- As MLS plays on through the FIFA international window, the playoff races are heating up–and things are especially insane out west, where second place was held by three teams in a matter of three days.
MLS's insistence on continuing to play through FIFA international windows can be debated, scrutinized and defended, but regardless of how the issue is received, play continues on the field–and the result has been some madness in both conference tables.
The teams in the Western Conference, save for LAFC, are essentially standings yoyos, with things so tightly wound that going from feeling safe about playoff hopes to being in peril can be decided by a single result. In the Eastern Conference, three teams have separated themselves from a muddled pack, but last season's defending champion still has work to do to earn home field advantage up until MLS Cup following a weekend letdown.
But we'll return out west to start our weekly look back at the best of the action across the league, because that is truly where things have gone off the rails:
I. The West is wild
To understand the wildness of the Western Conference, just know that second place was held by three teams in the last three days. Entering the weekend, it was Real Salt Lake improbably sitting in second, feeling good after a 5-1-2 stretch. Its loss to Portland opened the door for the San Jose Earthquakes to leap into second position, though, which they did with a 3-0 thrashing of Orlando City. That air of superiority lasted for all of 24 hours, when the Seattle Sounders catapulted into that spot with a wild home win over the LA Galaxy. Minnesota's win over LAFC wound up sending RSL tumbling into fifth to close the weekend. From second place to not even being in position to host a playoff game and still having to fight for its postseason life, all in the span of a few days.
There's been one constant at the top of the Western Conference all season, but the fight below LAFC is absolutely brutal. Entering the final month of the season, teams 2-7 are separated by four points. Eighth-place Portland is two points out of a playoff berth, plays six of its last seven matches at home and has a game in hand on all of the teams it's chasing–and two games in hand on fifth-place FC Dallas.
MLS's yearning for parity has yielded some clear-cut favorites at the top and a cluster of candidates below them who all know that in a single-elimination, one-off playoff match, anything can happen.
A quick glance at the remaining schedules would suggest that San Jose, despite all of its strides and thrilling style of play, could face the tallest mountain. Consecutive road games against RSL, NYCFC and Atlanta United await, while home clashes against East-leading Philadelphia and Seattle follow before a season finale in Portland. If the last few weeks have shown anything, though, it's to expect madness as that race shakes out.
II. Nothing sums up the wildness of the west better than Seattle-LA
The Sounders and Galaxy have played some thrillers over the years, but it's tough to top what they put forth on Sunday. A 4-3 Seattle win, punctuated by Cristian Roldan's late winner, dazzled neutrals, boosted Seattle's playoff standing and sent the Galaxy perilously close to the playoff line. Despite the club's financial outlay and social media sass, the Galaxy still have a really hard time defending, and no amount of imbalance in skill further up the field can cover that up. The combination of traffic cones, ball-watching and the inability to track runners is pretty inexcusable and makes this loss a tough one to stomach, especially considering the Galaxy came back from two goals down on one occasion and a goal down later on only to drop all three points.
As it stands, the Galaxy are two points clear of doom, but Portland lingers just on the other side of the playoff barrier trailing by two points and with a game in hand. LA has a favorable run-in on the schedule, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that this Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led club misses the playoffs yet again.
III. Toye story
LAFC isn't used to losing–especially at home where it had gone 11-0-2 prior to Sunday night's match against Minnesota United. But with MVP frontrunner Carlos Vela held out as he nurses his injury suffered against the Galaxy in the previous week, the Supporters' Shield leaders fell flat.
Mason Toye's two goals in a four-minute span allowed the Loons to salvage something from their week, which included a heartbreaking loss to Atlanta United in the U.S. Open Cup final. For Toye, it was the perfect way to celebrate his call up to the USA U-23 national team for an Olympic qualifying preparation camp and friendly vs. Olympic host Japan.
IV. Philly punches its ticket
Atlanta United was entering with the swagger, the four-game winning streak and the U.S. Open Cup trophy, but the Philadelphia Union exited with the playoff berth.
Philly's 3-1 win over Atlanta made a statement atop the Eastern Conference table and allowed the Union to punch their playoff ticket. The win was important not only for sending Jim Curtin's side to the postseason, but also because the club had amassed a fair share of doubters given its last few months of action. Its wins dating back to the first week of June were over a floundering D.C. United (twice), and three teams out of the playoff picture altogether in Chicago, Houston and Orlando. The Union needed this one to establish themselves as valid contenders in a wide-open conference. Mission accomplished.
V. NYCFC punches its ticket
Philadelphia will be joined in the playoffs by NYCFC, which vaulted over Atlanta and into second place in the Eastern Conference with its fourth straight win, a 3-1 triumph over the Vancouver Whitecaps that was punctuated by Alexandru Mitrita's superb free kick.
Finishing ahead of Atlanta would mean everything for NYCFC. Its home-field advantage might not be the same cauldron of energy as in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the awkward dimensions and depth perception difference in Yankee Stadium could really help the club in a one-off playoff scenario. NYCFC closes the season with two of its last three games being at home vs. Atlanta and at Philadelphia. If the race atop the East remains as tight as it's been, those two could wind up deciding everything.
VI. Best goal in a losing effort: Josef Martinez
Atlanta may have lost, but good lord what a goal this was from Josef Martinez to open the scoring. It marked his 13th straight MLS match with a goal, adding to his league record, and the sauce level was just off the charts. At the time, it gave the Five Stripes the lead, too.
VII. Consolation along with elimination
Yordy Reyna's fantastic goal was but a consolation strike in the Whitecaps' defeat to NYCFC. Vancouver now has the ignominy of joining expansion side FC Cincinnati as the first teams eliminated from playoff contention.
The reinvestment of Alphonso Davies' transfer fee was never going to be a one-year project, but the winter overhaul Vancouver endured most certainly did not result in immediate dividends.
VIII. Wondo just keeps scoring
Chris Wondolowski, at 36, is the highest-scoring American in MLS this season, with his 13 goals two more than Gyasi Zardes's 11 and three more than Jozy Altidore's 10. Let that settle in.
IX. Weekly appreciation note for Gustavo Bou
If it seems like every week Gustavo Bou is doing something of importance for the New England Revolution, it's because he is. Make that six goals in eight MLS games–though this one came with an assist from TFC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg. You've got to save that to preserve points in the thick of the playoff hunt.
X. Howard enjoys storybook N.J. farewell
Tim Howard's farewell tour took a meaningful stop in New Jersey, where the former U.S. goalkeeper was born and raised, and he delivered a clean sheet at Red Bull Arena, against the club with whom he started his professional career.
His three saves helped make a winner out of new Colorado Rapids coach Robin Fraser on his debut, while also ensuring that Jonathan Lewis's two goals would hold up in the 2-0 win.
XI. The greatest possible 90s Night promo
This Beavis and Butt-Head parody, simply, was art from the Philadelphia Union.
The sad thing is there's a large chunk of MLS's desired demographic that won't understand much, if any, of those references, but, kids, trust us, it's spot on.