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CONCACAF Chronicles: Midweek madness in MLS as the playoffs approach

With just one week remaining in the regular season, let’s look at the two midweek matchups that define both the season that is and the playoffs that might be.

Vancouver Whitecaps forward Cristian Dajome (11) takes a shot against the San Jose Earthquake during the second half of an MLS soccer match in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.

LAFC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (11/2)

Just five points separate fifth from ninth in the Western Conference as we enter the final week of the season. LAFC, who occupy that ninth spot, more importantly trail Vancouver, owners of the seventh and final playoff position, by just three points.

Tuesday night’s stakes are simple: Vancouver clinches a playoff berth with a win while LAFC would jump past crosstown rivals LA Galaxy into sixth with a victory of their own.

On the heels of an uncharacteristically poor run of form, LAFC has scraped out results of late, turning things around at what might prove to be the last possible moment thanks, almost single-handedly, to the efforts of Cristian Arango.

The Columbian international might be the most in-form goal scorer in the league. He scored twice and added an assist in a 3-1 victory over San Jose on Oct. 16 that sparked LAFC’s current five-match unbeaten streak.

LAFC needed every bit of Arango’s Oct. 20 hat trick against FC Dallas to escape the Lone Star State with three points, and he’s bagged two more goals in their last two games. One of which came in a resounding 3-0 victory over the Western Conference leading Seattle Sounders that has LAFC knocking on the door of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The Whitecaps await on the other side, looking to make their first playoff appearance in four seasons. Vancouver has only lost twice since Vanni Sartini took over as interim manager back in August, earning 24 points over the twelve matches.

Sartini has started a unique starting eleven in each match since assuming the position, giving 22 different players a starting nod over that stretch.

This is certainly a different Whitecaps team than in years past, but LAFC has outscored Vancouver 16-5 in the three matchups between the two sides at Banc of California Stadium. Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau also conceded six goals in his last trip to The Banc in 2019.

Sartini will not be afraid to experiment with this Whitecaps side that has surpassed even the wildest expectations. On the other side, Bob Bradley finally has his side performing like the LAFC we’ve come accustomed to seeing in recent years.

Prediction: LAFC 3 Vancouver Whitecaps 1

New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United

Similar to the bedlam of the west, fifth and ninth in the Eastern Conference sit just four points apart with the reigning MLS Cup Champion Columbus Crew on the outside looking in that ninth spot.

Our focus, however, is on two squads whose recent run of form has propelled them into the final playoff positions in the east, albeit with scant breathing room.

The winner of Wednesday’s clash between Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls, sixth and seventh respectively, will lock up a spot in the playoffs. The loser will be left to fend off the reigning champ for one more matchday.

After starting the season 2-4-7, Atlanta United quickly moved to sack manager Gabriel Heinze after just 13 regular season games at the helm. His vacuous feud with Josef Martínez, arguably one of greatest strikers in the league’s history, was the last straw for the club and supporters alike.

Atlanta has slowly found their form in the months since the firing with Gonzalo Pineda in charge. From Martínez to Ezequiel Barco to U.S. internationals Miles Robinson and George Bello, this United team is loaded with MLS Best XI caliber talent.

While taking care of the Red Bulls is the first task at hand, Pineda’s squad has their sights set on an MLS Cup title. All they need to do is find a way into the dance.

As much as this United team has left their early season woes behind them, New York enters Wednesday’s contest as the hottest team in MLS. Winners of five of their last six, the Red Bulls rose from the dead in October and now find themselves just one point from the postseason.

Despite sitting pretty with a plus five goal differential, the Red Bulls do not have a double digit goal-scorer on the roster. In fact, only three players have even managed more than five for New York this season.

The Red Bulls don’t find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt on the back of a high-flying attack however. They have only conceded 32 goals this season, a mark not eclipsed by any other squad in MLS, not even a Revolution side that broke the regular season points record.

Defensive solidity has proved a sufficient recipe for success in some of the world’s biggest knockout competitions over the last year, most notably Chelsea in the Champions League and Italy in the Euros.

While the MLS Cup Playoffs don’t kick off for another two weeks, these matchups between playoff hopefuls are their own de facto knockout matches. New York only needs a point to punch their ticket, and we’d be foolish to expect them to put that outcome in any jeopardy.

Atlanta United are a trendy pick to win it all, and for good reason, and the defensive prowess of the Red Bulls should earn them darkhorse consideration of their own. That is, of course, if the two sides can stay out of their own way on Wednesday night in Red Bull Arena.

Prediction: New York Red Bulls 0 Atlanta United 1

“CONCACAF Chronicles” runs every Tuesday.