The race for first in MLS is over.
Toronto FC made it so at a raucous BMO Field Saturday night, ensuring it will have the league's best record in what has been a dominant season. Beyond that, though? It's a muddled mess. Essentially the entire Western Conference remains up for grabs as the calendar flips to October, with only the Vancouver Whitecaps able to secure a postseason berth thus far. Conversely, in the East, five of the six playoff spots are taken, and the final one appears to be in the New York Red Bulls' grasp, but the extension of a late-season slip could open the door for one of four teams just within striking distance, while a few teams higher up the table fight for that all-important second place–and a first-round bye.
But we start our weekly roundup of the most notable happenings in MLS at the top, where TFC is out to set a new standard.
I. Give it up for Toronto FC
Toronto FC is two-thirds of the way to a treble after adding to its Canadian Championship and securing arguably the hardest piece of silverware of the bunch: the MLS Supporters' Shield. TFC will have the league's best record, and if it reaches MLS Cup, it'll host the final for a second straight year.
But before the playoffs, Toronto has its eye on a bit more history. The club can set a number of MLS records as it chases the title of greatest MLS regular season ever. The 1998 LA Galaxy set the standard in a number of ways–and what's most impressive is that they did it in two fewer games than any MLS team in the current era. TFC is within striking distance of the 1998 Galaxy's mark of most points in a season (68) with 65. It can match or pass that Galaxy's team's record of goal differential (+41), with it currently sitting on +36. It also has its points-per-game mark (2.13) in sight, with its current rate of 2.03–and while it can "only" max out at 2.08, there's an argument to be made the league is tougher now than ever with more teams, more travel and more talent. Of course, that Galaxy team didn't win it all, as it was bounced in the Western Conference semifinals by Bob Bradley's expansion Chicago Fire. With a dangerous expansion team looming in the Eastern Conference in Atlanta, TFC will be wary of repeating all of LA's past accomplishments.
That's all for after the international break, though. Enjoy the latest notch in the belt, TFC. It certainly looks like you did!
II. Wait, Justin Morrow did what?
Hardly forgotten but still stupefying amid all of Toronto's celebrations was the key performance that allowed the club to clinch its Shield on Saturday: A hat trick? For ... Justin Morrow?
III. Streaks are meant to be snapped
Diego Valeri's goal-scoring streak? The impressive run is over at an MLS-record nine games, with the Argentine midfielder failing to score in Portland's 2-1 loss at San Jose.
Sporting KC home unbeaten run? Poof, gone at 24 games, thanks to a 1-0 Saturday night loss to Western Conference-leading Vancouver.
LA Galaxy's playoff run? Thanks for the memories. After eight straight years of enjoying postseason soccer at StubHub Center, the Galaxy have officially been mathematically eliminated (but hey, there are always Chargers games there this fall).
FC Dallas winless run? After 10 games without a three-point haul, Dallas finally ended its streak of futility with a midweek win over the Colorado Rapids. Oscar Pareja's side followed that up with a draw at Orlando, and the four points have the club alive and well in the congested Western Conference table (tied on points with sixth-place Real Salt Lake and San Jose, with a game in hand on both) after a stunning summer collapse.
IV. But not these ones
Atlanta and Columbus ran their respective unbeaten runs to eight matches this week, clinching playoff berths in the process. Both of them pose threats to Toronto FC in the East. They boast difference-makers in the attack, strong home advantages (remember, there's often little advantage for the higher seed in a two-game MLS playoff series) and can definitely present problems for the Reds. And for Atlanta, its success lately is as much about its defense as it is about the attack.
On the flip side, the New York Red Bulls are now winless in eight after being on the wrong side of Toronto FC's celebration. There's plenty of reason for concern for Red Bulls fans, well, because it's October. But on top of that, you wonder about the psychological impact of losing the U.S. Open Cup final snowballing into something greater. With two incredibly tough home games left–vs. Atlanta and Vancouver–and being the guest of honor for D.C. United's RFK Stadium farewell, there should be genuine worry for the club's playoff fortunes. The Red Bulls should be far enough in the clear (up four points on Montreal, Philadelphia, New England and Orlando City with a game in hand on all) that they secure the sixth and final place up for grabs in the East, but beyond that, the outlook is not great.
V. A dubious call and immediate withdrawal
How about Gyasi Zardes's Sunday? The out-of-form LA Galaxy star was part of Bruce Arena's U.S. men's national team roster for the World Cup qualifying finales, only to strain his groin against Real Salt Lake Saturday night and be forced to immediately withdraw. It's unfortunately been that kind of year for Zardes. And the Galaxy. More on their fortunes later–but first, one of their former cult heroes.
VI. Late Alan Gordon game-winners never get old
He's been doing this for years, no matter the jersey on his back. And while this one wasn't as late as some of his others or in a game that really mattered all that much, it still never gets old. All hail Alan Gordon, MLS legend.
VII. A Golden Boot dance off
Nemanja Nikolic and David Villa both scored in the Chicago Fire's 1-1 draw vs. NYCFC, keeping the race for the Golden Boot alive and well in a 1-v-1 duel. With Valeri failing to score Nikolic leads the two V-men by a goal.
While the scoring crown figures to go to one of those three, Josef Martinez and Ignacio Piatti are each a hat trick away from getting in the mix. And even if they don't win it outright, they can help create a different kind of league-wide history.
VIII. He really wanted this celebration
Alberth Elis, aka La Panterita, did not celebrate this goal this way by mistake.
IX. The difference between playoff life and death?
Kyle Beckerman isn't in the spotlight as much anymore, given he's out of the U.S. national team picture, but boy did he deliver for RSL Saturday night. His equalizer DEEP into stoppage time dealt another dagger to the Galaxy and was enough to keep RSL in the sixth and final position in the West, at least provisionally. Depending on how the club's final two games turn out–against rival Colorado and hated enemy Sporting KC–that point could be the difference between playing in the postseason and watching it on TV.
The goal also emitted one of the more genuine quotes from the weekend, courtesy of RSL manager Mike Petke:
X. FIFA skills challenges in real life are amazing
Who doesn't have the itch to do this, like, all the time now? One of the perks of being an MLS player at the time of the FIFA 18 release, brought to you by Atlanta United's Greg Garza and Miguel Almiron (before the latter was injured).
XI. All eyes out West
This is insane. With anywhere between two and four games remaining (insert MLS scheduling complaint here) for the seven teams in contention for five playoff berths out west–Vancouver has already clinched–the final few weeks of the regular season will be a mad dash. A bye is seemingly in play for three teams. Permanent byes (as in, watching the playoffs on the sofa) remain a realistic possibility for another four. Some folks hate the parity provided by MLS, but this is exactly what the league wants–a Decision Day with some serious stakes. It's shaping up to be that way on Oct. 22.