Ultimate Guide to the MLS Weekend: Playoff Push Begins in Earnest

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2015

Sep 5, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins (9) takes a shot during the first half against Toronto FC at CenturyLink Field. Seattle won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Now the international window has closed and those mourning the loss by the United States to Brazil have moved on for the most part, it is time for Major League Soccer to step to the forefront of the conversation for the next two months. 

As we expected when the realignment was announced for the 2015 season, things are air tight in the Western Conference for all of the teams not named the Colorado Rapids. In the Eastern Conference, the same congestion is present, but one outlying factor—Montreal's games in hand—has many people thinking they already know who the six playoff teams are. 

While we think we know plenty about specific teams, we will find out who really has the might of a contender over the final two months as the playoff push ramps up. As early as this week, we will witness knockout games in the playoff race, but it could take until the final day of the regular season to determine who is seeded where in each conference.

Before we take a glance at the teams above the red line in the coming weeks, we need to spend some time discussing the seven clubs with a somewhat realistic shot at making the postseason that are under the red line. Sorry, Colorado, we have lost all hope in you and are counting you out, especially after the lifeless performance in Vancouver on Wednesday night.

Hopefully the Western Conference pretenders will be weeded out this weekend as San Jose hosts Seattle and Houston welcomes Real Salt Lake to BBVA Compass Stadium. The two sides in the latter match are in desperation mode. Three points is a must for the two teams we are used to seeing in November. 

Owen Coyle has done a decent job in his first season in Houston, but fans are used to the late-season surges made by Dominic Kinnear's teams into the MLS Cup playoffs. Kinnear is now trying to conjure up the same magic in San Jose, while Coyle is left with a must-win match on September 12 to remain relevant in the postseason discussion.

Aug 15, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Houston Dynamo head coach Owen Coyle watches from the sideline as they take on the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

As for Jeff Cassar's Claret and Cobalt, they are in quite the unfamiliar position. A change in formation set the perennial power in the West back at the start of the season, and it hasn't fully recovered. RSL definitely possesses the veteran wherewithal and skill up top to put together a late run, but all hope will be lost if the team loses in Texas for the second time in three weeks. 

Just like they have for most of the season, the Claret and Cobalt will have to rely on Javier Morales to orchestrate the attack. Whoever is finishing the passes sent in by the creative midfielder remains to be seen. Only one player outside of Morales has scored over five goals this season.

Sebastian Jaime does have five strikes to his name since June, but he has come up empty in the final third recently. Jaime has three shots on target and one goal in his last five matches. Those numbers aren't good enough, and with no light at the end of the tunnel, RSL could join Colorado on what will soon be a growing list of teams that weren't good enough in 2015.

Aug 29, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Real Salt Lake midfielder Javier Morales (11) during the game against FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium. FC Dallas shuts out Real Salt Lake 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Houston has a bit more hope since it sits three points behind San Jose and six beneath the trio of Seattle, Sporting Kansas City and Portland. However, a negative result at home could doom the Dynamo's chances since they have a rough final stretch of matches that includes Sporting KC, FC Dallas, Seattle and Vancouver.

As opposed to RSL, Houston actually has some fine contributors in attack with Will Bruin and Giles Barnes leading the line, but the Dynamo are still lacking the extra punch they thought they would get when Erick Torres entered the fray this summer. 

Two hours after Houston and RSL put their playoff lives on the line, Seattle and San Jose will square off at Avaya Stadium with theirs up for grabs. Seattle has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, but the duo of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins can only cover up so many defensive mistakes. San Jose saw its hot spell of form come to a surprising end with a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia at home in Week 27. Holding onto three points at home is imperative in the playoff race, but after their last outing, we lost a little confidence in the Earthquakes.

September 5, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski (8) kicks the soccer ball against Philadelphia Union defender Fabinho (33) during the second half at Avaya Stadium. The Union defeated the Earthquakes 2-1. Mandatory Cred
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the semi-predictable East, most of the focus is on the New York Red Bulls' chase of D.C. United for the top spot. And if D.C. somehow slips up in Colorado on Saturday, the Red Bulls could eclipse their biggest rival in the standings with what many expect will be an easy win at home over Chicago on Friday. 

But regardless of what happens at the top of the East, we will still have plenty of time to dissect the teams above the red line as the postseason gets closer. What is of our immediate concern in Week 28 is the play of the five teams fighting, if you want to call it that, for the final playoff spot.

No one seems to actually want the final playoff spot, and many believe New York City FC and Orlando City are pretenders because of their shaky defenses. Chicago has potential in attack, but its pitiful form on the road will eventually do it in. That leaves us with Philadelphia and Montreal, both of whom won crucial games thanks to experienced forwards in Week 27.

The Didier Drogba show will head west on Saturday as the Impact play the LA Galaxy in a match that could get ugly for the visitors given LA's firepower. Philadelphia hosts Columbus at PPL Park on Saturday, and if the Union can carry the momentum from the Conor Casey-led victory over San Jose into that match, they stand a chance against a Crew side getting all the pieces back together after the international break.

The only problem for the Union is the most reliable forward in the team's attack right now is Casey, who is only good for 30-minute cameos at best. The opportunity is there for the Union to capitalize on a tough match for the Impact, but it's hard to believe they will do that given their erratic play at home. 

Week 28 Schedule

Friday

Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls (7 p.m. ET, UniMas)

Saturday

Columbus Crew at Philadelphia Union (7 p.m. ET)

Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo (8:30 p.m. ET)

New York City FC at FC Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET)

D.C. United at Colorado Rapids (9 p.m. ET) 

Montreal Impact at LA Galaxy (10:30 p.m. ET) 

Seattle Sounders at San Jose Earthquakes (10:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday

New England Revolution at Toronto FC (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Sporting Kansas City at Orlando City (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Players To Watch

Kei Kamara, F, Columbus Crew

Without the league's top scorer in their lineup in Week 27, the Crew looked helpless in the box as they tried to link up each of the 32 crosses sent in from the wing. 

Aug 1, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara (23) kicks the ball against the Orlando City SC during the first half at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With Kei Kamara back in the fold, Columbus should pack more of an attacking punch against Philadelphia, but it is worth noting the scorer of 18 goals in 2015 had a long journey back from Sierra Leone earlier in the week. As it is for many returning internationals, fatigue will be a concern. 

In his lone start against Philadelphia this season, Kamara recorded a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win on April 25. 

Ignacio Piatti, CAM, Montreal Impact 

Most of the focus on the Montreal attack will surround Drogba, but Ignacio Piatti deserves plenty of credit for the work he puts in to create chances for his teammates. 

Aug 5, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti (10) and New York Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty (11) battle for the ball during the second half at Stade Saputo. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 28, the Impact will need Piatti to be at his best against the Galaxy midfield pair of Juninho and Steven Gerrard. San Jose presented a blueprint to silence the Galaxy duo in Week 26, but Montreal doesn't have the defensive enforcers the Earthquakes have. 

Because of that, there will be more pressure on Piatti to find space in the final third and hold up possession in order to set up Drogba, Justin Mapp and others. If Piatti can find some space early on, Montreal has a chance of earning a positive result, but if he gets shut down, the Impact could suffer a morale-crushing loss.

Scott Caldwell, CDM, New England Revolution

If you make up a list of the most underrated players in MLS, Scott Caldwell has to be near or at the top of it. The defensive midfielder rarely receives any outside praise for the job he does in front of the Revolution back four, but he has been as vital to the team's recent success as Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez.

Jul 4, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; New England Revolution midfielder Scott Caldwell (6) controls the ball against FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Caldwell also provides Jermaine Jones with a safety valve when the United States international opts to roam forward and become a menace in attack. Jones would not be able to have such a free role in the New England setup if Caldwell wasn't breaking up counters and distributing the ball into the necessary channels to perfection.

Against Toronto, Caldwell will face another underrated midfielder in Benoit Cheyrou, along with United States international Michael Bradley. Stopping Bradley is imperative, and if Caldwell can also disrupt the rhythm between Bradley and Cheyrou, Toronto could be in for a long match at home. 

Game to Watch

Seattle Sounders at San Jose Earthquakes 

The game with the most stakes in Week 28 takes place at the home of the San Jose Earthquakes. 

A win for San Jose at home would boost it into a tie on 41 points with Seattle and Portland. Sporting KC could also be in that group depending on Sunday's result in Orlando. A loss would drastically halt the momentum built up by the Earthquakes in August.

Seattle enters the contest with plenty of questions about its defense and midfield. With Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins combining up top once again, the Sounders shouldn't have to worry about scoring goals. However, conceding strikes to opponents is still a concern even with Roman Torres and Chad Marshall anchoring the back line. The Sounders have displayed plenty of weaknesses in front of their own goal, and until that changes, we will still question their playoff credentials. 

The matchup to watch will come from midfield as Anibal Godoy and Marc Pelosi take on Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso. Godoy and Pelosi set a high precedent for themselves against the Galaxy in Week 26, silencing Juninho and Gerrard. Cutting down Alonso's time on the ball will be crucial to San Jose's success. 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90

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