by RYAN BRISTER
It’s times like this when Major League Soccer’s playoff structure really starts to shine.
In the third-to-last week of the regular season, 10 out of 11 matches will feature at least one team fighting for playoff positioning. National TV will showcase the Supporters’ Shield race with a pair of Western Conference clashes, while in the East, a few pivotal showdowns will shape the playoffs.
Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
Jermain Defoe is expected to return to the starting XI at a pivotal time in TFC’s schedule. The 32-year-old Englishman missed all of September due to injury, but played 30 minutes off the bench when Toronto lost 3-0 at LA on Saturday night. With a victory against Houston, Toronto would be level on both points and games played with Columbus, but in the fifth and final playoff spot thanks to having one more win.
Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.
The Timbers and Earthquakes meet Wednesday night for the second time in five days and their third match in a month. Portland won 2-1 Saturday night in San Jose, but the two sides played to a 3-3 draw when they met at Providence Park on Sept. 7. The Timbers can leapfrog Vancouver for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with a win.
Sporting Kansas City vs. Chicago Fire, Friday, 8:30 p.m.
SKC led the Eastern Conference for much of the year, but have managed just four points from their last seven games, and now their playoff lives are in doubt. That includes three-straight home losses — their longest such streak since moving to Sporting Park. The Fire, while out of the playoff hunt, are a tough nut to crack. They have the fewest losses in the Eastern Conference, and their 18 draws is already an MLS record.
Seattle Sounders FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Friday, 10 p.m. on NBCSN
The Cascadia Cup will be on the line in front of more than 50,000 fans in Seattle on Friday night. The Sounders only need a draw to win Pacific Northwest bragging rights, but they have more silverware on their mind, namely the Supporters’ Shield. Vancouver can claim the Cascadia Cup for the second straight year with a win. More importantly, they want to stay ahead of Portland in the race for the Western Conference’s last playoff spot.
Montreal Impact vs. New England Revolution, Saturday, 4 p.m.
New England can clinch a playoff spot with a win at lowly Montreal. With five wins in their last six games, the Revs are among the hottest teams in MLS, and the eight-game losing streak they suffered earlier in the season feels like a long time ago.
Philadelphia Union vs. Columbus Crew, Saturday, 7 p.m.
One of three key games in the Eastern Conference playoff race sees the reeling Union take on the fifth-place Crew. Philly picked up just two points against lesser competition in their last two games, and they now find themselves four points behind Columbus for the final playoff spot in the East. Three points would seem to be a must for them. The Crew will look to bounce back from a loss at New England. These two teams will meet again, in Columbus, on the final day of the season.
New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 7 p.m.
TFC’s second big match of the week is a more difficult challenge than the first. The Red Bulls have won their last six home games, and haven’t lost at Red Bull Arena since May. Currently, New York is fourth in the Eastern Conference with 44 points. Toronto could have 43 before they meet on Saturday. A win for either team would go a long way towards boosting their playoff hopes.
Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Saturday, 9:30 p.m.
RSL has failed on two-straight occasions to clinch a playoff spot on the road; their third opportunity will be at home against the eighth-place Earthquakes. They’ll be without keeper Nick Rimando and young midfielder Luis Gil; both of whom are among the few MLS players called up by Jurgen Klinsmann for Friday’s USMNT friendly against Ecuador.
Chivas USA vs. Colorado Rapids, Saturday, 10:30 p.m.
All signs point towards this being the penultimate home game in the history of Chivas USA. Fittingly, it won’t mean much; both of these teams have been eliminated from playoff contention.
Houston Dynamo vs. DC United, Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
Depending on how results go earlier in the week, Houston’s playoff chances could disappear by the time they host DC. However, with two wins, they could pull within one point of fifth place. United were the first team to lock up a playoff spot in the East, and they’ll look to further their command of first place. It’s possible that they could seal that position—and a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League—with a win.
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy, Sunday, 7 p.m. on ESPN2
The Galaxy enter the weekend tied with Seattle in the Supporters’ Shield race, but they’ll have to pass a tough test in Texas in order to keep up. Complicating matters, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and Robbie Keane have been called into their respective national teams. Donovan will only play 30 minutes in his final match for the USMNT, but Bruce Arena will likely have to do without the other two. A victory for Dallas would assure them of finishing no worse than fourth; they wouldn’t have to go on the road in a play-in game.