Chase for Shield, goal record, playoffs: What to watch in MLS' final games - Sports Illustrated

Chase for Shield, goal mark, playoffs: What to watch in MLS' final games

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After 31 weeks of the Major League Soccer season, the top spot in the league and a couple playoff spots are still open with just two match weeks to go. The picture is just now becoming clear, as MLS’ parity-driven model has successfully kept teams close to one another in the standings for as long as possible.

A few themes have emerged as the main talking points for the final two weeks. Could the MLS goal-scoring record fall? How will Chivas USA conclude its time in the league? Which team will take the No. 1 overall seed into the postseason?

Here are five storylines to watch in the final two weeks of the MLS season:

• Galaxy, Sounders duel for Supporters' Shield

Sometimes, the schedule just has a way of working itself out. The showdown for the first-place trophy, the automatic spot in the CONCACAF Champions League (although Seattle is already in via its U.S. Open Cup win) and guaranteed top seed throughout the playoffs that the Supporters' Shield comes with comes down to a de facto home-and-away series between two of the league's most star-studded teams.

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The Galaxy, led by Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes, host the first match on Sunday before the return leg in Seattle on Oct. 25, where Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and DeAndre Yedlin will look to lock up their second trophy of the season.

Both clubs lost their most recent matches, leaving them deadlocked at 60 points. The Sounders hold the slight advantage due to MLS having wins as the first tiebreaker, and they just need a total of two points to secure the title. LA has two fewer wins, although it enjoys an astronomical advantage (+21) in goal difference. The Galaxy had a 10-game unbeaten streak just ended in a close loss to FC Dallas on Sunday and won the first matchup of the season between the two sides going away, with Zardes and Donovan scoring as part of a 3-0 rout at CenturyLink Field.

• Wright-Phillips chases single-season goals record

Bradley Wright-Phillips' scoring pace has slowed in the last couple weeks, but the New York Red Bulls forward is still one good game away from tying the record, and two good games from breaking it. After scoring just once in the opening month of the season, Wright-Phillips exploded for five multi-goal games, including three hat tricks.

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Chris Wondolowski and Roy Lassiter still share the single-season goal-scoring record with 27 strikes in 2012 and 1996, respectively, but Wright-Phillips has been hot on their trail for the last couple months. It helps that in the four matches this year against New York’s final opponents, the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City, he has scored once in each game.

• One playoff spot remains up for grabs in each conference

Columbus has a clear advantage in the East, currently in fifth place and six points ahead of Toronto FC, meaning just one point in the last two matches against New York or the Philadelphia Union would do the trick. The Crew could also climb above the Red Bulls with a win in their head-to-head duel on Sunday.

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In the West, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers have been playing leapfrog for the past month. One point separates the two Cascadia foes, and Portland has a tougher remaining schedule, against Real Salt Lake and at FC Dallas. Vancouver plays away to the San Jose Earthquakes, who just fired their coach Wednesday, and against the lowly Colorado Rapids.

Carl Robinson’s team has a slight advantage if it can avoid stumbling away from home, which has been a trouble spot this year.

• Everybody wants to avoid the playoff play-in games

Dallas and Salt Lake will tussle over third place in the West, as the top two spots are unreachable for both. In the East, it’s likely D.C. United will finish on top, and the New England Revolution are locked into at least second place after coming back to defeat the Houston Dynamo behind MVP candidate Lee Nguyen Thursday night (D.C. would secure first with a single point against either the Chicago Fire or Montreal Impact, both of which should be wins for United). 

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Third through fifth are separated by just three points, though — not to mention, those teams still play each other. Defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City has struggled in the second half of the year, making nothing seem certain, but it plays at the Philadelphia Union and closes out at home against New York.

• The final days of Chivas USA

MLS has yet to officially announce Chivas USA's demise, but it's on course to happen after the next two games. Even with gloom and doom looming, Wilmer Cabrera’s team reversed a 12-game winless run that included just one draw by defeating RSL and Colorado the last two weeks. Chivas gets this week off and plays twice in the final week, the only team with such a schedule. Depending on the first result at RSL, the second match against San Jose could turn into a battle for last place in the West.

• WAHL: Ownership group to buy Chivas USA replacement takes shape

That’s an ignominious ranking the Goats finished with in both the last two seasons and will look to avoid on its way out. For the Earthquakes, next season and a new manager mark a chance at redemption — but Chivas’ players and staff will get no such opportunity together as the franchise is set to dissolve, making this a final chance to finish with dignity.