Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: Who Wants to Win the Supporters' Shield?

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 2, 2015

September 27, 2015; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard (8) greets fans following the 3-2 victory against FC Dallas at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With one month remaining in the Major League Soccer regular season, very few things have been settled in the playoff race. 

In the Eastern Conference, six clubs have separated themselves from the pack. Montreal should secure the sixth and final playoff berth since it still has two games in hand on seventh-place Orlando City. However, where each of the six sides end up remains to be determined. 

Out in the Western Conference, the LA Galaxy became the first team to reach 50 points with a victory over FC Dallas on Sunday. Beneath them, seven clubs have seven points between them after the chaos in Week 30. 

One race that was not provided any clarity during the final weekend of September was the contest for the Supporters' Shield.

The Galaxy catapulted into the lead for the league's best record with their win over FC Dallas after the New York Red Bulls, New England, Columbus and Vancouver all slipped up at home.

September 27, 2015; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy forward Robbie Keane (7) celebrates his goal scored against FC Dallas with midfielder/forward Giovani Dos Santos (10) during the first half at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TO
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Galaxy sit atop the Supporters' Shield table entering Week 31, they do not have the easiest path to the trophy.

Bruce Arena's team has to travel to Seattle on Sunday before hosting Portland and a making a trip to Sporting Park on the final day of the season.

LA has plenty of attacking punch and experience to carry it across the finish line, but there are some holes in the defense and Donovan Ricketts isn't exactly perfect in goal. 

The main reason why we can't declare the Galaxy as the true favorite to win the Supporters' Shield is the games in hand held by the New York Red Bulls, who lead the Eastern Conference with 48 points.

Jesse Marsch's side still has five games left on the schedule, but the 5-2 loss at home to Orlando City in Week 30 was a major blow to team's psyche.

If the Red Bulls can get at least six points from their next three matches, they should be able to reach 60 points with wins over Philadelphia and Chicago to end the regular season. 

Sep 20, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe Martins (8) celebrates after scoring a goal during the first half of the game against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The only other club capable of reaching 60 points is Vancouver, who faces a difficult four-game stretch this month, including a home-and-home series with FC Dallas on October 7 and 14.

Those two clashes will give us a good feel of how the Western Conference playoffs will go, and it should clear up the Supporters' Shield picture if the clubs split. 

If LA, Vancouver or the Red Bulls slip up in the coming weeks, which is possible in a league filled with parity, there are a few outsiders waiting to pounce and clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The aforementioned FC Dallas could fall into the driver's seat in the Shield race with back-to-back wins over Vancouver and some help from elsewhere.

But before we go all-in on FC Dallas' case to be MLS' top team, the Hoops have to take care at home against rival Houston on Sunday. 

Sep 12, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA;  FC Dallas midfielder Michael Barrios (21) controls the ball against New York City FC at Toyota Stadium. Dallas beat New York 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

New England and Columbus are the two teams out of the Eastern Conference that could make things interesting, but that will only be the case if the Red Bulls lose at least twice and the Galaxy fall in at least one contest.

Columbus has a chance to knock off the Red Bulls on Saturday at Red Bull Arena. But a positive result in New Jersey in Week 30 may only set the table for a side like FC Dallas to enter the fray since the Crew have to visit Toronto FC in Week 32. 

What everything we have said above confirms is there is no one dominant team in MLS this season. We thought we had it all figured out when the Galaxy stormed through Seattle, FC Dallas and New York City FC in August, but then they proceeded to lay an egg for most of September. 

The Red Bulls displayed the same dominant edge throughout the summer, including their masterful breakdown of a D.C. United side still spiraling down the Eastern Conference table. However, the Red Bulls looked vulnerable for the majority of the last month. 

Every other team beneath the pair of conference leaders has shown us bits and pieces of championship-caliber quality, but for most of the season we have been left trying to answer the question of who is the best in the league? 

Part of the reason for the increased parity has been the added spending on quality players. Toronto FC will receive most of the headlines for their successful offseason, but there are plenty of other teams who didn't sign a superstar like Sebastian Giovinco that have improved their talent on the pitch.

But as much as we want to credit the big spenders for the parity, teams like FC Dallas and the Red Bulls have added quality in the form of homegrown players. 

Sep 26, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco (10) tries to get away from Chicago Fire midfielder Michael Stephens (26) during the first half at BMO Field. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, the parity is good for the league, but everyone loves to have the one team to hate when it comes to the playoffs. Usually, we can count on the Galaxy or Sounders to fill this role, but dominant is far from the first word you'd use to describe either team this season. 

Will the first week of October provide us with any clarity in the Supporters' Shield race? If we're basing it off the first seven months of the year, probably not.

If that continues to be the case, we are in for one wild ride from now until MLS Cup. 

Week 31 Schedule

Friday

New York City FC at D.C. United (7 p.m. ET, UniMas) 

Saturday

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC (5 p.m. ET)

Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls (7 p.m. ET) 

Montreal Impact at Orlando City (7:30 p.m. ET) 

New England Revolution at Chicago Fire (8:30 p.m. ET) 

Vancouver Whitecaps at San Jose Earthquakes (10:30 p.m. ET) 

Sporting Kansas City at Portland Timbers (10:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday

Houston Dynamo at FC Dallas (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2) 

Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

LA Galaxy at Seattle Sounders (9:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1) 

Players to Watch

Cyle Larin, FW, Orlando City

Cyle Larin finally broke the single-season rookie scoring record in Week 30, and he did it in dominant fashion by putting three goals past Luis Robles in Orlando City's win over the Red Bulls. 

Sep 25, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; Orlando City SC forward Cyle Larin (21) dribble away from New York Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga (20) during first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Canada international struck for three goals in league play, he followed it up with a brace on August 1 against Columbus. 

In order for the Lions to keep their bleak playoff hopes alive, the 20-year-old needs to find a way past the Montreal back line.

Larin may have to work harder than usual to gain possession against the Impact, but if he can outduel Didier Drogba on the Citrus Bowl turf, Orlando has a chance to claim a playoff spot, albeit a small one given the Impact's two games in hand. 

Will Bruin, FW, Houston Dynamo

While we're on the topic of slim playoff hopes, let's talk about how the Houston Dynamo are somehow three points off sixth place in the Western Conference. 

Behind two strong performances from Will Bruin in Week 30, the Dynamo pulled up to eighth place on 41 points with home wins over Sporting Kansas City and Colorado. 

Sep 23, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo forward Will Bruin (12) dribbles against Sporting KC defender Kevin Ellis (4) in the second half at BBVA Compass Stadium. Dynamo won 1 to 0. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Now that they've taken care of business at home, the Dynamo need to enact revenge on FC Dallas in the Texas derby on Sunday to have any chance of keeping track with Portland.

Bruin, who had a goal and two assists last week, needs to continue his hot spell up top next to Giles Barnes and put the FC Dallas back four under pressure from the first minute. 

Zach Scott, CB, Seattle Sounders

Seattle suffered an unfortunate setback in defense this week as Chad Marshall sprained his neck in training, per the club's official website. 

Sep 19, 2015; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Whitecaps forward Octavio Rivero (29) battles for the ball against Seattle Sounders defender Zach Scott (20) during the second half at BC Place. The Seattle Sounders won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Anne
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

With Marshall out for at least this week and Roman Torres gone for the season with an injury, the pressure will fall on the shoulders of the experienced Zach Scott to take charge of the back line. 

Dealing with the fast Galaxy attack was already going to be a challenge for the Sounders, but now with Marshall out, the task is even larger.

The Sounders better hope they can get an inspired performance out of Scott and whoever partners him in the middle of defense in order to hold on to a home playoff game. 

Game of the Week

Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET) 

With all due respect to the teams in LA and Seattle, the most intriguing match of Week 31 comes to us from Red Bull Arena. 

The top seed in the Eastern Conference is on the line when the Crew, who surprisingly fell at home to Portland last week, visit the Red Bulls, who also lost a shock result in Week 30 to Orlando City. 

The central-midfield battle lost a little punch when Wil Trapp left for Olympic qualifying, but there are still plenty of positional showdowns that will occur on Saturday night. 

Tony Tchani will have his work cut out for him against Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan, but so will Red Bulls center back Damien Perrinelle, who will be without regular partner Matt Miazga due to suspension.

Miazga is one of the best defenders in the air in the league, but due to a red card against Orlando, he will miss out on a duel with one of the best aerial attackers in MLS in Kei Kamara. 

Sep 25, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga (20) and New York Red Bulls midfielder Lloyd Sam (10) attempt to head the ball against Orlando City SC defender Sebastian Hines (3) during first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Cre
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Bulls will have to control Kamara and make sure Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram do not provide too many quality crosses into the box for the Golden Boot leader to link up with and beat Perrinelle on.

As for the hosts, they need more out of Bradley Wright-Phillips, who will be facing the sturdy duo of Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl, who have improved as a center back pairing in recent weeks. 

If that isn't intriguing enough for you, Luis Robles and Steve Clark are two of the best goalkeepers in the league and are sure to come up with a few big saves at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night. 

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

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