Barring a miraculous surge by Montreal, six teams are vying for the five Eastern Conference playoffs spots. Late-season arrivals in Columbus, New York, and Chicago have altered the landscape heading into the final month and a half.
Not many interconference games will be played for the remainder of the season, but three Western teams could have a huge influence on what happens in the East. As might be the outcome of games against Eastern doormat Toronto FC.
So close will be the race for the lower slots that games this week for Chivas USA against Columbus and D.C. United, a D.C. United match in Portland Sept. 29, and a regular-season finale in Colorado for Houston might be decisive as six teams battle for five spots.
Top three Sporting Kansas City, Chicago and New York are unlikely to be dislodged from the postseason picture, yet the possibility of slipping down into a wild-card slot (fourth or fifth) is not out of the question. With four of six on the road, SKC could be especially vulnerable even though it currently sits atop the heap.
Then there's the TFC factor: It plays New York, D.C. United, and Columbus in its final five games as well as Montreal, which is probably out of the running with 39 points and only four games to play but has shown the past two months it is capable of battling with anybody.
With six weeks remaining in the regular season, here's how the six teams shape up:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY (51 pts/6 games). @NY, @MON, CHI, @CLB, @NY, PHL.
This is the toughest closing schedule among the top teams, with four games on the road including a pair against the Red Bulls and a biggie in Columbus. Though overall its road record is a league-best 7-4-2, SKC is 3-5-1 this season against its five remaining opponents. League assist leader Graham Zusi (13) and goals-allowed top dog Jimmy Nielsen (0.89) need to finish strongly if SKC is to stay atop the East. The league's best 'D' (25 goals allowed) can't falter now.
CHICAGO (50/5). CLB, @SKC, @NY, @NE, D.C.
Three straight road tests after a home game Sunday against the Crew will probably cost the Fire its hopes of a conference title, but with six wins in the last seven games, the Fire is riding the momentum of midseason additions Alvaro Fernandez, Alex and Chris Rolfe. Keeper Sean Johnson has the highest save percentage in the league (77.7), yet only four shutouts. The Fire needs more resilience to build momentum for the playoffs, and that starts in the midfield with Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause.
NEW YORK (49/6). SKC, @NE, TFC, CHI, SKC, @PHL.
Unbeaten at Red Bull Arena this season (10-0-3), NYRB gets four more homies and a plum chance to take a conference title. Naturally, this triggers expectations of choke, since it's happened a few times before, but this team has grit (Dax McCarty, Marcus Holgersson) to go along with the glamour (Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill). There is a question mark in goal -- same as it ever was with this team since Tim Howard departed more than a decade ago -- yet if the offensive momentum (11 goals in the past five games) continues, Bill Gaudette won't have to be outstanding. A finish as the top Eastern seed would ensure the decisive playoff game(s) would be played at RB Arena.
HOUSTON (46/5). @PHL, NE, MON, PHL, @COL.
All of Dynamo's remaining games are against teams that won't make the playoffs (though the Impact may still be in the hunt for the Oct. 6 encounter). Houston also has a pair of Concacaf Champions League matches, which means it plays seven games in 39 days starting Thursday at home against FAS of El Salvador. This isn't a crushing burden and Houston is also helped by the fact none of its challengers can directly take points away in head-to-head meetings. After a bright start to his MLS career, Oscar Boniek Garcia has gone rather quiet -- he needs to make some noise so Brad Davis doesn't draw all the attention.
D.C UNITED (44/6). @PHL, CHV, @POR, TFC, CLB, @CHI.
It closes with the Crew and Fire, so D.C. United desperately needs points in its next four games that include winnable matches against Western Conference teams as well as the train wreck that is Toronto FC. Heroics by Chris Pontius snagged a vital win last weekend, but defenses will be clamping down on him in the absence of Dwayne De Rosario, which piles more pressure on erratic DP Branko Boskovic and once-hot/now-cold striker Maicon Santos. Another problem is with a young keeper in Bill Hamid, a team needs a top-notch centerback to marshall the troops, and D.C. really doesn't have one.
COLUMBUS (42/6). CHV, @CHI, PHL, SKC, @D.C., TFC.
Federico Higuain (three goals and six assists in seven games) is a incredible story, and he is expected back for the games this week (Chivas USA and the Fire) after sitting out a 3-1 loss to New York. His arrival has helped transform the Crew into a real deal. Yet veteran defender Chad Marshall, who missed part of the season dealing with post-concussion problems and nagging injuries, is the key figure. Coach Robert Warzycha has been juggling his back line but the one constant is Marshall, whom the Crew desperately need at his best in the last six games to get into the playoffs.
Projected order of finish: 1. New York. 2. Chicago. 3. Sporting Kansas City. 4. Columbus. 5. Houston. 6. D.C. United.