MLS Weekend Wrap: East playoff race becoming one of best in MLS history
The race for the Eastern Conference title is shaping up among the greatest MLS has seen, with Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC each with 48 points heading into the final month of the campaign.
It's been nearly this tight since the start of August, with the lead -- held for four weeks by NYC and three by TFC -- never more than a couple of points. If there's an advantage, it belongs to Toronto, which has four games to play, one more than the New York teams.
Technically, the Red Bulls (13-9-9) are on top, with the greater goal difference (plus-13) after pipping slumping Montreal, 1-0, on Daniel Royer's first MLS goal Saturday night. Toronto (13-8-9, plus-12) is ahead of NYCFC (13-9-9, plus-2).
Twice before has a conference race finished even on points, with New England edging Columbus in the Eastern Conference in 2002 and the LA Galaxy ahead of Houston in the Western Conference in 2009. Four more titles were decided by a single point, including both 2013 races, with New York over Sporting Kansas City and Portland ahead of Real Salt Lake.
The 2002 race is one to remember. It went down to the final weekend, with Columbus three points ahead of New England and the MetroStars, who were facing off the day before the Crew closed at Chicago. The Revolution romped, 3-0, so the Crew, behind in the head-to-head tiebreaker, needed a draw or better. Chicago scored two late goals, and Jeff Cunningham's stoppage-time strike wasn't enough, and the Revs celebrated.
It was more anticlimactic in 2009. The Galaxy beat San Jose to clinch the title -- LA topped Houston and Chivas USA in head-to-head play -- the day before the Dynamo edged the Goats in a showdown for second place.
There's great promise to this year's fight. All three sides have done well in the second half of the season, they feature the three most lethal goalscorers in MLS (Bradley Wright-Phillips, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco), and their schedules are, well, every game in MLS is a battle, right? The only thing missing is a showdown.
Toronto started the week with a two-point advantage on the New York teams, but NYC on Friday night followed a superb Khiry Shelton performance marked by three assists (including Villa's 18th and 19th goals) to rout Chicago, 4-1, and surge ahead.
Toronto caught up in the early game Saturday, rallying on Justin Morrow's tight-angled goal following a marvelous Jonathan Osorio run for a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia, the Reds' second straight home tie. Jozy Altidore hit the post in the 87th minute and didn't get a penalty-kick call in stoppage, so it was a particularly disappointing result for TFC.
The Red Bulls were even a couple of hours later, when Royer hit the net to deliver a deserved victory over Montreal, extending their unbeaten streak to a club-best 13.
Toronto's advantage: a tight defense that has conceded more than one goal just twice since June, Altidore's superb form, and the prospect of Giovinco's return from a quadriceps injury. Plus three of their last four are at home, against Orlando City (on Wednesday), D.C. United (on Saturday) and Chicago (on closing day), with a trip to Montreal in mid-October.
The Red Bulls have a home-and-home, starting at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, with the fourth-place Philadelphia Union sandwiching a home game with suddenly-hot Columbus Crew. NYCFC faces the Houston heat on Friday night, then visits D.C. United, which is fighting for a playoff berth, and finished at home against Columbus.
Eye on the red line out West
The playoffs have already kicked off for the bubble teams fighting for postseason berths, and three of them -- Sporting Kansas City, D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders -- took hefty steps this weekend toward top-six finishes.
Sporting (12-12-7, 43 points) seemed the likeliest of the Western Conference clubs above the “red line” to falter, after defensive liabilities contributed mightily to just one victory in its last nine games, all competitions. So Sporting marched into San Jose, where it hadn't won since 2000 -- when head coach Peter Vermes anchored the backline -- and pulled out of 2-1 triumph on Kevin Ellis' late goal. With Portland's loss at Houston, K.C. moved up a spot to fifth place, two points above the Timbers and five in front of seventh-place Seattle.
For San Jose (7-9-13, 34 points), which scores on occasion and wins less often, it was a “crushing result” (per Dominic Kinnear) that delivered “an almighty blow” (defender Jordan Stewart) to already dimming playoff hopes. And that wasn't the worst of it: Quincy Amarikwa injured his left knee just 12 seconds into the game, landing awkwardly in the goalmouth after making contact with goalkeeper Tim Melia as he leapt for a Stewart cross. An MRI awaits Monday for Amarikwa, who told media at Avaya Stadium, “I know I tore something.”
Jordan Morris scored two goals to power Seattle (11-13-5, 38 points) to a wild 4-2 win over the LA Galaxy on the hottest day in months to hit Southern California. LA was the better side most of the way, but Morris scored a brilliant go-ahead goal in the 63rd minute and tidily finished a rebound 74th for his league-best sixth game-winner of the year. The Sounders are just three points away from Portland with two games in hand and rolling momentum.
The Timbers (11-12-8, 41 points) can't win on the road, and that could keep them from defending their title in another month. They dropped to sixth as Mauro Manotas' hat trick propelled Houston, 3-1.
Portland is 0-10-6 in away games and it's difficult to digest given how well the Timbers have fared away from Providence Park under Caleb Porter: 17-18-16 in his first three seasons, 14-14-6 in 2014-15. Two of their last three games are away, Saturday at Colorado and Oct. 23 at Vancouver, and the Sounders' slate includes home games against the last-place teams in both conferences.
One of those teams, of course, is Houston (7-11-11, 32 points), which would have been the first team eliminated from postseason contention with a loss. But Houston isn’t that bad. The Dynamo has won two in a row to push the record since Wade Barrett took charge to 4-4-9 (with a zero goal difference) and to 3-1-3 over the last six weeks.
D.C. United (8-9-13, 37) climbed back into the top six in the East, with Patrick Mullins scoring two more goals -- he hast seven in 11 games since arriving from NYCFC -- in a 4-1 romp over spiraling Orlando City SC, the first of two meetings in the final month of the regular season.
The victory was the second in six games and third in 13, since mid-June, for Ben Olsen's side, which is a point behind slumping Montreal (9-10-11, 38 points) and two in front of New England. Orlando City (7-10-13, 34 points), which has conceded four goals in each of its last three games, is three points down with a date Wednesday night in Toronto.
The Revolution (9-13-9, 36) swapped spots with D.C. after Ola bettered Kei in the battle of the Kamaras to lift Columbus, 2-0. That's five goals in three games for Ola Kamara, who has 15 since late May, and the Crew (7-11-11, 32 points), home Wednesday against D.C., remains in the hunt. It was Kei Kamara's first trip to play in Columbus since the May trade, but New England was missing center back Jose Goncalves and reigning MLS Player of the Week Kelyn Rowe, who was hospitalized with an undisclosed illness last week.
• The only change among the Western Conference leaders: Colorado (12-5-12, 48) leapfrogged the LA Galaxy (11-5-15, 48), into second place on the total-wins tiebreaker, nudging ahead with a 3-3 draw at Vancouver ahead of LA's loss to Seattle. First-place FC Dallas (15-8-8) and fourth-place Real Salt Lake (12-10-9, 45) were scoreless in the premier Western showdown of the weekend.
• RSL isn't faring well through the stretch. The Utahns haven't scored in three successive games, two of them losses, and are winless in their last last four. Dallas hasn't won in its last three but has successive road draws and is 7-3-3 since a June 19 loss at Sporting Kansas City, 12-3-4 since then in all competitions.
• Mauro Rosales has started four of the last five games for FC Dallas, with a couple of assists in the draw at NYCFC a week ago, after coming off the bench in his first 15 appearances this year.
• One by one, the Western powers' unbeaten home records are falling. The Galaxy, which would have clinched a playoff berth with a victory, dropped its first MLS game at StubHub this year, falling to 8-1-7 on its home field. LA also was defeated last month at home to FC Dallas in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. Dallas lost its unbeaten record two weeks ago against Colorado, and Real Salt Lake's ended last week to Houston. The Rapids are the lone home unbeaten left, at 9-0-5 with dates remaining Saturday against Portland, Oct. 13 vs. San Jose and Oct. 23 with Houston.
• Landon Donovan didn't have nearly the impact against Seattle than he had in LA's rally for a 2-2 draw a week earlier in Kansas City, but he felt more at home, and not because of StubHub Center's friendly confines. He was asked after the defeat to the Sounders where he was, fitness-wise, three weeks into his return. “I felt today that I was back to normal,” MLS' all-time goals and assists leader replied. “Even in Kansas City, I felt I was struggling. I had a good week where I was able to really push myself this week, and then today there wasn't a lot to do, running-wise, but I felt like I was normal and I can contribute again. So that was a good positive. Obviously, it's never fun when you do it in a loss.”
• Robbie Keane had both goals for LA, his ninth and 10th of the year, and that's double-digit goals in each of his five full MLS campaigns. Keane became the 18th player with at least 10 this year, and four more are on nine. Only in 2014 (26), 2015 (22) and 1998 (19) have there been more. Keane has 83 career regular-season goals with the Galaxy, another 20 in other competitions, plus six in friendlies for 109 in all.
• Morris' goals were his 11th and 12th of the campaign, giving him sole possession of the MLS mark for rookie strikes by an American. Galaxy assistant coach Pat Noonan held the record, with 10 in 2003 with New England. Canadian Cyle Larin holds the rookie record, set last year, with 17 goals.
• Alphonso Davies, who signed a Homegrown pact with the Whitecaps in July, became MLS' second-youngest starter Saturday, when he went the full 90 against the Rapids. Davies' age: 15 years, 10 months, 23 days. The youngest, of course, was Freddy Adu, who made his first start for D.C. United on May 1, 2004, when he was 14 years, 10 months, 29 days old. Davies then was 3 years old. Adu, now 27, sees limited time with the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies.
• The Red Bulls can join Vancouver in next year's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals with a draw or win Tuesday against Antigua in a Group F clash in Guatemala City. Portland (Group B, Tuesday vs. Dragon in San Salvador) and Dallas (Group H, home Wednesday against Guatemala's Suchitepequez) need victories to strengthen their bids in penultimate first-stage games.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.