MLS analysis

MLS notebook: NYCFC, Miami, & SKC in playoff push, danger for Quakes, & more

ASN's Brian Sciaretta writes up this thoughts from the weekend in MLS and where the teams stand in the playoff races. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 25, 2023
10:05 PM

THE WEEKEND IN MLS was pivotal in defining the playoff races. We learned who are have a real chances of making the postseason, who doesn’t, and we have a good idea of who has a chance of success when the postseason begins.

Mathematically, only two teams are out – Toronto and Colorado who are both pushing for the Wooden Spoon. But, we can add a whole bunch more to the list. But in terms of who is actually good, the list of contenders seems short: Cincinnati, Columbus, Orlando, Atlanta, and maybe the Union in the East. The West gives you St. Louis, LAFC, and yes Portland. Then, of course, Inter Miami is out there because they have a realistic playoff chance and if they get in, they’re legit.

Anyway, here are some quick thoughts on the weekend’s games.


Miami’s gutsy draw vs. Orlando


Most discussions of the league right now start with Inter Miami because of Messi. Can they make the playoffs?

 Had they won last night against Orlando, I would have said the odds of them making the playoffs are likely. But a 1-1 draw doesn't help. Still, I think the chances are better than many people give them.

Obviously, there are many things in their favor

  • They're still a good team without Messi. An away draw to Orlando is evidence of that.
  • The rest of the East in spots 8-13 are terrible. These are the teams Miami can catch and all are bad.
  • The playoff positions in spots eight and nine are even, so this gives Miami two targets to catch.
  • Miami has two games in hand on ninth-place NYCFC and one game in hand on eighth-place Montreal. If Miami wins games, that gap is narrow.
  • Miami's schedule the rest of the way is easy with the next MLS game coming against NYCFC. If Miami wins that, they are two points out of the playoffs with a game in hand. Following that game, Miami visits Chicago, hosts Cincinnati, hosts Charlotte, then visits Charlotte.

A win over NYCFC next weekend makes the playoffs likely and NYCFC should struggle in Miami.

In this 1-1 game against Orlando, Inter Miami started four teenagers and still nearly defeated one of the league's best teams. The young group behind Messi, Alba, and Busquets is such a great story that casual fans are missing. But Miami is going to be amazing in 2024.

As for Orlando, there should be some concern. Teams need to be playing well going into the playoffs and Orlando has looked rather ordinary the past two games.



New York City trending up


Among the teams fighting in the East's playoff race, only NYCFC and Inter Miami are showing an kind of ability to raise their level as the games become more important. But let's face it, NYCFC has also played their last five games at "home" - even if in three different buildings. Their next two games will be on the road before they end the season hosting Chicago.

They're playing well. Talles Magno had two assists and their offense is clicking. They're clearly a favorite to make the playoffs but it's likely going to take another win to get there (probably in their final two as NYCFC will be a heavy underdog in Miami).

Toronto, meanwhile, is just a sad team. John Herdman has his work cut out for him when he takes charge for the final three games.


San Jose feeling pressure


Luchi Gonzalez and the San Jose Earthquakes are right up against it. The 1-1 draw on Saturday against Nashville wasn’t a bad performance but it was a bad result. San Jose was all over Nashville the last 30 minutes but could only muster an equalizer via Matthew Hoppe.

If they can play like that for most of their final three games, they should be okay. But the Quakes will play the next two games on the road against two desperate teams – Minnesota and then Dallas. Finally at home against Austin, who are not very good and will likely be eliminated by that point. The problem, however, is that they’re being chased by Dallas, Sporting Kansas City, and Minnesota. Dallas has played two fewer games. Sporting Kansas City has been playing well over the past month.

San Jose’s margin for error is zero and now they must take their show on the road.

As for Nashville, Zimmerman is back, they have a few games in hand, and they playing better. They’re not great, but they’re in a good spot and could be a tough out in the playoffs if they play like they did in Leagues Cup.


Minnesota falls to St. Louis


St. Louis is a good team. They can rotate a squad and still win. That is so important in this league. This win on the road essentially gives them the first overall seed in the West and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.

As for Minnesota, it was their third straight loss and to make matters worse, they have a hard schedule down the stretch. Missing the playoffs might cause significant changes in Minnesota. The last five games have been an absolute tailspin and Adrian Heath must stop it.

Here’s the bottom line: if Minnesota loses or even draws at home to San Jose next weekend, they’re almost certainly done. They would then need to pick up a result away to LAFC or away to Sporting KC in two of their remaining games.


Portland steamrolling


You can certainly talk about the formational changes that Miles Joseph brought to Portland after he took over for Gio Savarese. But the Timbers players are clearly having fun while playing and they believe in each other. That alone makes them a dangerous team heading into the playoffs – where it is often about teams in good form.

The 3-2 win over Wooden Spoon contenders Colorado was Portland’s fourth win in a row. Portland has now moved into sixth place in the West but are only three points out of second – and they’re playing better than everyone.

During the four-game run, three were at home and the only away game was against Austin. If this run is going to translate into the post season, they’d be in great shape if they can finish in the top four so they can host a second-round game.

LA rallies in Austin draw


In a game that few people watched because the rain delayed the end of it until after 1am local time, LA Galaxy mounted a very late comeback to earn a 3-3 draw.

This was a game where each team desperately needed a win, but the draw likely sank both teams. Now Austin holds the 12th spot in the West and the Galaxy are in 13th place. Unlike the East, too many teams ahead of each of these teams are playing decently.

What is striking about Austin is their inability to hold leads in games. On August 26, Austin conceded a late winner to Dallas in a 1-0 loss. A few days later, they conceded a late winner to the Sounders in a 2-1 defeat. In this game, they had a 3-1 lead at home in stoppage time and settled for a draw which is as bad as a loss.

Josh Wolff is almost certainly on the hot seat and if I were to guess, I would think he doesn’t survive. Not all of it is his fault. The front office clearly didn’t give him good enough central defenders at the start of the season, and they were too late to make upgrades. But squandering late leads shows a lack of focus, and that is on the coach. Last year, Austin was good but were also benefitting from a career year from Sebastian Driussi, but there weren’t nearly the number of other scoring options to replace his drop off.

As for the Galaxy, Chris Klein stepped down at the end of May. A 13th place finish is only heading in one direction for Greg Vanney. It’s hard to see him surviving the coming winter as well.

Breaking down this game is pointless when both teams are heading towards the end of their season followed by big shakeups.


RSL wins, but Savarino issue lurks


Real Salt Lake played well and defeated Vancouver 2-1 at home. A good result, and it was the team’s best performance since Pablo Ruiz’s injury. They’re also still in decent shape with 43 points and four games remaining. They have work to do in order to make the playoffs, but the odds are in their favor.

The problem, however, spilled out afterward. Jefferson Savarino did not play in the win over Vancouver. He didn’t even suit up for the game. This came on the heels of poor outing against Dallas midweek. But Real Salt Lake tweeted he was out for a personal situation. Then, Savarino disputed that publicly on twitter.

Having a DP fighting with the club publicly in front of the world to see is a bad look and stuff like that is tough to prevent from reflecting on the field. If he was suspended or if Pablo Mastroeni simply didn’t select him, why didn’t the club just say that?

This is now an issue going forward.


SKC rising


Sporting Kansas City is looking like a playoff team. They are trending upward and it remains to be seen who will be their next target? Given Dallas has two games in hand, it seems like it is a race right now between San Jose and Sporting for the final playoff spot. Only three points separate the two teams, but SKC has all the momentum.

In Saturday’s 2-1 win over Houston, Sporting was down to 10 players starting in the 39th minute when Johnny Russell was sent off. But immediately after that, Sporting scored again for a 2-0 lead. While Houston was resting some players with an eye towards Wednesday’s Open Cup final, this was a tough assignment for SKC and they passed it.

Unfortunately for SKC, they have a tough remaining schedule (at St. Louis, at RSK, and then home against what will either be a mad or desperate Minnesota United). Against St. Louis, they’ll be without Russell too, who is an emotional leader for this team.


Other thoughts


Dallas could use another win or two to make the playoffs, but they’re playing pretty well – with Jesus Ferreira, Alan Velasco, and Paul Arriola leading the way as they should - and I like their chances. Against Columbus at home, they played to a 1-1 draw, but the opportunities were there for a win.

Columbus is an MLS Cup contender with a strong DP contingent and Dallas looked the part in this game. Meanwhile for the Crew, they could use more production from Diego Rossi to alleviate some of the burden on Cucho Hernandez.

New England travelled to Chicago and played to a 2-2 draw. The team likes to talk about how they're focused after the Bruce Arena suspension and resignation - but they're far below where they can and should be. They're limping into the playoffs and there should be concerns over a quick exit. Chicago will almost certainly come up short of the playoffs, again. But in this game Brian Gutierrez was terrific and is easily one of the best young Americans in the league. The good news is that the injury which forced him out of the game does not look to be as serious as initially feared. 

The Red Bulls defeated DC United 5-3 and Philadelphia drew with LAFC 0-0. Both games were played in the middle of disastrous conditions with huge amounts of rain being dumped on the East Coast. Any result that gives the Red Bulls 5 goals and has LAFC and Philly playing a boring game should be taken with a grain of salt. DC United still can’t win and this loss had to have been seriously deflating.

The Red Bulls have two winnable home games (Chicago and Toronto) and they’re going to need to win them. Seems unlikely but it’s doable. Those remaining two road games (Cincy and Nashville) are extreme long shots. The problem then is that six points probably only gives them a 50-50 of getting into the playoffs.

After a 4-1 win over Montreal at home, Atlanta looks like a very good team right now and they have so many ways they can beat opponents. Right now, they’re explosive. Unfortunately, climbing inside the top four (to host a second round playoff game) is difficult as the teams they’re chasing are all playing well and have played fewer games.

As for Montreal, they are not playing well. Their playoff chances have good news and bad news. The good news is that just one win from their last four games might be enough to get into that game (really, Miami is the only team that can catch them). The bad news is that their remaining schedule is hard (@Orlando, vs. Houston, vs. Portland, @Columbus). But in this league, there are always surprising wins and nothing goes according to plan.

Finally, Cincinnati is nearing a Supporters Shield and are back to playing well after a 3-0 stroll over Charlotte. Charlotte is technically still alive, but they are going to serve as the anonymous henchman Lionel Messi will quickly dispose en route to the playoffs. Charlotte’s final two games are against Inter Miami.

Cincinnati's win featured two of the best goals this season.

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