The playoff push in MLS is on! Well, sort of.
Some teams have just six matches left in the regular season, while others have as many as eight games remaining.
MLS announced a new playoff format this season: the top nine teams from each conference qualify, although there are big incentives to finish in the top seven and miss the wild-card round or, even better, in the top four to host two games in the newly designed round one, which will be played as a best-of-three series. The conference semifinals, conference finals and MLS Cup are all one-off games hosted by the higher seed.
While the format has changed, it's relatively easy to look back at past seasons and settle on a points target of 43 to have a reasonable expectation to get into the ninth and final spot. The final number could be one point or so higher or lower, but for now, most people around the league agree that's a reasonable target.
So, where is everyone at as the season comes to a close? Here's a look at teams with hopes of a postseason run, broken into tiers, starting with one of the most important distinctions:
Teams with Messi
Lionel Messi's arrival to Inter Miami (28 points), and the additions of Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and even lesser-known names like Tomás Avilés, Facundo Farías and Diego Gómez has changed what seemed possible for an MLS team.
After winning Leagues Cup, Inter Miami still found themselves sitting in the basement of MLS's Eastern Conference, needing a miracle run to have any hope of making the playoffs.
Miracles happen with Messi.
While Inter currently sit in 14th with 28 points, six back from D.C. United (34 points) in the ninth and final postseason position, an undefeated run in the four matches since MLS play resumed makes it feel foolish to bet against Messi & Co.
One of the issues for Miami is that they'll also have to do it without Messi. They passed their first test without their talisman, though, coming from behind to beat Sporting Kansas City 3-2 on Saturday.
Five wins and a draw from their final eight games could be enough to do it, and with matches against direct rivals New York City FC (30 points), the Chicago Fire (32 points) and a pair of contests against Charlotte FC (31 points), there's a possible path to the postseason -- even if Inter will need help from other Eastern Conference rivals along the way.
Yet a road trip to Atlanta United (42 points) on Sept. 16 and a game at Orlando City SC (47 points) on Sept. 24 loom as reminders it won't always be easy. Plus, while a scoreless home draw against Nashville SC (40 points) on Aug. 30 hardly put the nail in the coffin for Miami's playoff hopes, it was a reminder of just how small the margin for error is for this team, with any dropped points at home making it that much more difficult to sneak into the playoffs and regroup once there.
They should be toast, playoffstatus.com says they have an 87% chance of missing the playoffs, but the numbers aren't factoring in the extra boost Messi and his running buddies have given the Herons.
If not Miami, who?
Atlanta United are by no means home free with a top-nine berth but have 42 points and six games left, the first one at home against Inter Miami after the international break. Right below them in the East comes Nashville.
Then things get interesting.
CF Montreal have 35 points, seven more than Miami and just three more than the Chicago Fire, who sit in 10th, one place out of the playoff positions. D.C. United cling to the ninth and final spot with 34 points. Montreal, one of the league's worst road teams with 10 away defeats, play four of their last seven contests at home and will need to accumulate as many points as possible in Quebec to clinch a place.
While Chicago sit just below the line, the Fire are on a four-game losing skid they'll hope to end with a trip to Montreal on Sept. 16. It's a game that looks crucial for both teams' hopes.
Charlotte are behind Chicago in the table but have one fewer match played. Closing the season with a road trip to Miami, then hosting the Herons, means they should control their own destiny but first need to prove they're worthy of the playoff place with a September stretch that sees them play three of the East's top four teams.
The New York teams haven't been able to wrest attention away from Messi, both registering 1.07 points per match this season. The numbers say it's much more likely NYCFC and the Red Bulls will miss out on the playoffs than make it, and the first game back from the international break, a Hudson River Derby at Yankee Stadium has the feel of a must-win.
Teams in or almost there
FC Cincinnati (57 points) already have the beautiful "X" by their name in the standings, signifying they've clinched a postseason place, and know they will play on. The New England Revolution and Western Conference-leading St. Louis City on 48 points, Orlando City on 47 and the Philadelphia Union on 46 also are feeling very little heat. The Columbus Crew, too, have all but clinched qualification, already surpassing our 43-point target (45 points) with seven games to play.
Should be good, but ...
Just behind St. Louis City in the West, the Seattle Sounders (41 points) and LAFC (40 points) are a win away from our 43-point standard. LAFC still have seven games to go and will feel they can mount a charge for a top seed.
Seattle have fewer games left but also are well situated to earn not just playoff games but to get a home-field edge. Past seasons indicate an average of 53 points has been enough to score the No. 4 spot, so the Sounders will look to slightly beat their current PPG to finish in the top four.
Real Salt Lake (40 points) and the Houston Dynamo (39 points) have slightly worse points-per-game numbers but also are far more likely to play past Decision Day than to see the season end after match 34.
The math says even the Vancouver Whitecaps, on 38 points, and five points above 10th-place Austin FC (33 points), should feel comfortable about their current standing. For one, Vancouver still have eight games left, meaning they could draw the rest of their contests and hit the 43-point target. The remaining schedule looks a bit daunting, with the team currently on a long road trip while Beyonce calls BC Place home, but getting another 10 points or so should be manageable considering some of those trips are to teams no longer contending and they end with three of four at home.
The mess in the West
Things get interesting around spot seven in the West, where Minnesota United are in seventh with 37 points. The San Jose Earthquakes have the same point total in eighth and FC Dallas hold the final playoff spot with 34 points.
The home-road splits may decide the final three playoff spots in the West. Minnesota, strangely, have managed just three home wins but are by far the best of the bunch away from home. The Loons have one game more remaining than San Jose, while Dallas have two games in hand.
Below the teams currently occupying the playoff places, Austin lead the charge, one point back from FCD with one more game played.
And while it might be tempting to forget about the Portland Timbers, in 11th with 33 points, Sporting KC in 12th on 32 and the LA Galaxy in 13th with 30, they're still on the playoff radar. The Timbers recently changed managers and have seen a minibounce, with two wins and a draw ahead of the final six games, and the Galaxy the joint-most matches left to play with eight.
No Messi? No miracle
Toronto FC (22 points) have some big-name players with European experience, but it hasn't worked out like Messi, Busquets and Alba showing up did for Miami. They're not going to be able to put together a push, sitting 12 back from the line in the East and yet to win a single match away from home this season.
Neither will the Colorado Rapids, who just fired coach Robin Fraser and with 19 points (just 0.73 a game) would have to make up an 11-point gap to even catch the team currently one slot above them in 13th place.