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Taking stock of the MLS season as the All-Stars prepare to meet Atletico Madrid

With the MLS All-Stars set to take on Spanish power Atletico Madrid on Wednesday [8 p.m. ET, FS1], now is as good a time as any to check in on the domestic league.

It will be a sprint to the finish line once the festivities in Orlando are over; the midsummer classic actually comes well past the midway point of the current campaign, with many clubs having played more than two-thirds of their regular season slate.

Those final dozen or so matches for each side will mean even more than usual thanks to MLS’s new streamlined playoff format, which will (finally) reward higher seeds throughout the tournament. Here are the biggest storylines from the 2019 season so far.

Supporters Shield’ shoo-in LAFC is clear favorite

At this stage, it would take a monumental collapse for second-year club LAFC not to end up as regular season champs. Averaging 2.23 points per game, they’re on track to break last year’s record 71-point haul by the New York Red Bulls.

And while that alone is no guarantee of playoff success – in MLS’ first 23 seasons, just seven Supporters’ Shield winners have also hoisted MLS Cup – Bob Bradley’s team is clearly the class of the circuit. LAFC is 10 points clear of second-place Philadelphia (more on Philly later) despite playing two fewer games. LAFC has a ridiculous plus-36 goal differential; the next best team (New York City FC) is plus-12. Besides, the experience of losing to Real Salt Lake in the first round of last season’s playoffs will only make Bradley and Co. more determined to clinch the double this fall.

LAFC has been the story of the MLS season so far, thanks in no small part to star Mexican national team forward Carlos Vela. (Kelvin Kuo/USA Today)

Carlos Vela on pace for record-smashing season

The MLS single-season scoring mark stood for 22 years before Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez scored 31 times in 2018, finally eclipsing the 27 goals Roy Lassiter managed in the league’s inaugural 1996 season.

Now, Martinez’s record is in serious danger of being broken by LAFC and longtime Mexican national team star Carlos Vela less than 12 months after it was set.

With 22 goals in 21 matches this season, Vela – who will captain the MLSers against Atleti – is three goals ahead of where Martinez, MLS’ reigning MVP, was at the same point in the calendar a year ago.

LA Galaxy finally back in the trophy hunt

The arrival of LAFC as an expansion team coincided with a downturn for Los Angeles’ original MLS club, but the record five-time MLS Cup champion Galaxy are chasing silverware once again after missing the playoffs in both 2017 and 2018.

The Galaxy sit third in the Western Conference under first-year coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, just a point behind the second-place Seattle Sounders. And they topped their city rival two weeks ago behind a Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat trick, setting up a much anticipated rematch next month at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium.

Speaking of Zlatan …

Love him or hate him, the Swedish striker continues to keep MLS in the news. The former Ajax, Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United standout may be 37, but he has 16 goals in 18 games in 2019, including spectacular efforts like this:

He’s also been suspended for grabbing an opponent by the neck, recently escaped another ban after breaking a bone in the face of LAFC defender Mohamed El-Munir with a wayward elbow, and has taken verbal shots at MLS players in general (and Vela in particular), referring to himself as “a Ferrari among Fiats.”

Philadelphia Union flying high

Few would’ve predicted that the Union would head into the All-Star break atop the Eastern Conference, which they do despite a 4-0 drubbing in Montreal last weekend. Frugal Philly can’t compete financially with free-spending conference foes like Atlanta or Toronto FC or even NYCFC, but Jim Curtin’s squad has found success by fast-tracking local talent such as center back Austin Trusty and midfielder Brenden Aaronson into the first team.

A tough slate to finish the season will test Philadelphia’s hold on the top spot. Yet Curtin’s team still seems well-positioned to secure just its second home playoff date since debuting in MLS in 2010.

Atlanta United falls back to earth

The defending MLS Cup champs struggled after losing playmaker Miguel Almiron to Premier League Newcastle and manager Tata Martinez to the Mexican national team last winter, with their replacements – Pity Martinez and Frank de Boer – unable to recapture the magic of 2018 despite impressive resumes.

Atlanta is still second in the East. They should make the playoffs with ease. But a repeat seems unlikely; they still look nothing like the swashbuckling unit that tore through the postseason field a year ago.

Off the field, though, the team remains the class of MLS. United is drawing slightly less than the astounding 53,000 fans it averaged last season, but the club’s local relevance remains unmatched in MLS; four of the five biggest crowds to watch a soccer game in the United States this year went to see the Five Stripes play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, according to Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy.

Josef Martinez and Atlanta United are in fine shape, but they're not wrecking MLS like they were a season ago. (Getty)

Left for dead, Revs and Quakes are hottest teams in MLS

MLS loves to champion its parity, and no two teams personify how quickly things can change in the league better than the San Jose Earthquakes and New England Revolution.

Both clubs looked dead on arrival earlier this season. But the Revs have gone on an 11-game unbeaten run since Bruce Arena replaced the fired Brad Friedel on the sidelines, and Quakes have won eight and drawn twice in 11 matches under Matias Almeyda after losing five of the high-priced Argentine boss’ first six games at the helm.

Tough year in Ohio

The Columbus Crew managed to make the playoffs in 2018 despite the threat of relocation looming for most of the year. Their future in Ohio’s capital was only secured when a local ownership group bought the team in January. Good thing, because the Crew have been dreadful in 2019.

It’s a transition year under a first-year coach (Caleb Porter) and general manager (Tim Bezbatchenko) following the departure of former coach/GM Gregg Berhalter to the U.S. men’s national team. Both men are proven commodities. But nobody expected Columbus to have lost twice as many games as they’ve won heading into the home stretch.

About 100 miles to the southwest, FC Cincinnati has had a rude awakening in its expansion season. FCC fired coach Alan Koch just two months in and things haven’t improved since, with the club sitting on just 17 points from 23 contests, good for dead last overall.

Have Timbers found their talisman?

Since breaking their transfer record to sign Brian Fernandez from Necaxa in early May, Portland has reaped the benefits. Fernandez has scored 11 times in 13 games, and the Timbers have taken 21 of an available 30 points in league play.

Portland opened the season with an MLS-record 12 straight road games due to expansions at Providence Park, but now sits in the final playoff spot in the West with the second-fewest games played of any team in the league.

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