MLS Playoff Push Panic Meter: Which clubs are feeling the heat?

Nashville SC (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Nashville SC (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The MLS Playoff race is heating up. Which clubs are feeling the heat?

This is the point of the season where panic and excitement reach its climax in MLS. The end is in sight for MLS clubs as the regular season draws to a close in a few more weeks. Almost every Major League Soccer side has at least a semi-possible chance of clinching one of the 18 playoffs spots (8 in the West, 10 in the East) up for grabs.

Focusing specifically on those around  (less than 6 points away from the highest-ranked team outside the playoff spots) or under the playoff line and judging by their current form and remaining fixtures, let’s see where each of them stand in the MLS Playoff Push Panic Meter. Other factors such as fan and season expectations may play a part as well. The panic meter operates on a scale of 1 (no doubts whatsoever) to 10 (DEFCON 5).

Standings and other facts correct as of 10/23 prior to the Nashville vs New England game that evening.

Eastern Conference

Nashville SC

9th place on 23 points, 4 clear of 11th place Atlanta United

Last 3 Results: 2-1 win over Inter Miami, 3-2 loss to NE Revolution, 2-1 loss to Philadelphia

Remaining Schedule: @ NYC, hosting Nashville, hosting Orlando, @ DC

Panic Meter Level: 5

While it’s certainly not smooth sailing for the Canadian club, they can’t feel too down on themselves losing to two of the better Eastern Conference teams. However, with just 4 games left and none of them besides DC United looking like underdogs against Montreal, it could get even trickier for Thierry Henry to lead them to the playoffs.

Chicago Fire

10th place on 20 points, 1 clear of Atlanta United

Last 3 Results: 2-2 draw to Sporting KC, 2-1 win over DC United, 1-0 loss to Sporting KC

Remaining Schedule: NY Red Bulls at home, @ Philadelphia, @ Nashville, @ Minnesota, NYC at home

Panic Meter Level: 7

While this has been a rebuilding season for Chicago Fire (something they’ve had a lot of recently), they would love to get their side to the playoffs after a mixed bag of performances at the MLS is Back Tournament. Their remaining schedule is pretty tough with 3 consecutive road games and hosting the two New York clubs. Raphael Wicky is sure to be sweating bullets.

Atlanta United

11th place on 19 pts, 1 behind Chicago Fire

Last 3 Results: 1-0 loss to Toronto, 1-1 draw to Inter Miami, 1-0 loss to NY Red Bulls

Remaining Schedule: DC at home, @ Orlando, Cincinnati at home, @ Columbus

Panic Meter Level: 7

Some Atlanta United fans have written this season off as a disaster, but this club is not out of the playoff picture by any means. Their results at home against DC United and FC Cincinnati will likely determine how their season goes. Wins in both of those games are crucial to give themselves the best chance while deflating two other competing teams for that playoff spot. Winnable games, but nothing is for certain with this group that’s looked rudderless often times this season.

Inter Miami

12th place on 18 points, 2 behind Chicago Fire

Last 3 Results: 2-1 loss to Montreal Impact, 1-1 draw to Atlanta, 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo

Remaining Schedule: Orlando at home, @ Dallas, @ Toronto, Cincinnati at home

Panic Meter Level: 6

Gonzalo Higuain will need to continue to put goals in the back of the net to help expansion side Inter Miami make a late surge into the playoffs, but the way they’ve played in their last few games showed signs of fight and life. If they can pull off a win against their Floridian counterparts, things will look more manageable. The margin of error isn’t that big though.

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FC Cincinnati

13th place on 16 points, 4 behind Chicago Fire

Last 3 Results: 2-1 loss to DC United, 2-1 win over Columbus Crew, 1-0 loss to Toronto

Remaining Schedule: Minnesota at home, @ Sporting KC, @ Atlanta, Inter Miami at home

Panic Meter Level: 8

FC Cincinnati’s level of expectations is at the floor, but they gave fans a glimmer of hope with their MLS is Back Tournament and they are capable of surprises still as shown in their recent Hell is Real Derby win. Judging by their remaining schedule though, it remains a huge mountain to climb.

At this point, FC Cincinnati doesn’t need to make the playoffs but they need to show sustained signs of improvement. That’s where the panic sets in, the realization that there’s a good chance Cincinnati could be stuck in mediocrity for the foreseeable future.

DC United

14th place on 15 points, 5 behind Chicago Fire

Last 3 Results: 2-1 win over Cincinnati, 2-2 draw to Philadelphia, 2-1 loss to Chicago Fire

Remaining Schedule: @ Atlanta, Columbus at home, @ NE, Montreal at home

Panic Meter Level: 8

Will the real DC United please stand up? If this club looked at itself in the mirror, I don’t think they could tell you what they’re looking at. The days of DC United’s dominance in MLS feel like 50 years ago more so than 20.

It was time for Ben Olsen to go, but unfortunately, that means this club’s direction and identity is still up in the air. A miraculous recovery in this last stage of the season could help provide some clarity, but it’ll likely end in disappointment and a tricky offseason.

Western Conference


4th place on 25 points, 4 above Real Salt Lake

Last 3 Results: 1-1 draw to Portland Timbers, 2-1 loss to Whitecaps, 3-1 win over Sounders

Remaining Schedule: Galaxy at home, Houston at home, @ SJ, Portland at home

Panic Meter Level: 2

Not the best of results since their win over the Seattle Sounders, but LAFC will be liking their chances against their next 3 opponents. LAFC have been one of the most inconsistent MLS clubs this season, but there’s enough quality to ensure they make it to the playoffs at this point.

Minnesota United

5th place on 24 points, 3 above Real Salt Lake

Last 3 Results: 2-2 draw to Houston Dynamo, 0-0 draw to Nashville, 2-0 win over Cincinnati

Remaining Schedule: @ Cincinnati, Colorado at home, @ Sporting KC, Chicago at home, Dallas at home

Panic Meter Level: 2

Objects in the playoff push mirror may be closer than they appear. Minnesota United are somewhat too close for comfort, but they are on an unbeaten run. Unless they fail to turn their draws into wins against this manageable group of opponents, the Loons will likely qualify for the postseason.

FC Dallas

6th place on 24 points, 3 above Real Salt Lake

Last 3 Results: 3-0 loss to Nashville, 1-0 win over Sporting KC, 2-0 loss to Houston Dynamo

Remaining Schedule: @ Salt Lake, Inter Miami at home, Houston at home, @ Nashville, @ Minnesota

Panic Meter Level: 6

Dejavu is the feeling in the red half of Texas right now. FC Dallas are no strangers to late-season collapses in MLS, and their losses to Nashville and Houston threaten to make history repeat itself. They can take some confidence from a win over Sporting Kansas City though. Depending on which FC Dallas shows up in their last few games, they’ll make or break their season. Either way, they’ll be doing it without Reggie Cannon.

San Jose Earthquakes

7th place on 24 points, 3 above Real Salt Lake

Last 3 Results: 0-0 draw to Seattle Sounders, 4-0 win over LA Galaxy, 3-0 loss to Portland Timbers

Remaining Schedule: @ Vancouver, Salt Lake at home, LAFC at home, @ Seattle

Panic Meter Level: 4

Beating the clubs lower than you in the standings is a tried and true formula for success in this league, and San Jose Earthquakes’ ability to do that gives them a decent chance of making it to the playoffs, an unfortunately rare achievement for them in recent years. The Quakes have to take care of business in their next two games, otherwise, their panic rating will increase exponentially. You do not want to rely on LAFC or Sounders to get your points at the end of the season.

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  • Vancouver Whitecaps

    8th place 21 points, just above Real Salt Lake on goal difference

    Last 3 Results: 1-0 loss to LA Galaxy, 2-1 win over LAFC, 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake

    Remaining Schedule: Hosting SJ, hosting Seattle, @ Portland, hosting LA Galaxy

    Panic Meter Level: 7

    Vancouver Whitecaps looked like they were turning things around until they suffered a deflating loss against a struggling LA Galaxy team.

    They’ll have another crack at them at the end of their remaining schedule, but do the Whitecaps have enough in the tank to survive the gauntlet that precedes that fixture?

    It’s tough to say, but they’ve already overcome a lot of adversity. Even for a team calls the Whitecaps, this might be a tough mountain to climb.

    Real Salt Lake

    9th place 21 points, just below Vancouver Whitecaps on goal difference

    Last 3 Results: 2-1 win over Portland Timbers, 2-1 loss to Whitecaps, 2-1 loss to Sounders

    Remaining Schedule: Dallas at home, @ SJ, @ Galaxy, Sporting KC at home

    Panic Meter Level: 5

    Real Salt Lake have the look of a side that appear resigned to their fate whatever it may be after dealing with off the field issues from their ownership and trying to rebuild. Underestimate them at your own peril. The Utah-based club will go into their remaining games with nothing to lose and everything to gain. A playoff appearance can improve their club narrative going into 2021.

    Houston Dynamo

    10th place 20 points, 1 point behind Vancouver Whitecaps

    Last 3 Results: 2-2 draw to Minnesota, 3-1 loss to Nashville, 1-0 loss to Inter Miami

    Remaining Schedule: Columbus at home, @ LAFC, @ Dallas, Colorado at home

    Panic Meter Level: 8

    When you can’t find a way to win games, your playoff chances slowly but surely slip through your fingers. Houston Dynamo can’t seem to get their act together, a far cry from the days of their back to back MLS Cup appearance. Losing Alberth Elis to join Reggie Cannon at Boavista certainly didn’t help either. Doom likely awaits with their remaining schedule, which will precede another offseason with more questions than answers.

    Colorado Rapids

    11th place 19 points, 2 points behind Vancouver Whitecaps

    Last 3 Results: 5-0 win over SJ Earthquakes, 2-0 win over LA Galaxy, 4-1 loss to FC Dallas

    Remaining Schedule: A lot included postponed games

    Panic Meter Level: 3 if they can make up postponed games, 7 if they cannot

    This is the biggest question mark of all. It remains to be seen how MLS will handle the Colorado Rapids situation. Whether they’ll go to a points per game bases, find a way to cram as much makeup fixtures as possible, or completely rule out Rapids from the playoffs due to negligence is up in the air. Whenever the Rapids do play again, they’ve shown the league they’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s just a matter of if and when they’ll be able to play again.

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    LA Galaxy

    12th place 18 points, 3 points behind Vancouver Whitecaps

    Last 3 Results: 1-0 win over Whitecaps, 4-0 loss to SJ Earthquakes, 6-3 loss to Portland Timbers

    Remaining Schedule: @ LAFC, @ Portland, Salt Lake at home, Sounders at home

    Panic Meter Level: 10

    Any season in which the most successful club in Major League Soccer misses the playoffs is a failure. LA Galaxy’s stars have been eclipsed time and time again, especially Javier Hernandez who has already been linked with a loan move to Guadalajara after a rough start stateside. Galaxy have to beat LAFC to have any real chance of making it to the playoffs, but even that wouldn’t change much. Panic is all over Dignity Health Sports Park and the future of this club remains a mystery.