It took some time, but MLS is finally at the do-or-die juncture of the regular season–such is life in a league where 14 of 24 teams make the playoffs–with seven midweek matches beginning a sprint to the Decision Day finish line on Oct. 6.
Playoff spots and seeds remain unclaimed as the teams still alive in the hunt jockey for positioning for the new, single-elimination format. For those in need of a refresher: each conference will feature seven playoff teams, with the top seed enjoying a bye to the conference semifinals. Seeds 2-4 will host first-round games, and higher seeds will host the rest of the way until MLS Cup on Nov. 10.
By virtue of having the best record in the league–something that's not yet a certainty but is only a matter of time before becoming official–LAFC would have the luxury of playing at home all the way through the final. That is, of course, unless it falters en route. In a single-game elimination scenario last season, for instance, LAFC fell at home to Real Salt Lake, and one-off MLS playoff matches tend to be on the dramatic side.
Regardless, the playoff picture is starting to clear a little bit, and by week's end, it will be considerably more apparent what will remain on the line in the regular-season finales.
Take a closer look at where things currently stand:
The Eastern Conference is nearly spoken for, while, by contrast, the Western Conference remains almost entirely up for grabs.
New York City FC, Atlanta United, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC have clinched playoff berths in the East–though positioning remains undecided–while the New England Revolution currently hold onto the seventh position. Despite having a game in hand on their challengers, they have a brutal remaining schedule (at Portland, vs. NYCFC, at Atlanta), which could open the door for the Chicago Fire (three points back), Montreal Impact (four points back) and Orlando City (five points back) to close the gap and overtake them.
The Western Conference has just one team in, LAFC, with seven teams realistically fighting for the remaining six slots (though 10 remain mathematically alive).
Only two teams have technically been eliminated: Expansion side FC Cincinnati, whose next goal conceded will set a new league record for defensive futility, and the Vancouver Whitecaps. More will join them shortly.
If New England wins in Portland Wednesday night, then Montreal, Orlando City and Columbus are out. It would take just a Revs draw to officially end the Crew's season.
The Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City are on the chopping block in the Western Conference. If San Jose and Portland both win at home Wednesday night, for instance, then all three are eliminated.
Houston and SKC also need to win their matches, or else it doesn't matter what happens with San Jose and Portland as it relates to them. Colorado doesn't play Wednesday but could also be eliminated if San Jose wins, Portland draws and Sporting KC upends Minnesota.
SCENARIOS TO CLINCH
- LAFC will seize the Supporters' Shield with a Wednesday win vs. the Houston Dynamo or an NYCFC loss or draw vs. Atlanta. NYCFC can max out at 67 points, while LAFC is already on 65. Bob Bradley's side is surprisingly winless in five games (0-1-4), but you'd like its odds of finishing the job as early as Wednesday.
- NYCFC's consolation prize could be the first-round bye in the East, something that can be obtained with a win in Atlanta and a Philadelphia loss or draw vs. San Jose on Wednesday.
- The LA Galaxy (at Real Salt Lake) and Minnesota United (vs. Sporting Kansas City) are both in if they win on Wednesday. They can also both get in without winning with a set of convoluted circumstances. If either or both draw, then they'd need San Jose and Portland to draw in their matches as well. If either or both lose, then they'd need one of Portland/San Jose to draw and one to lose to punch the ticket.
- The Seattle Sounders don't play until the weekend but would clinch if both Portland and San Jose do not win their midweek matches.
- RSL will also be rooting for Portland and San Jose to not win, because if that happens and RSL beats the Galaxy, then RSL is in.