- A shorthanded New York Red Bulls side made a statement against Atlanta in a table-topping battle, while D.C. United and the LA Galaxy remained alive in the playoff chase after getting more vital contributions from Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, respectively.
There'll be a fight to the finish for the MLS Supporters' Shield.
The New York Red Bulls made certain of that after a win over Atlanta United that was more improbable than it appears on the surface. While it turns out that the two Eastern Conference powers will go down to the wire for the league's best record, they had both already assured of first-round byes in the playoffs.
They were officially joined by two more teams in the postseason, as NYCFC and FC Dallas punched their tickets despite not having the best weeks on the field.
Other sides, like D.C. United, the LA Galaxy and even Toronto FC, remained alive for postseason contention after key victories, while another big-market club, the Chicago Fire, was officially eliminated–despite a surprise 3-1 win over LAFC that included a goal of the season contender.
Here was what stood out the most from the week that was in MLS:
I. Hay Shield race
That the Red Bulls beat Atlanta United 2-0 at home isn't all that shocking. It's quite the feat to keep high-powered Atlanta off the scoreboard, and it was only Atlanta's sixth loss of the season, which is tied with FCD for the lowest total in the league. The real surprise was that the Red Bulls accomplished the feat without arguably their two most important players, Bradley Wright-Phillips (suspended, yellow card accumulation) and Tyler Adams (minor injury). Instead of playing key roles, they took in the match as two of the most invested supporters in the cause.
"Supporters" is the key word here. The Red Bulls pulled within a point of Atlanta for most in the league with three games to go for both sides, avoiding what could have been a seven-point deficit.
Atlanta has home games against New England and Chicago before finishing at Toronto, which will be hopeful of having something to play for in its finale. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, finish at San Jose and Philadelphia before coming home to face Orlando City. The remaining schedule strength is a bit of a toss-up, meaning the shorthanded Red Bulls did everyone a favor by at the very least extending the intrigue at the top of the table for the duration of the regular season.
When there's a race down to the wire in La Liga, the term "Hay Liga!" (translated very literally: There's a league!") is thrown around. Well, after Sunday's result: Hay Shield race!
And if the two sides shall meet again in the postseason, don't forget this handshake snub from Atlanta manager Tata Martino to Red Bulls boss Chris Armas.
II. A five-star performance in a six-point swing
D.C. United knew its match vs. the Montreal Impact Saturday night was important if it wanted to have a realistic shot of making the playoffs. The six-point swing up for grabs was set to make or break DCU's season, and after an emphatic 5-0 win, it certainly looks like a case of the former.
Coach Ben Olsen was measured in his post-match remarks, saying that it wasn't really as lopsided as the scoreline suggested, and it's fair to be diplomatic. There's always room for improvement. But the reality is that the unlikely Wayne Rooney-Luciano Acosta dynamic continues to grow, and it's had a domino effect in the attack for a team clicking and finding plenty of comfort in its new confines at Audi Field.
D.C. still trails Montreal by two points, but it has two games in hand on the Impact and controls its own destiny. The end to the long road from last place to postseason is in sight.
III. You simply can't hit it better than this
Chicago's Djordje Mihailovic, 19, submits his entry for goal of the season with this incredibly difficult volley. Just ... wow.
IV. Zlatan lets his play do the talking
Zlatan Ibrahimovic usually does his fair share of talking, and this week really wasn't any outlier, but he saved his actions for his best answer. You see, Vancouver Whitecaps defender Aly Ghazal had been quoted earlier in the week by Egyptian outlet KingFut, saying of Ibra: “He’s one of 11 players. We’re not going to play against Zlatan alone, we’re playing against LA Galaxy.”
No, it's not the most inflammatory remark (it's actually quite complimentary of the Galaxy), but the lion typically needs no poking, no matter how light. And wouldn't you know, it was Ghazal who was on the receiving end of the 36-year-old Ibrahimovic's shimmy in open space, which was followed by a thunderbolt.
V. No, it didn't provide the sought-after jolt
The Whitecaps took the peculiar course of action in firing manager Carl Robinson with five games to play–with the club just four points out of a playoff spot. If he had worn out his welcome, fair enough, but the season was far from unsalvageable. The two-game losing streak that preceded his firing appeared to be the convenient reasoning the front office needed to pull the trigger, but it had come on the heels of a six-game unbeaten run.
If the club's executives were hoping for an immediate response, it didn't get one. The 3-0 loss to LA knocked the 'Caps further out of contention.
VI. FC Dallas clinches amid Pareja USMNT talk
Elsewhere in coaching headlines, Oscar Pareja has refuted reports that U.S. Soccer interviewed him for the men's national team coaching job, as had previously been reported by a Dallas outlet. And while he maintained that he'd be interested in the role, his FC Dallas side clinched a playoff berth following a four-point week in Cascadia–beating Vancouver and drawing Portland.
FCD sits atop the Western Conference by two points and is four points clear in the race for a first-round bye with four matches to go. Pareja will have ample opportunity to strengthen his resume for Earnie Stewart some more down the stretch.
If nothing else, he showed his skills as a pacifier. With Portland manager Giovanni Savarese berating the fourth official after the final whistle of their 0-0 draw, Pareja stepped in with a diversion and a hug. He's come a long way in his confrontations with Portland managers.
VII. 'Dre at the death
The Philadelphia Union responded to their lopsided loss in the U.S. Open Cup final by hanging on for a 0-0 draw against the Columbus Crew, missing a chance to swap places and move into position to host a playoff game. It could've been worse, though, if not for Andre Blake's 90th-minute, full-extension denial of Harrison Afful's would-be game-winner.
The draw means Columbus holds the one-point edge over Philly with three games to go, though both are looking golden for making the playoffs, period.
VIII. The Wall of the Wasatch
Real Salt Lake held on for a 1-1 draw vs. Sporting Kansas City Sunday night, and it's thanks in large part to the timeless acrobatics and instincts of goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
A little blood never hurt anybody. We’ll take a point on the road against a very good KC team. On to the next.— Nick Rimando (@NickRimando) October 1, 2018
It's incredible he's never won Goalkeeper of the Year.
IX. Wondo watch
Chris Wondolowski is within two goals of tying Landon Donovan for the most regular-season goals in MLS history after his penalty kick vs. Houston. In typical San Jose fashion this season, the club blew a 2-0 lead and fell 3-2 (to what its past incarnation became, the Houston Dynamo), with its atrocious defense only better than Orlando's this season. But the competitive aspect of the season evaporated long ago for San Jose, whose only focus at this point remains getting Wondo the record.
That's 143 for Wondo (25 on penalties compared to Donovan's 31), with three games to go to get it sorted this season.
X. Sounders rebound
The 2018 Colorado Rapids: The elixir for a team looking to recover its form. After a sudden two-game skid after a nine-game winning streak, the Seattle Sounders are back in the W column after a 4-0 rout of the lowly Rapids and have a bit more breathing room in the race to secure a playoff place.
XI. Too little, too late?
Toronto FC routed New England 4-1, buoyed by this gorgeous strike from Sebastian Giovinco, which served as a first-half equalizer and sparked the Reds to the three points.
It was the kind of goal that we saw with more regularity during last season's run to the best MLS campaign ever and the kind that Toronto wished it saw more in 2018 (not that Giovinco, who has 12 goals and 14 assists, has been the chief problem). The win keeps TFC alive, albeit it remains in must-win mode for the duration of the schedule. There's a lot of ground to make up in four matches.