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MLS Cup Playoffs: Who will miss out in Western Conference?

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Editor’s Note: MLS Footnotes takes you inside the major talking points around the league and across American soccer.

The MLS Cup playoff picture is coming into sharper focus following Week 30.

With a stirring late comeback on Friday, CF Montreal joined the Philadelphia Union and LAFC among the teams that have already clinched a spot. Trailing the Columbus Crew 2-0 in the 89th minute, Montreal scored twice to earn the point they needed to secure just the club’s second postseason berth since reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2016. Zachary Brault-Guillard stroked home the equalizer in the fourth minute of stoppage time.

Saturday’s slate featured the other 16 MLS teams in action. Only one, Austin, had a chance to punch their playoff ticket. But the Verde, which could’ve gotten in with a tie and some help in Seattle, will have to wait at least until Wednesday after the Sounders‘ resounding 3-0 victory — one that keeps their hopes of qualifying for the postseason for a 14th consecutive year intact, at least for now.

Austin hosts Real Salt Lake midweek. Seattle, four points behind RSL for the final spot in the West, next plays in Vancouver on Saturday. Closing the gap over their final four regular season games might be too much to ask of the CONCACAF champs: The Sounders must also leapfrog the LA Galaxy, who sit three points back with a game in hand.

While Montreal was the only team to join the playoff party, Week 30 also saw the first two clubs eliminated from contention. The Houston Dynamo, which fired first-year head coach Pablo Nagamura last week, are out after a frustrating scoreless draw at home to Sporting Kansas City.

Combined with other results, the tie staves off the inevitable for SKC until at least Tuesday, when they host D.C. United. D.C. also played to a goalless stalemate but didn’t get the help they needed elsewhere to survive another week. They became the second club to be officially knocked out of the race.

How far the once-proud Dynamo and DCU — which won a combined six MLS Cups and made nine appearances in the final in the league’s first 17 seasons — have fallen. Houston’s playoff miss is their fifth straight. For United, it’s their sixth.

FOOTNOTES

1. Le meilleur?

Understandably, Columbus coach Caleb Porter wasn’t happy after the Crew squandered yet another lead in the closing minutes of a match, this time following a cement-headed play by midfielder Luis Díaz. With less than 15 minutes left, Díaz lost a duel to Montreal Kei Kamara and kicked out at MLS’s third all-time goalscorer. Referee Lukasz Szpala missed it, but VAR didn’t, and Díaz was correctly shown a red card after Szpala had a second look on the monitor.

“That’s what turned the game,” Porter said. Lost in Porter’s post-match comments was his praise of Montreal, who he called “the best team in the league.”

Porter is the second opposing coach to call Wilfried Nancy’s side the best in MLS recently; Miami boss Phil Neville said the same last month.

It’s interesting. LAFC and Philadelphia have been at or near the top of the overall standings almost all season; barring a colossal slip-up from the Union over the final month of the regular season, Montreal will have to settle for the second seed in the East. But you can be sure nobody wants to play the bleu-blanc-noir in a win-or-go-home.

2. Philly takes Supporters Shield lead 

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. That old adage is particularly true in MLS which, because of its playoff format, has always awarded MLS Cup to the hottest team in the league, not necessarily the best.

This season, it also applies to the Supporters Shield race. After winning 11 of 13 games between mid-May and mid-August, it looked like LAFC might even be able to better the 72 points they accrued in 2019, which was the most by any team ever until the New England Revolution piled up 73 last year.

But now LAFC have lost four of five since, allowing Philly, on an 11W-2L-0T tear, to take over the top spot with 63 points from 31 matches. With 60 from 30, LAFC isn’t out of it yet. Not only have they played one fewer game, Gareth Bale & Co. also have one more win — the first tiebreaker should the two teams finish even on points.

3. All but in with a derby win

Defending MLS Cup champ New York City FC sits fourth in the East, but their position isn’t as comfortable as it appears. Saturday’s 1-0 loss to expansion Charlotte, who played the final 34 minutes with 10 men after captain Christian Fuchs was sent off, leaves seventh-place Columbus five points behind the Pigeons with two games in hand. Orlando, currently four points back, has also played two fewer games.

So NYCFC really needs to beat the rival New York Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium on Saturday to avoid ending up among the East’s lowest seeds. The champs “host” Orlando at Red Bull Arena Oct. 2. in their penultimate regular season match.

4. Mukhtar, Nashville surging

Just when it looked like Nashville SC, once a trendy dark horse pick to win MLS Cup, might not even make the playoffs because of a six game winless streak, they’ve shot back up to fourth in the West thanks to a 4W-0L-1T run.

The turnaround has been led by — who else? — Hany Mukhtar, who scored eight times and added three assists in those five games. Mukhtar now leads the Golden Boot race with 22 goals. He has also emerged as the clear frontrunner for the 2022 MLS MVP award over Austin’s Sebastian Driussi.

5. Anyone’s Cup

The fine folks over at FOXBet know who they like for MLS Cup this year. LAFC (+220) is the favorite, followed closely by Philly (+350). Makes sense. 

Then you see that Montreal, with the third-best odds, are a relative longshot (+1200). Should they be? History suggests that teams like Austin, Columbus Dallas or Nashville have every chance to claim the title this year. In MLS, the favorites rarely end up on top. Just seven teams won the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup in the same year through MLS’s first 21 seasons. Only one — Toronto FC in 2017 – has done it in the last decade.

LAFC or Philly are both talented, deep and well-coached enough to win the double this year. In a single-elimination format that rewards luck as much as quality, does that mean that either actually will? Don’t bet on it.

One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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