The two best teams in Major League Soccer sit atop their respective conferences after Week 24.
Los Angeles FC, the dominant force of the league since Week 1, moved one step closer to securing home-field advantage throughout the MLS Cup playoffs by clinching a postseason berth Saturday.
Defending champion Atlanta United moved into first place in the Eastern Conference on the wins tiebreaker by going into Providence Park and knocking off the Portland Timbers, the team the Five Stripes beat to win the title in December.
With LAFC and Atlanta positioned at the top of the league, it is easy to start dreaming about how incredible a final between the two sides would be at Banc of California Stadium on the second weekend of November.
A lot still has to go right for both sides to land in the league’s championship match, but they took steps to reinforce their title credentials in Week 24.
Bob Bradley’s side faced a little bit of adversity at Rio Tinto Stadium when Walker Zimmerman was sent off for a second yellow in the 48th minute of a then-scoreless game with Real Salt Lake.
LAFC kept on chugging along. RSL lost Aaron Herrera to a red in the 62nd minute. Carlos Vela scored a penalty two minutes after the match went to 10-versus-10, and Adama Diomande finished off the 2-0 victory in the 82nd minute. The win carries more significance than others since RSL has given the league leaders some trouble in their brief history.
The Five Stripes gained believers by impressing in recent games, including the Campeones Cup, but the one blemish on their resume was their porous road record.
Frank de Boer’s team flipped the can’t-play-well-on-the-road narrative on its head by cooling down a Portland team looking to make a surge up the West standings.
Josef Martínez will get a good amount of recognition for scoring in his 11th straight game (watch out, Carlos Vela, the golden boot race is a real thing), but center back Miles Robinson was the real MVP for Atlanta Sunday night.
Both the Five Stripes and Black and Gold have the perfect mix of superstars, unsung heroes and depth that make them the best of the best in MLS, but league history suggests a meeting between two No. 1 seeds in MLS Cup will not happen.
So for now, we will keep dreaming of Atlanta-LAFC while understanding the reality of how hard it really is for the top teams in each conference to meet in the final match of the season.
Goals of the Week
Pedro Santos, Columbus Crew
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) August 18, 2019
Benny Feilhaber, Sporting Kansas City
Benny Feilhaber Half-Volley Technique Appreciation Tweet pic.twitter.com/9H82pFx9kI
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 18, 2019
Marc Rzatkowski, New York Red Bulls
— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) August 17, 2019
Assist of the Week
Julian Gressel to Josef Martinez, Atlanta United
The pass from Gressel.
The finish from Josef Martinez.
45 seconds into the 2nd half.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) August 19, 2019
Oddest Own Goal of the Season
LA Galaxy score an own goal in one of the oddest ways possible 😬 pic.twitter.com/mYH41FJ0G2
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 18, 2019
Drawing No Conclusions
The teams ranked fifth through ninth in the Eastern Conference all recorded draws in Week 24 .
The fifth-place New York Red Bulls and sixth-place New England Revolution played to level terms at Red Bull Arena, seventh-place Montreal Impact lost a 3-0 lead at home to FC Dallas, No. 8 Orlando City fell victim to a late equalizer from Minnesota United and Toronto FC kept itself in ninth with a Jozy Altidore goal at the death in Columbus.
The Chicago Fire, whose recent surge has brought them within one point of the red line, were the only team to benefit from the misfortune of others. The Fire’s 2-0 victory over Philadelphia made the playoff race even more complicated, with sixth through 10th separated by two points.
Over in the West, the competition for spots from second on down received zero clarity due to the large amount of draws.
Minnesota remained in second place, with the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders locked into third and fifth following their 2-2 draw at Dignity Health Sports Park.
FC Dallas’ come-from-behind point in Quebec was enough to gain ground with the San Jose Earthquakes and Portland both falling. The Houston Dynamo also smashed a multiple-goal deficit to earn a point, but that might not be good enough with six points between it and Portland in seventh.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Stock Up: Zlatan Ibrahimović
After not scoring in close to a month, Zlatan Ibrahimović moved back into the goals column with a pair of braces against FC Dallas and Seattle.
The four-goal week brought the Swede’s season total up to 20, his second straight campaign with 20-plus goals for the Galaxy.
Next up for Ibrahimovic is the rivalry game that he has made his own, El Trafico.
Stock Up: FC Dallas’ Scoring Production
FC Dallas has eight goals in the past three matches, including three from a losing position on Saturday.
Before Week 23’s scoring outburst versus Minnesota United, Luchi Gonzalez’s side scored on only four occasions from July 4 to Aug. 3.
Ryan Hollingshead and Brandon Servania have two goals during the current stretch, and the most surprising tally came out of Zdeněk Ondrášek, who netted his first goal in a FC Dallas shirt. Prior to Saturday, the 30-year-old was sparsely used up top.
Stock Up: Pedro Santos
Part of the reason why Columbus is unbeaten in six games is the play of Pedro Santos, who has four goals in his past three games.
In his first two years with the Crew, Santos scored once in 39 games, so his uptick in production is a welcome sight to Caleb Porter and the coaching staff.
It may be too late for Columbus to surge into a playoff spot, but Santos and the Crew could be a perfect fit for spoiler in the Eastern Conference over the next six weeks.
Stock Down: Houston
Houston did not benefit from the bump that comes with a coach firing.
Mauro Manotas had to rescue the Dynamo from humiliation at home to the Colorado Rapids by bagging a pair of goals.
The Dynamo still have just two wins since the resumption of league play in late June, and they have buried themselves in a hole as the playoff chase intensifies.
Stock Down: San Jose
While other teams have stolen the headlines in recent weeks, San Jose has picked up one point from the past three games.
August has not treated Matías Almeyda’s side well with two losses to teams below it in the standings and a home draw with the Crew.
The dip in form has tumbled the Quakes down to sixth in the West, one point ahead of FC Dallas and Portland, and they could be in the danger zone if they lose to LAFC Wednesday.
Stock Down: Philadelphia
It might be time to start selling the stock bought in the Union a few months back.
Jim Curtin’s side failed to break down 10-man Chicago for the entire second half Saturday, once again bringing forth its struggles with teams that sit back.
The Union have not been able to solve that style of play, and until they prove they can adapt to everything that is thrown at them, concerns will linger.
The good news for the second-place Union is they have a huge opportunity to turn things around with D.C. United, Atlanta United and LAFC coming to Talen Energy Stadium for three consecutive games.