- With the looming specter of missing the playoffs for a third straight season, the LA Galaxy earned an emphatic victory, while Sounders supporters let their feelings about MLS's fan conduct policy known and more records were extended in an action-packed weekend.
MLS Decision Day is just three weeks away, and based on the way things currently stand, there's plenty that will go undecided until that day comes.
The Supporters' Shield, of course, will belong to LAFC, though Bob Bradley's side wasn't able to put the finishing touches on the achievement just yet. But playoff positioning in the Western Conference continues to be a weekly snow globe, with seven contenders for six spots seemingly being shaken up and landing in different positions on a week-to-week basis.
In the East, it's a bit less hectic, though three teams on the outside of the current playoff picture still have realistic hopes of a late surge into the postseason. At the top, NYCFC was able to secure some separation thanks to dropped points from its two chief contenders for the all-important first-round bye.
Here's a look back at the most notable happenings from around the league, as the heated battles for places in the postseason continues:
I. Zlatan, Galaxy make a statement
The LA Galaxy needed a win of any sort given their funk and the looming specter of missing the playoffs for a third straight season. So a 7-2 eye-opener against Sporting Kansas City late Sunday night certainly qualifies. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's hat trick sparked the Galaxy rout, one that vaulted the club from eighth in the super-tight Western Conference to fifth and brought the club's goal differential back to 0 after it lingered in the negatives for so long. From a personal standpoint, the hat trick gave Ibrahimovic 26 goals on the season, setting a new single-season club record. That's no small feat given who has preceded him in leading the Galaxy over the last two-plus decades.
The aggressive, confident approach bodes well for the Galaxy, whose schedule remains its friend to close out the regular season. With the club only two points clear of the playoff line, this is no time to be making "they're in!" proclamations, and LA's defense still remains questionable at best (the Galaxy actually trailed 1-0 Sunday and Sporting KC missed a number of gilt-edged chances along the way), but the win was a needed step in the right direction.
II. Sounders fans do, too
If the MLS league office thought its crusade to silence its most passionate supporters and their opposition to facism was going to carry out without a hitch, then it doesn't really know its most passionate supporters. After banning select Portland Timbers fans for waving flags with the Iron Front symbol–a symbol deemed political by the league and, by extension, in violation of its fan code of conduct policy–a leading Seattle Sounders supporter was ejected from CenturyLink Field on Sunday for doing the same. The Emerald City Supporters then joined him in exiting the stadium, making for quite the odd optics and atmosphere at one of the league's most vaunted venues during Seattle's important 4-2 win over the New York Red Bulls.
They just kicked out the head of gameday ops, made @WeAreECS take down the iron front symbols which are up to support inclusion for our players from all over the world. This is a sad moment. #SoundersMatchday#AUnitedFront pic.twitter.com/7Ljomh2vzB— Emily Cummings (@emilyrcummings) September 15, 2019
The incident follows a previous protest in Portland, where Timbers and Sounders fans found common ground to remain silent together for 33 minutes at Providence Park during a rivalry bout that otherwise presents one of the league's best settings. Supporters groups are reportedly slated to meet with MLS officials this week to hash out the issues, but this conflict doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.
III. Vela back, Vela scores
Carlos Vela's return to the lineup was a welcome one for LAFC, which needed his equalizer in a tight 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union. Vela missed the last three games with the hamstring injury suffered vs. the Galaxy, and LAFC didn't win a single one. It didn't win Saturday either, of course, but easily could have lost without its talisman leading the charge.
His 28th goal of the season remains tops in the league, though Ibrahimovic and Atlanta's Josef Martinez remain within striking distance, especially if Bob Bradley rotates his squad more with first in the Western Conference already clinched and the Supporters' Shield to follow. No team wants to limp into the playoffs, though, and Vela's return can only help LAFC avoid a prolonged slump to end the regular season.
IV. The East is NYCFC's to lose
LAFC holding the Union to a draw and Atlanta United surprisingly falling to the Columbus Crew has opened the door for NYCFC to seize first place in the Eastern Conference. After a come-from-behind 2-1 win over San Jose, thanks to two goals in three minutes, NYCFC holds a five-point lead in the East with four games to play. The club is unbeaten in its last seven (6-0-1), has only lost five times all season and has found a more balanced approach after David Villa's departure.
With the win, the club clinched at the very least the right to host a first-round playoff game–if that first round is needed at all. The home playoff matches might not stop there, either. MLS Cup being held in Yankee Stadium would certainly draw groans from plenty of corners of the American soccer community, given the smaller field and general optics of playing there, but if LAFC slips up (and in a single-elimination playoff bracket, anything can happen), the path would clear to such a scenario unfolding.
V. They got Argentina-Mexico'd
The Chicago Fire celebrated some big news on Friday, with the club securing its move back to Soldier Field for next season along with Joe Mansueto purchasing Andrew Hauptman's controlling stake of the team. The celebrations carried over into Saturday, when the Fire did to FC Dallas what Argentina did to Mexico in a friendly a few nights prior: dropped four goals in the first half of a one-sided laugher.
VI. This is not the way to cement a playoff berth
The New England Revolution blew a two-goal lead to Orlando City, turning three points into one and marking it two straight games in which the Revs have held a lead, only to fail to secure the win. Prior to that, the Revs had been the ones scraping from behind for a draw, so perhaps it's all a matter of things evening out, but Bruce Arena's side isn't making it easy on itself when it comes to securing a playoff berth.
As it stands, it's three points clear of Montreal and Chicago and four clear of Orlando with a game in hand on all of them, but its hopes of hosting a first round game are slipping with each slip-up.
VII. This is also not the way to cement a playoff berth
Few would consider the Montreal Impact a real threat considering their recent coaching change and the general aura of mediocrity around the club, but it was still hovering around the playoff line for weeks, every so often showing the glimpses of a team that, if it could put it all together, could surprise a team or two. Well, conceding to historically-bad FC Cincinnati after 25 seconds and then failing to find an answer in the 89+ minutes that followed is not a way to win over any doubters.
VIII. A record extended, Part I
Josef Martinez scored in a 14th straight MLS match, opening the scoring for Atlanta United before the wheels shockingly fell off against a Columbus Crew side that retains a very faint hope of making the playoffs.
IX. A record extended, Part II
Chris Wondolowski's MLS all-time goals record stands at 158 after his 14th goal of the year, but, like Martinez, it opened the scoring in a match his team went on to lose.
For all of Wondo's accomplishments, he has only scored once in the playoffs, and for him to get a shot to add to that tally, San Jose is going to need to find a way to snap its funk in a brutal stretch to close the regular season. The Earthquakes have lost five of their last seven and close at Atlanta, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Seattle and at Portland. That's no easy feat for a team holding desperately onto its place above the playoff line.
X. A big development for Minnesota
Darwin Quintero hasn't been an automatic in Adrian Heath's XI for Minnesota United recently–nor has his form dictated that he necessarily should be–but he was restored to the starting lineup in a decision that paid off for the Loons. His double helped Minnesota to a 3-1 in over Real Salt Lake in a key battle for playoff positioning (while also doing the retiring Nick Rimando dirty on his first effort of the day).
With the win, Minnesota went ahead of RSL into third in the West and is three points clear of having to travel for the first round of the playoffs. Given it's only lost once at home and has nine losses on the road, that's significant–and so is Quintero's role as it relates to any postseason success the club may have in its maiden MLS playoff voyage.
XI. VAR must have hit the snooze
D.C. United was a deserved 1-0 winner in Portland on Sunday–no thanks to the bewildering lack of use of video review to confirm what appeared to be a second goal.
Former DCU product Eryk Williamson's goal-line clearance appeared to have come a few millimeters too late, but it wasn't ruled as such.
D.C. was leading 1-0 at the time on a Portland own goal, and fortunately for the club (and some of the league's decision makers), the result held up.
A just result, surely, and one that puts D.C. on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth.