There are many candidates for when the stretch run of the season begins in Major League Soccer.
Maybe it's when the final full month of the regular season begins. (This year, that's September.) Maybe it's when rosters freeze and teams can't make any more additions to their squads (coming Aug. 30). Maybe it's when the schedules finally sync up and everyone is on the same number of games played (no idea).
Or, maybe it's when the first team officially qualifies for the postseason. If that's the marker, then the stretch run is starting really early this season -- LAFC's win on Saturday put it in the playoff field, locking in the first of 14 teams that will vie for MLS Cup. We always say it's never too early to start a stretch run. It's the only kind of run we really like.
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1. LAFC (18 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses)
Previous ranking: 1
Next MLS match: Wednesday vs. San Jose, 10:30 p.m. ET
And the beat goes on. The league's best team is also the first team to qualify for the playoffs with nine games to spare in the regular season. Special recognition is due to Carlos Vela, who broke the single-season goals-plus-assists record with his 64th-minute goal. LAFC calls him "El Rey." We call him "The Vela-ciraptor." It'll grow on you.
2. Atlanta United (14-3-9)
Previous ranking: 3
Next MLS match: Friday at Orlando, watch live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes at 8 p.m. ET
There's making a statement, and there's MAKING A STATEMENT. Atlanta's Campeones Cup win over Club America doesn't impact its standings in the rankings, but coupled with the win on the road in Portland, the reigning champs are demanding our attention and respect.
3. Philadelphia Union (13-6-8)
Previous ranking: 2
Next MLS match: Saturday vs. D.C. United, stream live on ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m. ET
That's not the type of loss that a team aiming for a No. 1 seed is supposed to take. It's even worse that the Union couldn't find a way back into the game with a man advantage for the entire second half. Philly is good enough to ensure it's a blip but not good enough to take bouncing back for granted.
4. Minnesota United (12-6-8)
Previous ranking: 5
Next MLS match: Thursday at Sporting Kansas City, watch live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes at 9:30 p.m. ET
It was a loony week in Minnesota. (Sorry.) United followed up a narrow win over Colorado with a dramatic draw against Orlando. It would've have felt like two points dropped at home, but a late VAR decision to overturn a penalty for Orlando made the point feel like a fortunate one.
5. San Jose Earthquakes (11-5-9)
Previous ranking: 4
Next MLS match: Wednesday at LAFC, 10:30 p.m. ET
After Saturday's loss in Kansas City, the Quakes are winless in three straight games. That's their longest run without a win since the disastrous four-game losing streak to start the season. No one thinks San Jose is regressing to the March version, but the second-half drop-off does throw up red flags.
6. New York City FC (11-8-5)
Previous ranking: 7
Next MLS match: Wednesday vs. Columbus, stream live on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET
Good team beats bad team in emphatic fashion, jumps into third place in the process. NYCFC will attempt to do the "Ohio two-step" when it faces Columbus at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday -- a new thing we just made up that consists off beating two Ohio-based teams in the span of five days.
7. New England Revolution (9-8-9)
Previous ranking: 6
Next MLS match: Friday vs. Chicago, stream live on ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m. ET
Nothing wrong with back-to-back draws on the road in Seattle and New Jersey for the Revs. New England showed plenty of moxie overturning a deficit on Saturday in Harrison, and new signing Gustavo Bou continues to show his worth after joining the new-and-more-ambitious Revolution.
8. Portland Timbers (11-4-10)
Previous ranking: 8
Next MLS match: Friday vs. Seattle, watch live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes at 10 p.m. ET
Two wins and a loss to start the season-defining 10-game homestand have the Timbers primed for the stretch run and the chase for the playoffs. There's really no reason to doubt that they'll get there, but it's an open question if Portland can squeeze enough points to get a home playoff game.
9. Seattle Sounders (11-7-8)
Previous ranking: 9
Next MLS match: Friday at Portland, watch live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes at 10 p.m. ET
A single solitary point from trips to Utah and Southern California this week for the Sounders, who look a little rickety at a time of the season when they are traditionally at their hottest. Friday's match at Portland is going to have implications well beyond the usual Cascadia Cup conflict.
10. New York Red Bulls (11-5-10)
Previous ranking: 10
Next MLS match: Wednesday at D.C. United, 8 p.m. ET
Who are these Red Bulls? The playoff spot looks relatively secure, but there's not enough to imagine this will be the season they break the MLS Cup curse. Saturday's draw against New England summed it up: a mediocre result in front of a mediocre crowd for a team solidly in the mediocre zone.
11. LA Galaxy (13-2-11)
Previous ranking: 13
Next MLS match: Sunday at LAFC, 10:30 p.m. ET
Quick poll: Do you believe in the Galaxy? Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but LA's weird draw against Seattle -- in a game in which it went down a man but was the better team and "dropped" two points thanks to a fiasco at the back -- led to a lot of head-shaking around these parts.
12. Orlando City (9-7-11)
Previous ranking: 14
Next MLS match: Friday vs. Atlanta, watch live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes at 8 p.m. ET
This is the moment. This is what that coaching change last year was all about. This is where the Lions wanted to be after four years of failing to get to the playoffs. In with a shout, tied on points for seventh and with a chance to take a massive step forward if they can beat the hated Five Stripes on Friday night. Cue dramatic music.
13. FC Dallas (10-7-10)
Previous ranking: 11
Next MLS match: Sunday vs. Houston, 8 p.m. ET
Who the hell scheduled FC Dallas for games in LA on Wednesday night and Montreal on Saturday? Hopefully the team is closing in on diamond status, free upgrades and a second bag of complimentary peanuts while flying coach across the continent.
14. Chicago Fire (8-9-11)
Previous ranking: 16
Next MLS match: Friday at New England, stream live on ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m. ET
One bad, one good for Chicago, which now has wins in three of its past four matches. Raise your hand if you picked the Fire for "MLS team most likely to put together a torrid late summer and threaten to steal a playoff spot." Put your hands down, you big fat liars.
15. Real Salt Lake (12-4-9)
Previous ranking: 12
Next MLS match: Saturday vs. Colorado, stream live on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET
The gap in the West was embodied by RSL's two matches this week: On their best day, at home against a slightly weakened Sounders team, Real Salt Lake scored a big win. At home against LAFC's best available team, RSL was comprehensively outplayed in a 2-0 loss -- the first of Freddy Juarez's tenure as interim head coach.
16. D.C. United (10-9-8)
Previous ranking: 15
Next MLS match: Wednesday vs. Red Bulls, 8 p.m. ET
D.C. United outshot Vancouver 24-8 but still lost at BC Place. And Wayne Rooney was angry. That's not what you want. Not at all.
17. Sporting Kansas City (8-7-11)
Previous ranking: 17
Next MLS match: Thursday vs. Minnesota, watch live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes at 9:30 p.m. ET
The comeback win over San Jose on Saturday feels like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound for Sporting, which is still languishing six points back of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Remember: This is a team that hasn't missed the playoffs since 2010.
18. Colorado Rapids (7-6-13)
Previous ranking: 18
Next MLS match: Saturday at RSL, stream live on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET
If two teams with little hope of making the playoffs earn a point from a match played in mid-August, does it make a sound ... er ... does it matter? The answer, of course, is 42.
19. Columbus Crew (7-6-14)
Previous ranking: 19
Next MLS match: Wednesday at NYCFC, stream live on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET
Once upon a time, TFC was the Crew's supposed "rival" thanks to "connection" between Ontario and Ohio through a flower that grows in both regions (seriously). Now that Columbus has a real rival down the road in Cincinnati, the draw with Toronto is nothing but an appetizer for next weekend's main course.
20. Toronto FC (9-7-10)
Previous ranking: 20
Next MLS match: Saturday vs. Montreal, stream live on ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m. ET
Jozy Altidore saved the Reds a point in Columbus, but the fact that he needed to, and that Toronto is chasing games against an also-ran with the season on the line, is extremely troubling for Greg Vanney and his team.
21. Montreal Impact (10-4-13)
Previous ranking: 21
Next MLS match: Saturday at Toronto, stream live on ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m. ET
Somehow the Impact are still in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference even after wasting a three-goal lead and drawing at home against FC Dallas. They don't deserve to be. Get it together, everyone else in the Eastern Conference. Sheesh.
22. Vancouver Whitecaps (6-9-12)
Previous ranking: 23
Next MLS match: Saturday at San Jose, stream live on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET
Outshot, outplayed, but not outscored. The Caps now have multiple wins in a month for the second time all season, though the big news in B.C. this week was an organizational shake-up that ousted Bob Lenarduzzi as club president.
23. Houston Dynamo (9-4-13)
Previous ranking: 22
Next MLS match: Sunday at FC Dallas, 8 p.m. ET
A hearty welcome to the MLS coaching ranks to Davy Arnaud, who was one hell of a pro during his run as a player. It's not an easy job Arnaud takes on in the Bayou City, and we can only hope he gets a fair shake to earn the permanent position.
24. FC Cincinnati (5-3-18)
Previous ranking: 24
Next MLS match: Sunday vs. Columbus, 6 p.m. ET
"I think we could've had a result, but there's no use saying that when you lose 1-4," FCC head coach Ron Jans said after his first match at Nippert Stadium on Saturday. Indeed, Ron. Indeed.