It’s one of the most publicized and well-hyped rivalries in Major League Soccer, but at the close of the 2016 season, Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers will be mostly about avoiding embarrassment.
Week 29 in MLS should be remembered as the week where the real playoff contenders emerged, leaving others in their wake farther down the table. The league is notoriously volatile, and a handful of wins can dramatically change a team’s fortunes in a short amount of time. However, with just a small handful of games left, the time for those big swings is over. We finally know exactly what we have with all 20 teams, and in Seattle and Portland we have two good teams with just enough flaws to make their parallel competition engrossing viewing throughout the final month of the regular season.
As it stands today, Portland is holding on to the final playoff spot in the West with 41 points. Seattle is three points behind. So what makes this competition so intriguing (besides the whole “oldest/most intense rivalry in American club soccer” thing)? Games in hand.
Sounders crucially have two games in hand on their Northwest rivals. They’ll make up one of those games this Wednesday in a home tilt against league doormat Chicago. Then over the weekend it will travel a short distance to play fellow Cascadia rival Vancouver, a team that is all but eliminated from the playoff race thanks to owning one of the league’s leakiest defenses.
Meanwhile, the Timbers will take their winless away record on the road to play Colorado, which is chasing the Supporters’ Shield and hasn’t lost at home this season. The Timbers then finish out the season with another match vs. Colorado (this time at home), and an away tilt against Vancouver. It's not exactly the best recipe for Caleb Porter’s side if it hopes to hold off anyone, much less its hated rival that would love nothing more than to eliminate the defending MLS Cup champs from playoff contention.
And should the Timbers miss the playoffs, a bit of ignonimous history awaits them. Columbus, the team the Timbers defeated in MLS Cup 2015, face long odds to make the postseason after a disappointing season. If both Columbus and Portland fail to make the playoffs, it’ll be the first time in league history that both MLS Cup finalists will fail to make the postseason the following year.
Given common sense, it would seem fairly likely that the Sounders will close the gap on the Timbers by the end of this week, still with a game in hand. But remember, common sense rarely prevails in MLS. Portland could just as easily rout Colorado this week, Seattle could lose both of its upcoming games, Columbus could win out and get help, and MLS Cup 2016 could be a Columbus-Portland rematch.
To quote a just-retired NBA great: Anything is possible.
Offensive player of the week: Mauro Manotas, Houston Dynamo
Part of the reason the Timbers find themselves in their current predicament is a superb performance over the weekend from Manotas, who netted a hat trick in the Dynamo’s 3-1 win. Quick and skillful, the 21-year-old has shown plenty of promise in limited outings on the Houston frontline, but hasn’t had the tangible results until very recently. After scoring his first MLS goal last week, Manotas was all confidence on Saturday, calmly dispatching a penalty kick, opportunistically attacking a low service into the box, then finishing calmly on a breakaway.
Defensive player of the week: Justin Morrow, Toronto FC
Justin Morrow is quietly enjoying another solid season with Toronto FC, and his goal-scoring performance in a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia was just the latest example. Morrow was his usual industrious self on the left side of defense, constantly breaking up attacks and probing the Union backline with crosses and forward-thinking service. That he scored his career-best fourth goal of the year was the (very important) icing on the cake.
1. X - Toronto FC
Toronto welcomed back starting goalkeeper Clint Irwin from a long injury layoff, and though he did allow a ridiculous chipped goal from Alejandro Bedoya, he also made a couple big saves in a 1-1 draw that Toronto should have won. TFC had a penalty shout denied and a Jozy Altidore effort go off the post in the closing minutes, so this draw will hurt more than most, especially since it dents the club’s chances to catch up to FC Dallas in the Supporters’ Shield race.
2. X - New York Red Bulls
There was no blown lead for the Red Bulls this week, as the team extended its club-record 13-game unbeaten run with a 1-0 win at home over the Montreal Impact. The win also clinched a playoff berth for the club and sent it into a three-way tie for first in the Eastern Conference along with Toronto FC and their cross-river rivals NYCFC.
3. X - FC Dallas
FC Dallas remained in pole position for the Supporters’ Shield, but can’t put one hand on the silverware just yet after a 0-0 draw against Real Salt Lake. Dallas’s challenge in the coming weeks is twofold: It closes the MLS season by playing a solid LA Galaxy squad (twice) and a Seattle Sounders team desperate for wins, and it must do so while dealing with CONCACAF Champions League dates (including this Wednesday vs. Guatemala’s Suchitepéquez).
4. LA Galaxy
The Galaxy failed to lock up a spot in the playoffs and lost at home for the first time all season as the Seattle Sounders left StubHub Center with a 4-2 win. The Galaxy generated plenty of chances, but defensive breakdowns were their undoing. Against a Sounders team with their backs against the wall, this is a forgivable loss, but Bruce Arena will want to finish the season stronger than this heading into the playoffs.
5. X - New York City FC
NYCFC did what, in MLS, is often surprisingly hard to do: It beat who it was supposed to. Frank Lampard’s injury and some confounding recent results didn’t affect Patrick Vieira’s side, as it smashed Eastern Conference doormat Chicago 4-1 at home. Khiry Shelton continued his late-season surge, contributing assists on three of NYCFC’s goals.
6. Colorado Rapids
With FC Dallas drawing Real Salt Lake, Colorado had a golden opportunity to close the gap in the Supporters’ Shield race to just three points. It looked like the Rapids had done that, until Whitecaps’ Erik Hurtado put a sloppy headed goal over the line with the last touch of the game in the Rapids’ 3-3 draw in Vancouver. A point away from home is usually good, but the Rapids were up a man with a lead against a team that has been bad all season long. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a missed chance.
7. Seattle Sounders
Jordan Morris scored twice, and the Sounders are now serious challengers for the West’s final playoff spot after a huge 4-2 win at the Galaxy. Seattle's objective in the coming weeks will be simply to take care of business; the team plays three of the league’s worst teams (Chicago, Vancouver, and Houston) in its next three games. A couple more wins there, and the last two weeks out West will be extremely interesting to watch.
8. Real Salt Lake
A 0-0 draw against FC Dallas makes it three games in a row that RSL has been shut out, a worrying trend for a team looking to avoid having to play a one-off knockout game away from home in the playoffs. Right now, it’s looking likely that RSL will play a first-round game against Kansas City in an MLS Cup 2013 rematch.
9. Philadelphia Union
The Union needed the red-hot Altidore to hit the post with a late effort and a non-PK call in stoppage time, but a 1-1 draw at Toronto FC is still a big result for a club that is still looking to secure a top-four spot in the East and the home playoff game that comes with it. Bedoya’s chip over Irwin is at the very least a strong Goal of the Week–if not year– contender.
10. New England Revolution
If you were wondering how important Kelyn Rowe has been to the Revolution’s run of three straight wins heading into this week, look no further than Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Columbus. With Rowe out of the lineup due to illness, the Revs struggled to generate clear scoring chances. With just three games remaining, New England will be hoping Rowe recovers in time to lead its belated playoff charge.
11. D.C. United
D.C. soundly defeated Orlando City 4-1 in what amounted to an early playoff game, thanks to a brace from Patrick Mullins and a pair of assists from Taylor Kemp. United and Orlando City were both fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the East, and this win puts United above the red line. After doing so much work in comeback draws the last two weeks, it’s nice to see D.C. United’s efforts pay off with a win, its first in the month of September.
12. Sporting Kansas City
After two straight disappointing draws at home, Sporting Kansas City went on the road and won at San Jose–something the team hasn’t done since 2000. Back then, they were called the Wizards, played at Arrowhead Stadium and featured now-manager Peter Vermes as a starting center back. It had been a while.
13. Portland Timbers
The defending champions failed to get their third straight victory and remained winless on the road in 2016 with a 3-1 loss to Houston. The Timbers now figure to face a tough battle against Cascadia rivals Seattle for the final playoff spot in the West–a battle that the Timbers will have to fight while also dealing with their final CONCACAF Champions League group stage dates.
14. Houston Dynamo
Beware of the Dynamo! Wade Barrett’s side has now taken points off teams in playoff positions for three consecutive weeks, the most recent being Saturday’s surprising 3-1 win over the defending champion Portland Timbers. The Dynamo will have plenty more chances to score upsets; four of their remaining games are against teams currently in playoff position. The other is against the Sounders, who are pushing hard for the final spot in the West.
15. Columbus Crew SC
In a game that was billed as “The return of Kei Kamara to Columbus,” the "other" Kamara made the game his own. Ola Kamara scored twice (including one on a dubiously-awarded penalty kick) and Columbus kept its faint playoff hopes alive with a 2-0 win over the red-hot Revolution. With games in hand on the teams above them, the Crew could still make some noise in the playoff race.
16. Montreal Impact
At one point the Impact were sitting pretty in the upper end of the Eastern Conference, but those times looked to be long gone in a 1-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls. Put simply, the Impact look like a tired team, too reliant on a bit of magic from Ignacio Piatti or the aging Didier Drogba. With D.C. and New England playing well of late, another slip-up could be disastrous for Montreal’s playoff hopes.
17. San Jose Earthquakes
With Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Kansas City, the Earthquakes have now gone six games without a win at an absolutely crucial point of the season. They have a couple games in hand, but unless the Quakes win out and get some help from other results, it’s hard to see them making the playoffs this season.
18. Chicago Fire
Luis Solignac continued to prove he was a good addition to the Fire with another goal against NYCFC, but unfortunately the Fire have plenty of other problems that showed themselves in a 4-1 loss. Math is the only thing on Earth that gives the Fire any chance of making the playoffs now.
19. Vancouver Whitecaps
It’s almost surely too late for Vancouver to squeak into the MLS playoffs, but Saturday’s thrilling 3-3 draw with Colorado offered plenty of positives. The fight showed by the side despite long odds was impressive, especially after Kendall Waston’s red card reduced them to 10 men. Plus, 15-year-old Alphonso Davies made his first MLS start, played the whole game and didn’t look out of place. He’s the second-youngest player to start an MLS game behind Freddy Adu, who will likely hold that record for a long, long time.
20. Orlando City SC
Maybe Adrian Heath wasn’t the problem. The Lions have only won three times since Heath was fired as manager in July, and they certainly haven’t looked like adding to that total in the last few games. Orlando City has now lost three in a row, 4-2 (at Los Angeles), 4-1 (vs. Columbus) and 4-1 again in a must-win game against D.C. United. Orlando’s defense is an absolute mess, and lazy actions like Antonio Nocerino’s silly red card against D.C. show that the players might have given up on the season already. Yet even with all of that being said, the Lions are just three points out of a playoff berth, exhibiting MLS's incredibly forgiving regular season.