Now that the excitement of the Major League Soccer All-Star Game is behind us, it's time to get down to business.
Over the next three months, we'll find out who is worthy of earning the six playoff positions in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Per the usual trend, the West is the more difficult of the two conferences once again in 2016. The West contains a few clear-cut MLS Cup favorites, while the East is still sorting itself out.
Below, we'll take a look at the playoff picture in each conference, starting in the East, and predict which six teams we think will qualify for the postseason.
New York City FC are the surprise leaders heading into the final weekend of July. Patrick Vieira's men have climbed into the top spot on 33 points thanks to a tremendous road record of 6-4-1.
|Eastern Conference Standings|
|Team||Games Played||Points||Home Record||Away Record|
In order to continue their pace at the top, City must extend their road form into August, September and October, and they must also improve on their 3-3-5 home mark.
Unlike a few other clubs in the East, NYCFC don't have a long stretch of matches at, or away from, Yankee Stadium for the rest of the regular season, which may suit City based on their home and away records. The biggest concern for Vieira and company will be the play of their unsteady defense.
Second-placed New York Red Bulls face the most difficult balancing act of any of the teams in the tight East playoff race. Jesse Marsch's men have a quartet of CONCACAF Champions League games to maneuver around league play.
In addition to the midweek challenges of continental play, the Red Bulls still have road trips to LA and Vancouver left on the docket. But the good news for them is they play three of their final four games at home, two of which come against fellow contenders.
The Philadelphia Union have been the surprise team of the season, in the East as the new organization in the front office, led by sporting director Earnie Stewart, has got the club out of a long rut.
But in order to continue their terrific first-half start into the final three months, the Union will have to earn multiple results on the road. All but one of those road trips are to Eastern Conference stadiums, which should help the team fight against fatigue. They should also receive a boost at some point with the return of midfielder Maurice Edu.
If Jim Curtin's men can navigate their treacherous road fixture list and pick up all 18 points left at home, they should secure safe passage into the playoff field.
The Montreal Impact re-announced their presence in the postseason fight in Week 20 with a 5-1 demolition of Philadelphia at Stade Saputo that was powered by Ignacio Piatti and Didier Drogba.
The Impact should be able to secure their home fortress throughout the rest of the regular season since only two of their remaining seven matches at home are against teams currently above the red line.
As long as the Impact pick up points at home like we suggested for the Union, they should also cruise into the playoffs.
Toronto FC may be the most interesting team to watch in the East as the season dwindles down. Due to the construction at BMO Field, the Reds spent the majority of the early season on the road.
With nine home matches remaining, Greg Vanney's men have no excuses to fall back on if they fail to finish in the top six. In all honesty, TFC should finish in the top three at worst.
Beneath the top five sides in the East, there are three clubs vying for the sixth spot at the moment. New England Revolution, Orlando City and D.C. United all have realistic chances to make the postseason, while Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire seem like lost causes.
Sunday's match between the Revolution and Orlando could go a long way in determining the futures of each club. If the Lions take three points at home under new boss Jason Kreis, they should be able to create plenty of momentum entering August.
However, D.C. is worth keeping an eye on as well due to its run of four games in a row at home starting on Sunday against Montreal. The Black and Red also have three of their final five contests at RFK Stadium.
If Ben Olsen's men can finally turn the curve and produce a string of quality results, they will be a player as well.
If form holds, NYCFC, Philadelphia, New York, Montreal and Toronto seem like locks to make the postseason. However, each side faces its own consistency issues that have been evident at some point in the first five months of the season. If any of the five slip up, the three clubs below them will be waiting to make their move up the table.
Despite D.C.'s long spell at home in August, we have little confidence in United's ability to get results out of those matches. With Kreis now at the helm and a revival needed in Orlando, the Lions are our pick to be the sixth playoff team in the East.
1. New York Red Bulls
2. Toronto FC
3. Philadelphia Union
4. New York City FC
5. Montreal Impact
6. Orlando City
The West playoff picture may seem more complicated than the East, but it could come down to a simple elimination process since the clubs in contention for the postseason face each other often from now until October 23.
|Western Conference Standings|
|Team||Games Played||Points||Home Record||Away Record|
|Real Salt Lake||21||31||5-0-5||3-6-2|
FC Dallas may sit atop the West at the All-Star break, but they've played three more matches than the Colorado Rapids and LA in second and third.
Those extra three matches may help Oscar Pareja's side since it has to play four Champions League games during the run to the postseason. With games fairly spread out and a solid road record of 4-6-2 in hand, FC Dallas stand a shot at keeping the top spot in the West, which will most likely hand them the Supporters' Shield.
Colorado has been impressive at home, as it has picked up 27 of its 38 points at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. With no outside distractions to deal with and a favorable home schedule that features the San Jose Earthquakes twice and the Houston Dynamo to conclude the season, the Rapids are in good shape to make a run at the No. 1 position in the West.
The biggest test for the Rapids will come on September 10, as they visit FC Dallas at the end of a three-game road stretch that also includes trips to Real Salt Lake and New England. If Pablo Mastroeni's side can take more than five points out of that run—including one in Frisco, Texas—Colorado could move into the role of favorite.
The LA Galaxy have a chance to make a further imprint on the postseason competition in the next few weeks if they continue their surge up the table.
Bruce Arena and company have a big home match ahead on August 13 against Colorado. A win over the Rapids could catapult the Galaxy into second place and straight into a chase for the top position in the West and the Supporters' Shield.
A home and away match with FC Dallas in October could end up determining the playoff positioning in the West and home-field advantage. If LA and FC Dallas share the points in those contests and Colorado hangs around until October, the Rapids could swoop in for the regular-season honors.
FC Dallas, Colorado and LA appear to be locks to make the postseason based off their quality and form over the last month. Adding to that security are the pieces of doubt surrounding each of the remaining contenders in the West, starting with Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting KC are at the disadvantage of playing 23 matches, and like FC Dallas, they will have the Champions League to deal with in the home stretch of the regular season.
Peter Vermes' side has a chance to gain instant separation from a fellow contender in the next two games as it takes on Portland at home and at Providence Park. If Sporting can pull four points from the pair of clashes, they should set themselves up for a run toward at least fourth in the West.
A 7-4-1 home mark also makes us believe that Sporting KC will take care of business at Children's Mercy Park.
Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, who sit in fifth and sixth, respectively, have had trouble earning the full three points at home.
RSL sit at 5-0-5 at Rio Tinto Stadium, while Vancouver is 5-2-5 at BC Place. Both teams also have questions to answer in attack due to some lackluster play in the final third during a few spans in 2016.
If either or both of the two clubs flirting with the red line at the All-Star break finally turn things around at home, it will be difficult for Portland or San Jose to leap into the top six.
Portland is on the outside looking in because of a porous 0-4-6 record on the road. The Timbers haven't had a ton of issues at home, as they are 7-3-2 at Providence Park, but winning on the road is imperative if your eyes are on the postseason.
The Timbers know how to come out on top on their travels. They were able to do just that on their way to winning the 2015 MLS Cup.
San Jose only has one loss at home, but no wins on the road may hurt the Earthquakes when it comes down to figuring out the best six clubs in the West. The lack of production from its designated players should also harm San Jose's postseason chances.
1. FC Dallas
2. LA Galaxy
3. Colorado Rapids
4. Sporting Kansas City
5. Portland Timbers
6. Vancouver Whitecaps.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.