The 10 most important matches of the MLS playoff stretch run

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Bradley Wright Phillips Michael Parkhurst 09272017
Jason Getz
As we hit the final month of the MLS regular season, Goal breaks down the most important matchup taking place in the closing weeks.

And DOWN the stretch they come.

Major League Soccer's regular season has reached its final weeks of action, and the playoff races in both conferences are about as tightly contested as you would expect. Time is running out for those teams that still haven't secured playoff berths, and also for teams hoping to set themselves up for the easiest possible paths to the MLS Cup final in December.

We saw just last week what sort of obstacles can trip up playoff contenders, as upsets ruled the day and made things even more interesting as the final month before the postseason arrives. If last week taught us anything, it's that nobody can look past opponents, even in matchups that seem like gimmes.

While you can't always predict which scheduling land mines will be stepped on by surprised contenders, you can look ahead to the final weeks and the matches that will carry the biggest playoff implications.

Settling on 10 wasn't easy, and the reality is there are several other matches that could have made this list. Among the matches to miss the cut was Toronto FC's regular-season finale at Atlanta United. Normally that would be one of the must-see matches of the season, but with TFC likely having secured the Supporters' Shield and top seed in the East well before then, there's a good chance TFC will trot out a second-string side for that one.

Montreal's return to Toronto in October could easily have made the list, with the Impact holding on to slim playoff chances and TFC having an opportunity to eliminate their rivals from playoff contention. Lest we forget that the Impact recently handed TFC a 5-3 loss at BMO Field a week ago, which was TFC's first home loss of the season.

Atlanta United's upcoming visit to New England could definitely have playoff implications, and there will be revenge on the mind of the Revolution after the embarrassing 7-0 loss in Atlanta a week ago. Any chance the Revs have of pulling off a late surprise run to the playoffs will hinge on taking all three points in this one.

So which matchups did make the cut? Here is a look at the 10 biggest matches left this regular season:

Wednesday: Sounders vs. Whitecaps

Nicolas Lodeiro Russell Teibert Seattle Vancouver 08232017

Few outside of British Columbia would have pegged the Whitecaps to be leading the West this late in the season, but Carl Robinson's men are on a roll, unbeaten in seven and looking like the best Whitecaps team we've ever seen.

As good as they've looked, the Whitecaps will be facing a brutal stretch of road matches to finish out the regular season, starting with a short trip to CenturyLink Field to face a Sounders side fresh off having a 13-match unbeaten streak snapped by Real Salt Lake. The Sounders sit in fourth place in the West, but still have aspirations of grabbing the top seed in the conference. Anything short of a win in this one will leave the Sounders likely taking a long road to an MLS Cup repeat.

Saturday: Fire vs. NYCFC

Chicago Fire NYCFC Jack Harrison 07222017

Remember when New York City FC looked to have a hammerlock on the second seed in the East? Well that grip has loosened considerably after a three-match winless rut, and now with Atlanta United surging, NYCFC suddenly finds itself in a dogfight to avoid a first-round playoff match.

The Chicago Fire have endured a rough second half to the regular season, having gone 3-7-2 in their past dozen matches. That slide has taken the Fire from a contender for a top two spot in the East to a team that could wind up playing a road game in the first round of the playoffs. Three points at home are a must for Veljko Paunovic's side, or the Fire run the risk of sliding down the East standings.

Saturday: Earthquakes vs. Timbers

Diego Valeri Portland San Jose 06022017

The San Jose Earthquakes have a very shaky hold on the final playoff spot in the West. Having suffered blowout losses in two of their past three matches, the Earthquakes look extremely vulnerable and will need to secure maximum points from their remaining matches at Avaya Stadium to avoid slipping out of the playoff picture.

The Timbers are currently second in the West, but every other team near them in the standings has at least one game in hand on them. That makes all of Portland's three remaining matches crucial, and a win in their final road game of the regular season would give the Timbers a major boost.

Saturday: Sporting KC vs. Whitecaps

Sporting KC Vancouver Tim Parker Gerso Fernandes 05202017

The Whitecaps and Sporting KC are separated by just one point in the standings, and with each of them holding two games in hand on Portland, you can make the case that the winner of this showdown will have the inside track on the top seed in the West playoffs.

Sporting KC happens to be the only team in MLS with an unbeaten record at home (10-0-5) and is riding high after winning another U.S. Open Cup title. The Whitecaps will also come in off a tough midweek trip to Seattle, making the trip to Children's Mercy Park an even trickier proposition.

Oct. 15: Sounders vs. FC Dallas

Osvaldo Alonso Kellyn Acosta MLS 09162017

When will the FC Dallas nightmare run end? Folks in Dallas and around the league have been left dumbfounded by the 10-match winless slide that has Oscar Pareja's men in danger of missing the playoffs. We keep waiting for it to end, but it just keeps going, even against weaker opponents.

FC Dallas has three matches against two of the worst teams in the league at the moment — Colorado and Orlando City — and if the Hoops do snap out of their funk, then this trip to Seattle will be crucial to determining whether FC Dallas can still make the playoffs, and even potentially climb up a few spots. As for the Sounders, a late push for the top seed is possible with three of their final four matches at home, but that will require winning this matchup against a very familiar foe.

Oct. 15: Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United

Bradley Wright Phillips Leandro Gonzalez Pirez MLS Atlanta 03262017

We've all seen what a force Atlanta United can be at home, but this trip to Red Bull Arena should be a much tougher proposition, especially against a team on shaky playoff ground, and one that doesn't lose often at home.

The Red Bulls haven't been getting results lately, with a five-game winless slide dropping them to sixth in the East, but Jesse Marsch's side hasn't been playing that poorly, and the Red Bulls have the quality to halt the surging expansion side.

Oct. 15: Sporting KC vs. Houston Dynamo

Houston Dynamo Sporting KC 06282017

You might be surprised to see this one make the list. After all, it's a match between one of the league's worst road teams against one of the best. The Dynamo showed something though in their trip east to draw NYCFC (though it was in Connecticut rather than at Yankee Stadium). Houston is currently tied with San Jose on points, but the Dynamo have a game in hand along with some very winnable games.

That said, this match is the second of back-to-back meetings between these teams, and Sporting KC will be looking for a sweep to help boost its quest for first place in the West.

Oct. 22: NYCFC vs. Crew 

Wil Trapp Jack Harrison MLS 04292017

The Crew are on a roll, having gone unbeaten in seven matches to put a strong grip on a playoff spot. And if that run continues, this could be a match that helps Columbus secure a home game in the first round of the playoffs. Did we mention the Crew are tied for the league lead in home wins this year?

This regular-season finale should be an important one for NYCFC, whether it is to secure second place in the East, or potentially to ensure a first-round playoff game at Yankee Stadium. It should also give David Villa one last chance to boost his candidacy for a repeat MLS MVP award.

Oct. 22: Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC

Real Salt Lake Sporting Kansas City 07222017

Real Salt Lake has become one of the league's true turnaround stories, overcoming an early-season coaching change and poor start to become a real force in the West. Recent wins against Portland and Seattle have certified RSL's status as a legitimate threat, and this home match against Sporting KC could help RSL lock up its playoff berth.

As noted in Sporting KC's other two entries on this list, the top seed in the West is well within reach, but RSL's recent big wins have come at Rio Tinto Stadium. Winning in Utah won't be easy, but if Peter Vermes' squad can pull it off, the top seed in the West could be SKC's.

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Oct. 22: Timbers vs. Whitecaps

Alphonso Davies David Guzman Portland Vancouver 04222017

The Timbers will be hoping that Vancouver's brutal remaining schedule will lead to some stumbles to the regular-season finish line, which would bode well for Portland to hand its Cascadia rivals a loss in the finale. The Whitecaps have been a solid road team this year though, tied for the second-most road wins in 2017. That said, you wonder if the Whitecaps' congested remaining schedule (five matches) will catch up to them against a Timbers side that has just three regular season games remaining.

Portland is sure to point to the fact it has beaten Vancouver in both of their meetings this season, but the Whitecaps are a much stronger team now than the one that suffered those losses earlier in the season.