MLS week 30 preview: Playoff races heat up in east and west

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 26: Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic (14) dribbles the ball during the match between the Minnesota United FC and the Chicago Fire on August 26, 2017 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 26: Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic (14) dribbles the ball during the match between the Minnesota United FC and the Chicago Fire on August 26, 2017 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

In both conferences, we’re seeing teams start to seriously fight for playoff positioning. In these week’s preview, we’re combing through all of it.

After a crowded midweek schedule that featured eight matches, MLS hits week 30, with most clubs having played 30 or 31 matches. Toronto FC are just about ready to mathematically clinch the Supporters’ Shield (they have the Red Bulls at home this week), Montreal makes its last stand after dropping another bad result at home on Wednesday (they go to Colorado), and the Western Conference probably will take another shake-up, with three top-8 matchups on tap.

In this week’s preview, we’re starting with a rundown of Eastern Conference contenders before using our Three Previews section to look at those big games out west:

Heaven in hiding

The Eastern Conference’s top s-x is essentially set at this point, even though the Impact are still around because the Red Bulls are doing everything possible to give them as many lifelines as they need. NYRB haven’t won in MLS since August 12 against Orlando and are on a seven-game winless run after a bad 3-3 draw against D.C. United on Wednesday. They’re four points ahead of Montreal with a game in hand heading into this week, and while that’s a pretty healthy lead considering the two club’s remaining schedules, you never know what could happen with a team starting Michael Amir Murillo at center-back.

Atlanta United clinched with a win against Philadelphia on Wednesday and now are three points back of NYCFC for second with a game in hand. They play New England on the road on Saturday, a team that MLS 1.0’d TFC right out of town last week, and if Tata Martino doesn’t rest some starters I will not feel sympathy for him when Gershon Koffie kicks out Hector Villalba at the 50-yard-line.

NYCFC vs. Chicago Fire takes the crown as the East’s biggest game this week, though. It’s a matchup of top-tier clubs who play good soccer and are playing well, which is always fun. The Fire took San Jose to school midweek, using their endline-to-endline possession and full-back-focused attack to put up a 4-1 road result:

The most notable element of this game was not Nemanja Nikolic’s two goals, nor was it Luis Solignac and Michael de Leeuw’s fantasy-friendly outputs. It was 18-year-old Homegrown midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, who started again in place of Bastian Schweinsteiger and had a goal and an assist. He’s shown real progress since he’s started playing a regular role for the Fire, which is what happens when you play your talented young guys.

This will be fun game, and hopefully will include an entertaining matchup of Mihailovic and Yangel Herrera in central midfield. I’d also be fine with Mihailovic vs. Andrea Pirlo, just so we get to take pleasure in seeing a World Cup winner get roasted by an American kid just out of high school.

Three previews

Houston Dynamo vs. Minnesota United (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET)

There is no sugar-coating this for the Houston Dynamo: this is must-win, and dropping points at home against Minnesota could begin to put a dagger in the playoff hopes they once thought were completely sewn up. The Dynamo have won just once in their last nine (and four times in the past 4.5 months) and they consistently have dropped valuable points, including a loss at home to Colorado three weeks ago and a ton of road draws. Losing at home against the Rapids should mean you have points docked.

They’re seventh in the conference despite entering the month of August in third, sitting a point off Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, who are tied for fifth and sixth. San Jose, who beat the Dynamo two games ago, are another point back in eighth. Houston’s three games after this include two matches against Sporting KC and one against the Fire, a far from easy schedule even knowing two of those are at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Minnesota are no pushover at this point, either. They’ve won two straight — including a 4-1 ripping of FC Dallas last week — and are a tricky attacking team, relying on underrated poacher Christian Ramirez and a large squadron of fast and creative wingers led by a revitalized Ethan Finlay. Ibson will still turn the ball over a bunch in midfield and their defense is still mostly bad, but they’ve been playing spoiler for a few playoff contenders over the past few weeks.

This one will come down to Houston’s willingness to stick to their identity, which should be sitting deep and relying on quick diagonal balls to flanks and domination in space from the front three. That’s how they ripped teams apart early in the season, but Wilmer Cabrera’s been tinkering, and they seem to be caught in two worlds at the moment.

Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET)

The top of the Western Conference is tight. Vancouver are on top with 48 points in 30 games, followed by Portland, SKC and Seattle all on 47. The Timbers and Sounders have played 31 matches, while KC still have five remaining.

Considering that Peter Vermes and co. simply do not lose at home, it’s a good bet that they’ll be the ones at the top come Decision Day. If the Whitecaps are going to change that, they need at the very least a point from this game, which is at Children’s Mercy Park in KC.

The concern surrounding the Whitecaps has and will be their ability to take the game to the opponent, and truly use their ability to sit deep and defend as a weapon. Sporting are great at playing a high line and keeping the ball out of their own net, meaning this will be an intriguing matchup of defensive teams who play different types of defense. Whichever club’s subpar attackers pull out a goal first could be the one that grabs this one.

In other words, this is up to you, Fredy Montero and Diego Rubio.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET)

Just like the Dynamo need to win against Minnesota, San Jose need to win against Portland. And in a much more urgent fashion.

The Quakes are treading water at this point, losing three of their last four games 4-0, 4-0 and 4-1. They’re bad on the road and good at home, but got roasted the Fire at Avaya on Wednesday. Playoff chances are quickly declining for this young and fun team, who have some work to do in the offseason and some decisions to make, but should be happy with their current core. Remember, they’re not terribly far removed from the Dom Kinnear era.

Chris Leitch has implemented what often resembles a 4-2-4 formation, a fluid shape that emphasizes possession and distribution through No. 8 Jackson Yueill, who usually plays alongside one of their rotating cast of d-mids, including Anibal Godoy, Fatai Alashe and center-back Florian Jungwirth. It’s entertaining, if not always pragmatic, and it’s unique, which is always nice to see.

As for Portland, they are what they are: an on-again-off-again attacking juggernaut that almost completely through current league MVP Diego Valeri, who has remarkably scored in nine straight games. Fanendo Adi is battling a hamstring issue, so we’re seeing too much of Darren Mattocks jumping high and missing chances and too little of rookie Jeremy Ebobisse, who has started just one of the seven games Adi’s been out and made sub appearances in the other six.

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Both teams would like some points here. If San Jose don’t get three and their competitors do literally anything at all (FC Dallas play Orlando, and RSL are in LA — not tough games by any stretch), they will pretty much be eliminated. Portland’s chances of going top of the conference will depend heavily on the results of this week.

We’ll be in for a good one.