the Red Bulls in an even game.
The Impact play twice in an important upcoming week for the franchise when most teams in the league don’t play at all, still making up postponed games from the CONCACAF Champions League run earlier this year.
A draw in San Jose only saw the Whitecaps drop one place, but it makes a top spot and home playoff date that much more difficult to obtain, especially with back-to-back games against feisty Dallas coming up.
RSL didn’t win the Rocky Mountain Cup with a win in Denver, but it did stay alive in the playoff race and knock the Rapids out officially, so it was still a successful day against the team’s biggest rival.
The Timbers ran into a hot goalkeeper in Tim Melia and couldn’t get anything out of a vital home game despite outshooting SKC, 17-8, and keeping more possession.
A brutal collision between teammates Tommy Redding and Rafael Ramos caused Orlando to make a double substitution in the 11th minute with one of those subs, Seb Hines, eventually scoring the game-winning goal against Montreal.
It might not be too early to look ahead to the final day of the season, when D.C. plays Columbus in what could be a showdown for one of the top places in the Eastern Conference.
SKC played a second-choice lineup in league games last week and this week on either side of the Open Cup final and took four vital points while lifting the trophy.
It’s all but over for NYCFC after a heartbreaking late loss to D.C., assuming the Impact wins one of its two games next week; if not, only winning out and some help will get the team into the playoffs.
Two wins in the last five games leave the Dynamo needing wins in tough matches against Seattle and Vancouver to have a chance at making the playoffs.
The Earthquakes were unsurprisingly involved in another scrappy game, this time against the Whitecaps, and struggled to get anything out of a game they probably needed to win.
The Fire ended a five-game losing streak and six matches without a win by defeating the Revs at home on Saturday, paced by Harry Shipp’s one-goal, one-assist performance.
It’s been a disappointing couple seasons in Philadelphia, and after losing in the Open Cup final for the second straight year, the Union fired CEO Nick Sakiewicz before losing again on the weekend.
The Rapids won the Rocky Mountain Cup on Sunday to provide something of a silver lining to both a playoff-eliminating loss and a largely disappointing season.