MLS schedule-makers earned their money in 2013 after setting up a penultimate weekend of regular season action with myriad matchups featuring major postseason implications.
All nine of this weekend’s matchups have playoff implications, and six of them feature both teams needing a result to help their postseason fortunes.
Whether it is Colorado and Vancouver meeting in what amounts to the first leg of a two-game playoff series, or Montreal meeting Philadelphia in a clash that could see the loser fall out of playoff contention, or Portland’s tussle with Real Salt Lake in a battle of Supporters' Shield contenders, this weekend will feel like the playoffs arrived two weeks early in MLS.
What we are seeing now are several teams on lengthy streaks heading toward the playoffs. On one end, you have teams like the Red Bulls, Dynamo, Timbers and Earthquakes, all riding unbeaten streaks of five matches or more. On the other end, you have teams like Montreal and Seattle, both in first place just a few weeks ago, but now both mired in lengthy winless skids that have them each in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.
As we head into the weekend, there are only four teams eliminated from the playoffs, while only two teams have secured their place in the postseason. That is why every game on this weekend’s schedule has something riding on it, whether it’s playoff places or the Supporters' Shield race.
Here is a closer look at the six matches with the biggest implications:
REAL SALT LAKE at PORTLAND TIMBERS
The top two teams in the West square off and the streaking Timbers know that a win would mean a guaranteed top three spot in the playoffs (which, among other things, means avoiding having to take part in the play-in game). The Timbers are unbeaten in six (4-0-2) and haven’t lost at home since March. RSL’s recent form hasn’t been as impressive, with Jason Kreis’ side having just one win in four matches. That said, RSL has had the Timbers’ number this season, going 2-0-1 in all competitions against Portland.
PHILADELPHIA UNION at MONTREAL IMPACT
The Impact are in free fall, going 0-5-1 in their past six to go from first place in the East to in danger of missing the playoffs. Philadelphia, 2-0-1 in its past three, will look to keep Montreal’s slide going. The teams are tied on points, and they are two of four teams battling for the final two spots in the East. The loser of this one will find it difficult to still reach the postseason, while the winner will be sitting pretty heading into the final week.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS at COLORADO RAPIDS
The Rapids and Whitecaps play consecutive weeks, and the Whitecaps have to know that anything short of two wins will likely mean missing the playoffs. Colorado has a one-point lead on San Jose for the final playoff spot in the West, and a three-point lead on Vancouver, but the Rapids must also know that a place in the top three is only three points away.
NEW YORK RED BULLS at HOUSTON DYNAMO
The Red Bulls are leading the Supporters' Shield race at the moment, but they face a Houston side unbeaten in five matches since the Red Bulls laid a 4-1 drubbing on the Dynamo when these teams last met in Houston on Sept. 8. Houston is a much different team now, though, and will want to send a message to the Red Bulls that BBVA Compass Stadium is once again a difficult place to play. The Red Bulls, unbeaten in six, can move a step closer to the club’s first major piece of silverware with a victory.
COLUMBUS CREW at NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Another set of teams ready to finish the regular season with a home-and-home series, the Revs and Crew are both on the outside of the playoff spots in the East, but New England can put some serious pressure on the other contenders with a pair of wins. The Crew are 4-2 in their past six, but winning two against a Revs side in very good form will be extremely difficult.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES at LA GALAXY
These bitter rivals always put on testy and memorable encounters, but Sunday’s should be even more physical as the Galaxy attempt to secure a place in the top three in the Western Conference while knocking the Earthquakes out of playoff contention in the process. San Jose is 4-0-1 in its past five matches, and could be facing a Galaxy team without Landon Donovan or Omar Gonzalez. An Earthquakes win could push them past Colorado into fifth place in the West, or at the very least set up some more drama for the final weekend of the MLS regular season.