The end of the September international break officially kicks off the race to the MLS finish line. Here's how the league stacks up as it enters the home stretch.

By Avi Creditor
September 14, 2018

The playoffs are coming.

The end of the September international break officially kicks off the race to the MLS finish line. Whereas matches a couple of months ago didn't appear to have much at stake, now, every point appears to matter that much more. Only two teams have clinched playoff berths thus far, and only one has officially been eliminated from contention, but a handful of others are closing in on either extreme.

Every team has between five and seven matches remaining on the schedule, and those on the lower end of that range watch those games in hand with bated breath, knowing there's little else they can do to control their fate.

Who will win the Supporters' Shield? Will some of the league's biggest-spending clubs really miss the playoffs? Is there a surprising late surge to be had? All these questions will be answered by Oct. 28's Decision Day. Until then, here's how the league stacks up as it enters the home stretch:

COMING FOR THE SHIELD

New York Red Bulls (17-7-4, 55 points), Atlanta United (16-5-6, 54 points), FC Dallas (14-6-7, 49 points), Sporting Kansas City (14-7-6, 48 points)

The Red Bulls and Atlanta were the first two teams to clinch playoff berths, and they're the leaders of the pack to finish with the most points. As it stands, the Red Bulls have played 28 matches, while Atlanta is a point off the pace with a game in hand, all while boasting a league-best two points per game. On their heels are FCD and SKC, who have both played 27 matches and need their Eastern Conference counterparts to slip up to have a crack at lifting the Supporters' Shield.

With Atlanta having five of its last seven matches against teams currently not in playoff position, you'd have to give the edge to Tata Martino's squad, but Atlanta's showdown at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 30 could wind up being the last determining factor.

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LOOKING GOOD

NYCFC (14-8-7, 49 points), LAFC (13-7-7, 46 points), Columbus Crew (12-8-7, 43 points), Philadelphia Union (12-11-4, 40 points)

NYCFC isn't exactly entering the home stretch gracefully, going winless in five and looking like a shell of the squad that appeared to be a title contender under Patrick Vieira before he departed for OGC Nice. The club gave itself such a head start and margin for error, though, and the remaining schedule is about as friendly as it gets. It should be joined, in the east, by Columbus and Philadelphia, though nothing can be taken for granted just yet. They've both built up decent advantages on the trailing competitors, but the surging Union, especially, have a brutal schedule (at Seattle, Columbus and NYCFC and home vs. Sporting KC and the Red Bulls still to come) and have to maximize their points elsewhere to feel totally secure. 

Out west, LAFC is enjoying a fantastic expansion season and only sits three points out of first in the conference. A first-round bye is very much a realistic possibility under manager Bob Bradley, who will get the chance to vie for a second MLS Cup with an expansion team after winning it in Chicago's inaugural season 20 years ago.

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CAN'T SLIP UP NOW

Real Salt Lake (13-10-5, 44 points), Portland Timbers (12-7-8, 44 points), Seattle Sounders (12-9-5, 41 points), Vancouver Whitecaps (11-9-7, 40 points), Montreal Impact (11-14-3, 36 points), D.C. United (9-11-7, 34 points), New England Revolution (8-10-9, 33 points)

How you see the race out west is a matter of perspective. RSL is currently in fourth and has won three straight, but its two trailing teams are both holding a game in hand and are well within striking range, as is seventh-place Vancouver. Then there's Seattle, which has won eight straight to go from lost season to contender in two months. As it stands, it's a four-team race for three spots, and it could get even more complicated if the eighth-place Galaxy go on a late surge (more about them below). 

In the east, there could well be a sub-.500 team in the postseason. It's a tough race to call, and the fact that the teams involved all still play against one another means that we're in for some high-stakes matches down the stretch. Montreal has played one more match than its competitors, and given D.C. United's form and considering its next six matches are at home, you'd be wise to give Wayne Rooney & Co. the edge. The backloading of home games due to the extended construction on Audi Field earlier in the year could prove to be a blessing.

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SO YOU'RE TELLING ME THERE'S A CHANCE

LA Galaxy (10-10-8, 38 points), Toronto FC (7-14-6, 27 points)

Based on the rosters of these two clubs, there's absolutely no reason for them being as poor as they've been. For Toronto, it just has never recovered from its start of the season, when it put all its eggs in the Concacaf Champions League basket and came up short. It's been wrecked by injuries as well, but the team that gave us the greatest single season in league history should have been deep enough to overcome the adversity. The Reds aren't totally out of it yet, with a game in hand on sixth-place Montreal and a nine-point deficit to overcome. But they have to hope that New England and D.C. falter down the stretch, too. They can control some of that, with matches against each still to come.

As for LA, it's just been a nightmare. Sigi Schmid is gone as manager for the last six games after overseeing a six-game winless stretch. In two of the last three games, the Galaxy have leaked five and six goals. It's just not good enough for a team that, on paper and based on payroll, should be steamrolling its way to success, not a .500 record. The Galaxy don't have as much ground to make up as Toronto, trailing sixth-place Seattle by just three points. They've played two more games than the Sounders, though, making that deficit a bit deceiving. 

As fate would have it, the Galaxy and TFC meet on Saturday in what is essentially a must-win for both.

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START PLANNING FOR 2019

Minnesota United (9-16-2, 29 points), Houston Dynamo (7-13-7, 28 points), Orlando City (7-17-3, 24 points), Colorado Rapids (6-15-6, 24 points), Chicago Fire (6-15-6, 24 points), San Jose Earthquakes (4-15-8, 20 points)

There won't be postseason play for these six, and that's not really all that unexpected. Houston and Colorado have each made one deep run in recent seasons, but underachieving has become more the norm. The wheels have fallen off for Orlando and Chicago, who face off this weekend both looking for their first win in quite some time. Chicago just ended an eight-game losing streak with a draw, is winless in nine and last tasted victory on June 30. Orlando, meanwhile, is winless in eight and last secured three points on July 14. Woof.

San Jose, save for two head-scratching wins over FC Dallas last month, has been a trainwreck all season. In fact, the Earthquakes have only beaten two clubs in 2018, managing a pair of wins over FCD and Minnesota. All that's left for the Quakes is to help Chris Wondolowski set the all-time MLS goals record (he trails Landon Donovan's 145 by three), and, at this point, to secure the first pick behind expansion FC Cincinnati in the 2019 draft.

At least for the Dynamo, there's a U.S. Open Cup final to host and for Minnesota and Orlando, who have yet to make the playoffs in their brief existences, next season brings a new stadium and the All-Star Game, respectively.

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