Saturday feels like a big day for the settlement of the MLS playoff picture in the East.
Several teams have been playing catch-up in terms of matches-in-hand for months, with New York City FC, Atlanta United, and even Toronto FC eyeing up goals higher up the table than their standing.
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And the East looks set for a blockbuster run into the playoffs, which begin their new structure this Fall. Only the No. 1 seeds get a bye, and two-legged affairs are joyfully a thing of the past.
As it stands, the playoffs may hinge on the massive advantage of a postage stamp pitch.
New York City FC
NYCFC has taken advantage of its schedule, winning five-straight matches including Saturday’s defeat of New England to climb into first place in the East.
Domenec Torrent now has a better points-per-match than Patrick Vieira’s strong run in charge, and NYCFC has a two-point lead on Philadelphia with a match-in-hand.
NYCFC has six matches left, and there isn’t a simple one in the bunch. Toronto, San Jose, and Atlanta come to Yankee Stadium, while the side travels to Dallas, New England, and Philly.
(A prolonged New York Yankees playoff run is going to wreak havoc on the grass, by the way, as NYCFC faces possible home games on Oct. 23-24 or Oct. 29-30).
The Union took advantage of the international break to take on Pumas of Liga MX, and their second choice team won 3-0.
Jim Curtin’s rise up the table is one of the best stories in the league, the coach rewarding Philly for its trust in him (and understanding that it hadn’t given him a full deck).
Four of five matches left on the docket are brutal, though. There are visits from LAFC and NYCFC, and trip to the Red Bulls and San Jose. If Philly holds out and finishes first, there’s no doubting their acumen for a postseason run.
Atlanta is five points back of NYCFC, but is on the same amount of matches. Given their schedule, Frank De Boer‘s men may well take the No. 1 see if they can take three points from NYCFC on Sept. 25.
The Black-and-Red only have four matches left. Wayne Rooney and Co. visit a desperate Portland next, and they’ve been pretty good about getting results away from home; DC’s nine wins/draws away trail only LAFC and NYCFC.
A Sept. 29 visit to the Red Bulls is DC’s only remaining chance to take points off a positioning rival. Even if they do that, Toronto’s slate means DC may fall out of a first round home playoff spot.
New York Red Bulls
Chris Armas’ team has a brutal road to the postseason. A point back of fourth with a match-in-hand, their standing could take a dive over the next two matches.
RBNY has consecutive matches across the country with Portland and Seattle, then visits from Philly and DC before finishing in Quebec against a Montreal side hopeful of chasing down the pack.
The keys are in their hands, but the Red Bulls have to drive across a mine field. This could end in any number of ways.
USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter did the Reds a solid by allowing Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Omar Gonzalez to stay for a pivotal two-match stretch. Greg Vanney got a near Man of the Match performance from Bradley and solid day from Gonzalez while Altidore rested up for NYCFC in a 5-1 drubbing of FC Cincinnati.
Both TFC and NYCFC will go into Wednesday’s game one little rest.
The Reds two brutal matches — away to NYCFC and LAFC — and three manageable outings against Colorado, Columbus, and Chicago. Beating NYCFC on Wednesday would seem to ensure a place in the Top Four, and a home game in Round 1.
New England‘s next game is critical, a visit to Orlando City. A draw or Revs win stings the Lions’ hopes for a late season push for the playoffs.
Montreal is dangerous on its day but tumultuous and faces a two-legged Canadian Championship with TFC for a place in the CONCACAF Champions League. It might be reasonable to prioritize that.
Orlando City has two points from its last four but also drew LAFC 2-2 this weekend. A win over New England on Saturday leads into a run-in of Houston, Cincinnati, and Chicago.
Chicago needs to win out and get help: Visits from Dallas and Toronto make this very difficult, though a finish against Orlando on Oct. 6 could be a show-stopper.