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MLS Talking Points: Union look to end playoff drought, Timbers fight for survival, and more

Six teams down, two more to go.

Major League Soccer's midweek action saw the Columbus Crew added to the teams eliminated from playoff contention, leaving eight teams alive for six playoff berths across the league's two conferences heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.

The Crew's demise was one few could have envisioned before the season began, what with Columbus having reached the MLS Cup final a year ago. The big Kei Kamara blockbuster shook the team before the summer, while a myriad of injuries through the season ultimately proved too much for the Crew to overcome.

The team that beat the Crew in last year's MLS Cup final, the Portland Timbers, could join them among the teams missing the playoffs if the Timbers don't  finish the 2016 season with a pair of positive results. A loss to Colorado, coupled with a Sporting Kansas City victory, would eliminate the Timbers from the playoff race. In fact, only a Timbers win would ensure survival heading into the regular-season finale.

In the East, any of four teams could wind up being the odd team out, though the Montreal Impact are the closest to booking their place in the playoffs. That won't be easy though as Toronto FC visits Stade Saputo on Sunday still trying to secure a top-two spot in the East.

Colorado's pair of victories last week has pushed the Rapids into the lead in the Supporters' Shield race, and all but eliminated East contenders New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls. A win in Portland, coupled with an FC Dallas loss or draw against Seattle, could help the Rapids secure the Supporters' Shield with a week to go.

With so much on the line in the penultimate match day of the 2016 season, here is a closer look at the biggest talking points of Week 33:


The task is clearcut for the Philadelphia Union. Beat Orlando City at home on Sunday and they will reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the longest active drought in league history. It seems a simple enough job, but the past month has been anything but simple for the struggling Union.

Jim Curtin's squad has fallen into a five-match winless drought (0-3-2) that has weakened a once rock-solid hold on a playoff berth. Working in the Union's favor is the fact they will be hosting a terrible Orlando City side that has struggled to turn things around under new coach Jason Kreis. The Lions have the league's worst defense, but have allowed just two goals in their past two matches, which might suggest they can give the Union some problems.

The Union will need more out of lead striker C.J. Sapong, who hasn't scored in eight matches. They have relied more on rookie forward Fabian Hebers in recent weeks. The 2016 first-round pick has tallied a goal or assist in four straight matches and could present problems for Orlando City left back Luke Boden.

The Lions are only playing for pride, having already been eliminated from the playoff race, but it is the Union that are playing with the pressure of knowing a loss or tie Sunday could severely complicate things for them. A stumble against Orlando City, coupled with a New England win in Chicago, would leave the Union heading into a regular-season finale against a strong New York Red Bulls team needing a result to avoid missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season. 


Oh how the tables have turned for the Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids.

A year ago, the Timbers were celebrating an improbable championship while the Rapids were closing out a second straight last place finish in the West, good for the second-worst record in MLS. Fast-forward to present day and while their roles haven't quite reversed, the Western Conference foes have headed in completely different directions.

The Rapids are in the midst of a dream season, with a pair of wins last week propelling them into lead in the Supporters' Shield race. The Timbers, meanwhile, have lost two in a row to fall two points below the red line with just two matches to go.

The teams meet on Sunday in Portland, each with plenty of motivation to secure all three points, albeit much different kinds of motivation.

For the Rapids, a win could help them cinch first place in the West and the Supporters Shield (if FC Dallas draws or loses to Seattle). It would signal an incredible turnaround under Pablo Mastroeni, who endured a rough first two seasons as Rapids coach before leading them to this season's current renaissance.

The Timbers have no choice but to win, and the good news for Caleb Porter's side is that the Timbers have been stellar at home this season, with their 11 home wins tied for the second-most in MLS. To earn a 12th, the Rapids will need to find a way to break through a stingy Rapids defense that has allowed the fewest goals in the league, a defense that has been bolstered by the arrival of U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Another U.S. player who will bear watching is Darlington Nagbe, who didn't take part in the U.S. team's October friendlies, and who will need to step up his game if the Timbers are going to avoid going from MLS Cup champions to missing the playoffs in one season.


The Colorado Rapids can secure the Supporters' Shield with a win and FC Dallas draw or loss to Seattle. A Rapids win or draw eliminates New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls from the Supporters' Shield race. The New York teams would need both the Rapids and FC Dallas to both lose their remaining two matches to have a chance of grabbing the shield.

Montreal, D.C. United, Seattle and Real Salt Lake can each secure their spot in the playoffs with a victory on Sunday. A New England loss would qualify Montreal, D.C. United and Philadelphia, while a Portland loss or draw against Colorado would secure Seattle and RSL as playoff teams.

Sebastian Giovinco status for Toronto FC's visit to Montreal on Sunday is still up in the air. He returned to full training this week, but did not train fully on Friday, leaving his availability a question mark for the key Eastern Conference clash. The move could have just been precautionary for Giovinco, who has been sidelined since Aug. 27 with a quad strain.

“That was a little bit of the strategy of this week,” TFC coach Greg Vanney told the Toronto Star. “He has put in some extra days. He’s doing fine.”

Seattle will be without Osvaldo Alonso against FC Dallas after the Cuban midfielder drew a red card for hands to the face of Will Bruin during Seattle's 0-0 draw with Houston on Wednesday. Alonso's absence could mean a field day for FC Dallas playmaker Mauro Diaz.

The LA Galaxy will be without Steven Gerrard for their trip to Houston, as the English midfielder recovers from a hamstring injury. Robbie Keane is listed as questionable for the clash with the Dynamo.


Midfield duels are the prime offering on Sunday's MLS menu, with many of the league's best playmakers facing tough challenges from top defensive midfielders. A suspension to Osvaldo Alonso kept us from a juicy Mauri Diaz-Alonso clash, but there are still more than enough good battles to watch for. Here is a look at this week's best individual MLS matchups:

1. Laurent Ciman vs. Jozy Altidore. Few forwards have been better in MLS in the past two months than Altidore, and stopping him could be even harder for Ciman if Sebastian Giovinco returns from injury as expected.

2. David Villa vs. Steve Birnbaum. It remains unclear whether Birnbaum will be recovered from the head wound he suffered on U.S. national team duty, but if he is, Villa will have his hands full.

3. Sacha Kljestan vs. Wil Trapp. Kljestan and the Red Bulls are extremely tough at home, but Trapp has the quality to slow down the dominance of the Red Bulls midfield.

4. Jordan Morris vs. Matt Hedges. If Hedges is looking for a chance to impress Jurgen Klinsmann, it could come in this matchup against an in-form Morris.

5. Yura Movsisyan vs. Matt Besler. Fresh off a Man of the Match showing for the U.S. national team against New Zealand, Besler will try to shut down RSL's lead striker.

6. Fanendo Adi vs. Axel Sjoberg. There are plenty of enticing matchups in the Timbers-Rapids clash, but this battle of big boys should be the best of the bunch.

7. Benny Feilhaber vs. Kyle Beckerman. There are few MLS foes who dislike each other more than Feilhaber and Beckerman, and that subplot should only add spice to an already-intriguing Western Conference battle.

8. Gio Dos Santos vs. DaMarcus Beasley. These old-time international foes renew acquaintances, and while Beasley may be up there in age, he has shown himself capable of slowing down dangerous attackers.

9. Diego Valeri vs. Sam Cronin. The Timbers will lean heavily on Valeri to jumpstart the Timbers attack, but Cronin, fresh off a one-match suspension, is in quietly the midst of a career year and will make things tough for the Argentine playmaker.

10. Lee Nguyen vs. Matt Polster. The Revs need a win to boost their playoff hopes, and Nguyen will need to shake off a talented young midfielder in Polster, who should work to slow him down.