If you asked any observer of Major League Soccer two months ago if the New England Revolution had a shot at securing home-field advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs, most of them would have looked at you like you were crazy.
But thanks to a run similar to last season's surge to the second seed in the East and eventually MLS Cup, the Revolution are on top of the Eastern Conference entering the weekend portion of Week 29.
Many people around the league were paying attention to what the Revs were putting together, but New England didn't officially announce its MLS Cup credentials until Wednesday night, when they defeated the New York Red Bulls at home 2-1.
The victory at Gillette Stadium put Jay Heaps' side one point ahead of the Red Bulls, who still have two games in hand, entering a final stretch of five games that could produce the maximum 15 points required to earn the top spot in the East. Starting with their visit to Montreal on Saturday, the Revolution have five very winnable games against sides near the red line in the Eastern Conference.
New England has reached this point thanks to the play of Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez in attack and a rock-solid defense that has let in five goals during the eight-game unbeaten run that started on July 18 with a win over New York City FC. Nguyen has contributed to a goal in all but one game since the run of good form began, while Fagundez has scored in each of the last four games.
The similarities between this year's run toward MLS Cup and the 2015 edition are striking. While they may not have started on the same date, the unbeaten runs started one matchweek apart. In 2014, New England drew with Portland in its 23rd match of the year. After that point, the Revolution only lost once for the rest of the regular season, against Columbus on September 20.
The 2015 Revolution squad started its unbeaten run in the 22nd contest of the regular season, it has dispatched playoff contender Toronto twice and the Red Bulls once. Some may have doubted the club's credentials if it fell to the Red Bulls, who up until Wednesday were the sexy underdog pick out of the Eastern Conference to conquer the powers of the Western Conference for the Supporters' Shield.
New England's own path to winning the Supporters' Shield seems easy on paper, but there are a few potential points in which it can slip up. The biggest roadblock may come in the form of Saturday's trip to Stade Saputo. Montreal is coming off road draws in California against the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes that helped cement its stronghold on the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
After Saturday's venture into Quebec, the Revs will host a Philadelphia side looking forward to the U.S. Open Cup Final to close out September before visiting lowly Chicago, hosting Montreal and visiting Yankee Stadium on the final day of the season, where they lost 2-0 back on March 15.
Going up against a few average defenses should benefit Nguyen, Fagundez and the rest of the attack, and it should help Jermaine Jones ease back into the squad. It's scary to think the Revs are getting hot without a massive contribution from Jones, who was the catalyst of the late-season surge in 2014.
New England will undoubtedly face contention from FC Dallas, Vancouver and the LA Galaxy for the Supporters' Shield as well as the Red Bulls if they capitalize on their games in hand, but each of those teams has a more difficult schedule to finish out the season than the Revs. If they can close out the season with five victories, the Revs will be in terrific shape entering the postseason, just like they were a year ago.
Week 29 Schedule
FC Dallas at Sporting Kansas City (7 p.m. ET, UniMas)
Colorado Rapids at Toronto FC (2 p.m. ET)
Seattle Sounders at Vancouver Whitecaps (7 p.m. ET)
San Jose Earthquakes at New York City FC (7 p.m. ET)
Columbus Crew at D.C. United (7 p.m. ET)
New England Revolution at Montreal Impact (8 p.m. ET)
Orlando City at Chicago Fire (8:30 p.m. ET)
LA Galaxy at Real Salt Lake (9:30 p.m. ET)
New York Red Bulls at Portland Timbers (5 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Houston Dynamo at Philadelphia Union (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Players to Watch
Darlington Nagbe, AM, Portland Timbers
Darlington Nagbe will take the field for the first time as an American citizen on Sunday at Providence Park against the Red Bulls.
The coveted commodity of the United States men's national team fanbase is now officially eligible for selection, but he does need to improve his credentials a bit before becoming a regular in Jurgen Klinsmann's squad.
Nagbe only has two goals and three assists in 27 matches this season, and if Portland wants to make a deep run in the postseason, the playmaker must contribute to more goals. Doing that will be difficult against the relentless press of the Red Bulls. If he can thrive against the central midfield trio of Felipe, Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty, Nagbe will make a positive impression on Klinsmann.
Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez, AM, Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake remained alive in the playoff race in Week 28 thanks to a tremendous performance from Juan Manuel Martinez on the right flank of Jeff Cassar's 4-2-3-1 formation.
Martinez combined well with MLS veteran Javier Morales to hand the Claret and Cobalt a much-needed boost heading into their home match with the Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night.
If Martinez, Morales and Joao Plata play at the high level they did against Houston last week, they could cause a world of problems for the LA back four led by Omar Gonzalez.
Fabian Espindola, FW, D.C. United
Few teams in MLS are in need of three points more than D.C. United at the moment. The Black and Red failed to recover from a three-game losing streak in Week 28 as they drew 1-1 in Colorado.
With his team in need of a massive boost in a potential playoff preview against Columbus, Fabian Espindola must make an impact against the Crew's center-back pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl.
Breaking down the Columbus defense will not be easy, but Espindola is in a position to prove his own worth coming off an extended injury break. The experienced forward is a vital part of the D.C. United attack, and if he can combine well with fellow veteran Alvaro Saborio, Ben Olsen's club should finally get back on track.
Game to Watch
Seattle Sounders at Vancouver Whitecaps (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)
The final match of the 2015 Cascadia Cup takes place at BC Place in Week 29. Not only will Seattle and Vancouver be fighting for regional bragging rights, they will be playing for a playoff boost.
Seattle enters the showdown in British Columbia off a 1-1 draw with San Jose that kept it in fourth place in the Western Conference on 42 points. The Sounders are in need of a road victory to stay in front of Sporting Kansas City, Portland and San Jose in the playoff race. A win would also clinch the Cascadia Cup for Sigi Schmid's side, who enter with a slight one-point advantage over Vancouver.
The Whitecaps have been consistent in the results department for most of the year, but beating Seattle would help reinforce their hold on the top spot in the Western Conference. With back-to-back games against FC Dallas looming at the start of October, the Whitecaps have to take care of business before the pair of Western Conference showdowns in order to have a chance at controlling their own destiny.
The two sides have split the regular-season series this season. Seattle won the first contest of 2015 on May 16 on Chad Barrett's unlikely brace. Vancouver took advantage of Seattle's depleted lineup on August 1 and won 3-0 at CenturyLink Field. The teams played to a 1-1 draw in CONCACAF Champions League group action on August 5.
As if you needed another brewing storyline for this already-intriguing matchup, this is the second time in two months the teams will play twice in quick succession. The two will meet in the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday in Seattle with first place in Group F on the line.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.