Atlanta United's hopes of repeating as MLS Cup champions likely rest on the injury status of the club's record-setting striker.
MLS marches ahead toward Decision Day, with another standings-altering weekend giving way to an important slate of midweek matches that could prove to be quite telling as it relates to playoff places and seeding.
One situation sticks out above all else, though, and that involves the league's defending champion. Atlanta United will be going to the playoffs for a third straight year, and it still has a chance to finish atop the Eastern Conference standings and earn a first-round bye in the new-look postseason, but it will have one major question mark for the remainder of the season, and that's where we'll kick off our weekly look back at the most notable happenings in MLS:
I. Josef Martinez: Streak over, injury worry
Atlanta United's record-setting striker has more concerns beyond his outrageous 15-match scoring streak coming to an end. No, he won't catch Lionel Messi's world record of 21 games. At this point, Atlanta just wants to make sure that he'll play again this season.
Martinez was stretchered off in Atlanta's 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, suffering an apparent knee injury when he collided with teammate Pity Martinez and had his leg buckle underneath him as he went to ground. It was a frightening site, one that silenced the typically boisterous Mercedes-Benz Stadium when it happened.
"We know Josef a little bit, he's a tough guy. He will not suddenly step off the field," Atlanta manager Frank de Boer said. "He will have something, that's for sure. But we have to wait. It's too early to predict. But I think it's not a good sign that he goes off ... but it's like that. We have to deal with it. Again, we have to wait."
ESPN's Taylor Twellman reported Sunday that it was a "more weeks than months" type of injury, which can be described as the best-case scenario. MLS's playoffs start on Oct. 19, which would put the Venezuelan star in a fitness race to be ready. If tests show that is indeed the case, then it's not too dissimilar to last season, when Miguel Almiron was carrying a hamstring injury into the playoffs, played 45 minutes in the first leg vs. NYCFC in the conference semifinals and then was good to go from that point on. He missed the final two games of the regular season, a year after missing four of the final five games with another injury before returning for the playoffs.
Atlanta seems to have a high-profile injury scare at this juncture every season, and it'll surely hope that Martinez can follow the Almiron blueprint of a season ago: recover in time and find his form when the games matter most.
II. Atlanta's late show
Credit to the Five Stripes for overcoming Martinez's departure and finding a way to win–albeit against a side that was reduced to nine men. Emerson Hyndman and Pity Martinez's goals after the 90th minute secured three points, which ensured Atlanta of at least one home game in the playoffs and kept the club alive in the fight for the top seed in the East.
That top seed becomes even more desirable now knowing what extra rest could mean for Josef Martinez's playoff outlook. An additional three or four days could mean the difference between having him available or needing to win without him.
III. San Jose self combusts
On the flip side of Atlanta's tumultuous day: San Jose. The Earthquakes are hanging onto their playoff lives, currently sitting in the seventh and final postseason place in the West thanks to the goals scored tiebreaker. That means their margin for error is nonexistent. And that means that ejections for Chris Wondolowski, Cristian Espinoza and manager Matias Almeyda have put the club in a really tight spot.
SJ manager Matías Almeyda to reporters post game regarding the officiating: “It was not a fair match.”— Felipe Cárdenas (@FelipeCar) September 21, 2019
Almeyda referred to his team as a clean team” and was candid about his willingness to come to MLS, but is concerned with the standard of league referees.
Passion and dedication to the cause are among the reasons the Earthquakes turned things around after a putrid start and rose as high as second in the conference at one point, but that blessing has also turned out to be its curse. Not having those key figures–Wondo's 14 goals are tops on San Jose, while Espinoza's 12 assists lead the team–for a midweek match vs. the Philadelphia Union puts the club in danger of losing a fourth straight game (and seventh out of nine), with games against Seattle and Portland to close the season. It was already going to be a tough hill to climb, but now it's gotten considerably steeper.
IV. Zlatan, LA closer to postseason
The LA Galaxy keep handling their business to move further away from the playoff line, and it's no surprise that they have Zlatan Ibrahimovic to thank for that. A second straight win has shot the Galaxy up to fourth in the West. It came on a night when Ibrahimovic fired all eight of his shots on target, one of which found the back of the net to keep him in the mix for the league's golden boot.
More importantly, Cristian Pavon and Uriel Antuna combined for the eventual winner, easing up the overreliance on The Lion/Ferrari and delivering the three points in another fashion.
V. Vela to the rescue
LAFC isn't losing matches, but it's hard not to raise an eyebrow at the club's five-match winless streak as the regular season winds down. Winning the Supporters' Shield has been such a foregone conclusion for the club, that you wonder if the intensity level has been taken down a notch. Couple that with Carlos Vela's two-game injury absence, and Bob Bradley's well-oiled machine has some tinkering to do before heading into a playoff tournament it is expecting to win.
The club's third straight draw, this one vs. Toronto FC, came courtesy of–who else?–Vela, whose penalty kick kept him on course to match or beat Josef Martinez's single-season MLS goal record of 31.
Vela has 29 now with three games to go, meaning he could set the mark in three fewer games than Martinez did last season, when he played in each of Atlanta's 34 matches. The strike rates of both players have just been outrageous.
VI. Suddenly there's one open spot in the East
With a couple of weeks to go, there's just one spot up for grabs in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, while the West remains wide open, with LAFC still the only team to punch its playoff ticket.
The New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and Toronto FC all secured their places after a series of results went their way. As it stands, the New England Revolution hold the seventh and final place in the East, leading the Chicago Fire by three points, Montreal Impact by four, Orlando City by five and Columbus Crew by six–with a game in hand on all of them. Far be it from a Bruce Arena-coached team to think qualification is in the bag before finishing the job (too soon?), but with the Revs sandwiching away matches at Portland and Atlanta with a road trip to NYCFC to close the season, that seventh position could still be hanging in the balance.
VII. How do you really feel, Caleb?
The Columbus Crew are effectively out of playoff contention after letting a lead vs. Vancouver slip away deep into stoppage time and settling for a 1-1 draw.
That inability to close out a game didn't sit too well with manager Caleb Porter, who bemoaned his side's effort in the waning moments. “The season was on the line, we’re up 1-0, 10 seconds to go. We need to put the ball in the stands. These are simple things that you have to do to win games and we do the wrong things and it’s cost us this season, honestly. If we could see out a game this year we’d be in the playoffs.”
As it stands, they won't be, but at least the Crew will be breaking ground on a new downtown stadium in Columbus. Given the events of the last year, things could be worse.
VIII. 49 shots, 0 goals
How exactly did the Portland Timbers and Minnesota United pull that off? Just a reminder that not all 0-0 draws are created equally–and there were three to choose from across the league over the weekend.
IX. That didn't take long
NYCFC led FC Dallas after 40 seconds thanks to the Anton Tinnerholm-Valentin Castellanos connection.
It didn't last, though, thanks to some aggressive pressing from Paxton Pomykal and a calamity in the back for NYCFC
The setback doesn't kill NYCFC, but it does leave Atlanta within striking range (four points) of first in the conference and the bye that comes along with it with three games to go–including a head-to-head showdown this Wednesday.
X. Bicycle-kick-start to a comeback
Kei Kamara returned to Kansas City with a splash and got the Colorado Rapids' comeback from 2-0 down started in sensational fashion.
Meanwhile, it's been that kind of season for Sporting Kansas City, arguably the most disappointing team in the league.
XI. From own-goal goat to game-winning hero
That'd be Tommy Smith, who opened the scoring for SKC inadvertently only to make up for it–and then some–by delivering all three points to Colorado.
The Rapids, shockingly, are still alive in the playoff hunt, though they'd need a series of results to go their way considering they only have two games left and the two teams they're trailing by five points have three apiece. Regardless, that's a fine turnaround from a team that started the season winless in its first 11 matches.