With the new schedule this year, Major League Soccer has a couple more sprints before the finish of the 2019 season. With the new playoff schedule, the second season is much shorter this year, after having to deal with the November international window smack dab in the middle of the playoffs. This year the playoffs are sandwiched between the October and November FIFA windows, which will help produce an MLS Cup winner in a whirlwind of a playoff schedule.
However, the league has set up the next couple of weeks in a similar manner. Now that the September FIFA window has ended, there will be a race for teams to secure their playoff spot over the next couple of weeks, culminating in the final day of the regular season, October 6.
Most teams will play either four or five games over the next four weeks, looking to either cement their playoff spot, make moves, or even help build towards 2020. The exceptions are Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers, who both play six times between now and next month. While some aspects of the playoffs have already been determined, there are still plenty of questions to be answered in the last couple of weeks of the regular season.
Starting with the certainties: thanks for playing, Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Cincinnati. Not the biggest surprise that the expansion side is missing out on the playoffs, but this hasn't been the season that anyone was hoping for. Alan Koch didn't last the year, the backline is on course to set the record for the worst defensive record in league history. The team that Cincy fields next year might look drastically different to the side this year.
On the other side of the coin, LAFC, NYCFC, and the Philadelphia Union have already punched their playoff tickets. Breaking records will still pace LAFC over the next four games, but Bob Bradley's side has already clinched the top seed in the Western Conference. There's less clarity at the top of the East, but NYC and Philly will have to hold off Atlanta to grab the top spot in the East this year.
Outside of that though, there's still plenty to parse through in MLS. Over in the West, it seems certain that seven teams are vying for the final six playoff spots. Those seven teams are currently separated by a grand total of four points. Meaning that any of those seven teams could just as easily miss the playoffs as make them.
Currently on the outside looking in is the LA Galaxy, with 42 points from 29 games. Even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring goals at a good clip, and with Argentine international Cristian Pavon in support, the MLS originals have struggled to pick up wins recently. After missing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season last year, Guillermo Barros Schelotto was brought in this year to help get Galaxy back into the second season. There's plenty of firepower, but can LAG pick up a couple of wins that they have to have to make it back to the playoffs?
If not, then the rest of the field will be made up of the Timbers, Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders, Minnesota United (for the first time) the San Jose Earthquakes, and FC Dallas. LAFC will still be the favorites, but the Timbers have given them fits this season. Matias Almeyda has turned SJ into quite the spectacle this year. And who knows what to expect from the Loons, who are finally over the hump this year with Adrian Heath making the most of his offseason acquisitions.
In the East, the playoff is race is just as tight, with the teams likely to make the playoffs just as narrowed down. Orlando City still hasn't reached the promised land, and with 35 points from 30 games, it seems like they'll have to wait at least another year. The Montreal Impact could have made a huge statement to position themselves well in the playoff picture on August 31, but instead, they got smacked 3-0 at home by D.C. United.
After narrowing missing out on the playoffs in 2018, there's a real chance that the Impact, now under the guidance of Wilmer Cabrera, will suffer the same fate this year. Bruce Arena, meanwhile, seems to have the New England Revolution on the right track, after the mess that Brad Friedel left when he was fired earlier this year. The Revs are among a group of five teams vying for the final four playoff spots in the East, something that seemed impossible back when Friedel was calling out players left and right earlier in the year.
Above Toronto FC right now, there's a clear gap to the top three teams in the conference, NYC, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Barring a complete collapse, those three teams should finish in one of the top three spots in the conference, and head into the playoffs as the three favorites to represent the East at MLS Cup.
During the season, at times it can seem like the MLS season can drag on. But with the new schedule and format, this sprint to the final day of the season should provide plenty of storylines and intrigue over the next four weeks, even before we get to the always unpredictable MLS playoffs.