Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

In or out? Why these playoff bubble teams should be hopeful


We're roughly five weeks away from Decision Day (Oct. 21), when every team's Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs fate will be etched in stone.

Reminder: The top nine teams per conference (Eastern and Western) get in. Either finish above the playoff line and dream of winning MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9… or your offseason starts earlier than hoped for. It's really that simple.

Now, which bubble teams should feel most hopeful with Matchday 32 around the corner? We've picked three clubs per conference, two below the line and one above it, where the mood's looking up.

  • Standings: 14th in East
  • Record: 8W-14L-4D; 28 points
  • Games remaining: 8
  • Next game: Sept. 16 at Atlanta United (5 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Inter Miami since Lionel Messi joined in mid-July: an unbeaten 8W-0L-4D record (regulation time) in all competitions, won the Leagues Cup 2023 title, hosting the US Open Cup 2023 Final and secured a 2024 Conacacaf Champions Cup spot. The GOAT, alongside fellow ex-FC Barcelona stars Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, has been nothing short of sensational with 11g/8a in 11 games.

Will all this coalesce into a rise into an Eastern Conference Wild Card spot (No. 8/9 seed)? We're certainly not betting against it, especially since the Herons' gap is now six points with eight games to go. IMCF's home/away split is also an even four games apiece, and their new-look squad has already beaten their three hardest remaining opponents (Atlanta, Orlando and Cincinnati).

Messi & Co. still have little room for error, but what appeared an insurmountable task is looking achievable. It's the story in MLS right now.

  • Standings: 8th in East
  • Record: 11W-14L-2D; 35 points
  • Games remaining: 7
  • Next game: Sept. 16 vs. Chicago Fire FC (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Montréal are a bit Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to home form (9W-4L-0D) vs. away form (2W-10L-2D). The good news? Four of their last seven games are at Stade Saputo, and they have a six-pointer this weekend against Chicago (10th place) that could create some serious distance between them and the East's playoff pack.

Now, will the Québécois faithful view Year 1 under head coach Hernán Losada as a success if the club makes the playoffs? That's a quick "yes" from my viewpoint, mindful of some high-end roster turnover in the winter and how veteran pieces like Romell Quioto and Samuel Piette have been limited by injury.

This young CFM side isn't fully safe just yet, but they're in a good spot.

  • Standings: 11th in East
  • Record: 7W-9L-10D; 31 points
  • Games remaining: 8
  • Next game: Sept. 16 vs. D.C. United (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

It's not too hard to imagine a world in which Charlotte's two-game, season-ending series vs. Inter Miami will decide who gets one of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spots. For the Crown, they'll head to DRV PNK Stadium on Oct. 18 (rescheduled due to Leagues Cup) before hosting at Bank of America Stadium on Oct. 21 (Decision Day).

Now, the question is what form CLTFC carry into that rematch vs. Messi and Miami after they suffered a 4-0 quarterfinal beatdown vs. them in mid-August. Namely, if head coach Christian Lattanzio has his team within striking distance and able to capitalize on the six-point swing – they're currently three points below the line, too.

In the buildup, it's vital that DP striker Enzo Copetti continues finding his form upon returning from injury and midsummer additions like midfielder Scott Arfield, midfielder Brecht Dejaegere and left back Jere Uronen keep assimilating. The second-year club's playoff hopes could depend on it (as will closing out games and improving defensively).

  • Standings: 13th in West
  • Record: 7W-10L-9D; 30 points
  • Games remaining: 8
  • Next game: Sept. 16 at LAFC (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Can we just drop a Riqui Puig image below and call it a day? No, it turns out. But the Spanish midfielder keeps putting LA on his back and has scored in four of five games across all competitions.

Now, there's far more to the Galaxy's strong form than just Puig. Midsummer signings like midfielder Edwin Cerrillo and center back Maya Yoshida, timely goals from veteran striker Billy Sharp, elevated play from DP winger Douglas Costa… it all adds up.

But with Puig the driving force, LA can dream of sneaking into the playoffs – boosted by their 5W-1L-6D form since late May, as well as having two games in hand on some teams. Even with a struggle-filled start to the season, summer transfer sanctions, fan protests and long-term injuries to standouts like Chicharito and Gastón Brugman… postseason soccer might just be within reach.

  • Standings: 9th in West
  • Record: 9W-10L-7D; 34 points
  • Games remaining: 8
  • Next game: Sept. 16 vs. Seattle Sounders FC (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

FC Dallas are clinging onto the Western Conference's ninth-and-final playoff spot; head coach Nico Estévez will surely be messaging there's much work ahead. Even further, FCD have just a one-point cushion and all but two of their remaining games are against teams positioned to make the postseason.

Yet FC Dallas are getting all their pieces together at the right time. Summertime signing Asier Illarramendi has looked as advertised (he played for Real Madrid for a reason), star winger Paul Arriola is back healthy and their 30 goals against are one of the best totals in MLS.

The difference-maker will be if the goals start pouring in. That usually means Jesús Ferreira stepping up, and he's looked more like a creator recently with 1g/5a in their last five games across all competitions. If Ferreira, Alan Velasco (fresh off his first Argentine senior call-up) and/or Arriola can heat up, FCD might just be a playoff dark-horse team.

  • Standings: 11th in West
  • Record: 8W-11L-9D, 33 points
  • Games remaining: 6
  • Next game: Sept. 17 at Austin FC (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FS1)

It took a second for the new-manager bounce to settle in for Portland, but it's now taken effect by going 2W-0L-1D in their last three games. That's not to say Giovanni Savarese was the problem – he's widely respected around MLS and feasibly could return in 2024 for another club – but assistant-turned-interim Miles Joseph has brought a new voice and pulled the right levers recently.

Now, the question is if Portland can carry this mini-run – one forged mainly at Providence Park – onto the road. They desperately need that this weekend, entering a true six-pointer at Austin's Q2 Stadium. They can vault above the playoff line with a win over the Verde & Black, while a loss ramps up the pressure despite having a comparatively easy end-of-year schedule (Decision Day vs. Houston is their hardest game).

Portland need to not let up – this squad, led by Evander, Diego Chara and more, is still one point below the line. But in a year marred by injuries, spells of underperformance and a coaching change, there are flickers of postseason soccer on the horizon.