MLS analysis

MLS notebook: Breaking down the race for the playoffs and the races for first

In between two very important MLS matchdays in quick succession, ASN's Brian Sciaretta looks at some of the big races and games heading into tomorrow. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 19, 2023
7:10 AM

IN THE WAKE OF an international window, it’s been a busy week in the international front and in MLS there was a full slate of games over the weekend and a full slate on Wednesday with the playoffs quickly approaching. We’re learning more about the playoff chances of some teams, as well as those looking to make a run in the playoffs.

Here are some thoughts on it all – with a focus on specific races - looking ahead to tomorrow.


Cincinnati vying for the Supporters Shield


Over the weekend, Cincinnati played Philadelphia to a 2-2 draw. All things considered, it was a very good result for Cincy as they were playing in Philadelphia, were trailing 2-0 at the half, and were without MVP candidate Luciano Acosta due to a suspension.

Cincy is still the heavy favorite to win the Supporters Shield and they still have an eight-point lead on Orlando despite Orlando’s brilliant run over the last six MLS games (5 wins and 1 draw).

Wednesday, Cincy heads to Montreal in a game that is of importance to both teams. Orlando is favored on Wednesday in its visit to NYCFC. If Cincy slips on Wednesday, its lead on the Supporters Shield could slide to five points.


Meanwhile, Brandon Vazquez is playing out the stretch of what will probably be his final season in Ohio. On the heels of his second straight productive season, he is moving towards a potential sale and he is carrying his team towards it.

Meanwhile, the bottom half of the East is just a bunch of teams that don’t want to win. None of the teams in positions 7-15 in the East won over the weekend. In fact, only two of the teams in that range have won more than one of their last five MLS games. But Montreal is playing this game at home, you’ll want to see some desperation from them.

In this game from an American perspective, keep an eye on Montreal defender George Campbell who should be in line for a U-23 call-up this fall.


LAFC at St. Louis


This is the marquee game of the night. LAFC is coming off a statement win over the LA Galaxy following a tough loss to their local rivals at the Rose Bowl this summer. LAFC has not been as strong as advertised this season and most of their struggles have come after the Champions League run. Offensively, the team is just not as explosive.


St. Louis is better than advertised and their high-energy pressing style has worked. Part of me thinks that this system will be more difficult to execute in the playoffs when teams become a lot more focused. On the other hand, St. Louis will be at home.

St. Louis has a six-point lead on LAFC but LAFC has played one fewer game. A win by LAFC would turn this into a dead heat for first overall in the West. A draw works well for St. Louis as it stops LAFC’s chase. A St. Louis win, however, will put them in a nearly unstoppable position.


The East’s playoff race


Even while Nashville has struggled with just two points from their last six MLS games, they’re probably okay. Part of that is due to the same reason why some teams struggle after the CONCACAF Champions League – both physical and mental fatigue. Nasvhille’s run to the final and the heartbreaking end have taken their toll. As we saw with Seattle last year, some teams are cooked for the year based on a midseason tournament.

I think Nashville will be okay, but I am not sure. Getting Walker Zimmerman back will help.

After that, there are seven teams in this order: Montreal, DC United, Chicago, Charlotte, NYCFC, the New York Red Bulls, and Inter Miami.

DC United holds the final playoff spot and they just can’t seal the deal with two straight 0-0, 0-0 draws against teams where they should win. If they don’t make the playoffs, it will be due to the San Jose game where they badly outplayed the Quakes at home but couldn’t get it done.


Now, DC United must host an Atlanta team that looks like it means business now following the 5-2 thrashing of Inter Miami. If DC can win this game, they’re in a great position because on Saturday they host a very bad RBNY team that can’t score. At some point, DC is going to have to win a big game where they’re the underdog.

Previously, it was the Fire holding the last spot and just a win here or there would have put themselves on the inside. But Chicago can’t win. The Fire would be in a great position if they were just average over the past month. But they haven’t scored in four games and their chances heading into Columbus on Wednesday are slim

NYCFC hosts Montreal hosts Orlando and NYCFC isn’t good. If they were, we would have seen it by now. They host a heavily motivated Orlando team.

RBNY is a tough team to watch with almost no decent scoring options. This is not a playoff team.


This takes us to Inter Miami. Seven points behind DC United for the final playoff spot and still a much different team than the start of the season. You can’t discount Inter Miami yet. They have played two fewer games than DC United (winning those would take them to just one point behind DCU). Lionel Messi is questionable, but Miami doesn’t need Messi to beat Toronto at home. If they lose to Toronto, the playoffs are likely over. Beating Toronto at home simply buys Miami time for the games they will need Messi – which likely means this weekend away at Orlando.

The Open Cup final also raises questions about roster turnover and how much Orlando will push for the playoffs when it means playing their older players a lot. We don’t know. But a win over Toronto and a DC United loss to Atlanta will continue to keep it a possibility due to them being so much better than the other teams in the bottom half of the East.


The West's playoff race


It’s not completely settled, but let’s say the Houston, RSL, and San Jose are all okay at 40 points in spots 5-7. The Rapids are also done.

That leaves (in order) Minnesota, Portland, Sporting KC, Dallas, Austin, and the Galaxy as six teams fighting for two spots.

The West is far different from the East in that the bottom half of teams are generally better. It’s going to be harder to see movement.

The Galaxy – Minnesota game is going to be revealing because both teams have had rough stretches the past three games. Three games ago, it looked like the Galaxy were going to make a playoff run. But since then, they fell off. This game against Minnesota is their last stand because if they lose, their playoff gap likely swells to seven or nine points. Minnesota can either sit in great standing or drop below the line depending on the result.

Sporting Kansas City is actually a team that is playing like it wants to go to the playoffs with three wins from four games and now they host a Nashville team that is winless in six. Another win will only ratchet up the pressure.

That brings us to Texas. Dallas and Austin are two teams that need to reverse course. Austin has the benefit of playing the Red Bulls but they’re likely done. Dallas is not because they’ve played only 27 games, but they need to win. They’re also facing immense pressure ahead of Wednesday’s game at Real Salt Lake.  

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