Key MLS questions: Who can stop Toronto? Can Atlanta buck a trend?
The MLS regular season is nearing completion and, while the usual suspects occupy most of the playoff spots, little has been settled and there have been surprises, in terms of which teams are uncomfortably close to missing the postseason.
Here are some questions to ponder as the stretch run begins.
Can Toronto FC be stopped?
Realistically, the answer is no, at least in terms of the Supporters Shield. With six games to go, TFC has a whopping nine-point advantage over its closest competitor, New York City FC. But MLS Cup is the ultimate goal, a reality that manager Greg Vanney has acknowledged.
So there's a balancing act to manage: Secure the Shield but, at the same time, make sure the minutes are spread out so the players are as fresh as possible once the playoffs start. Fortunately for Toronto, it has a ridiculously deep roster that should allow Vanney to massage his starting lineup -- in most instances, at least -- while not sacrificing quality.
The soccer gods do have an uncanny habit of throwing roadblocks in the way of Supporters Shield winners; just three of the last 16 went on to win a championship. Last year, FC Dallas looked to be on its way to an unprecedented treble, only for playmaker Mauro Diaz to be laid low by an Achilles tendon injury, and the playoffs to prove a step too far.
And for all of Toronto's depth, there are a few players, such as midfielder Michael Bradley and forward Sebastian Giovinco, who it cannot do without come playoff time.
2. Who will be the MVP?
Last year, Giovinco was in contention to become the first player in MLS history to repeat as MVP, only for a quadriceps and adductor injury to sideline him for five games. It proved to be a case of out of sight, out of mind; not only did NYCFC's David Villa claim the trophy, but Giovinco fell out of the reckoning entirely and was not even be a finalist for the award.
This season has witnessed a reversal of sorts. Villa was leading the pack heading into the season's final months thanks to his 19 goals and nine assists, only to sustain an adductor injury while on international duty with Spain.
So will Villa suffer the same fate? The situations are similar but not identical. After missing last weekend's 1-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers, Villa has returned to limited training and should play again shortly. But his brief absence has allowed eyes to be cast elsewhere in the MVP race.
The Timbers' Diego Valeri has racked up impressive numbers: 17 goals and nine assists and a run of scoring in seven straight games, which ties a league record. Giovinco has also enjoyed another stellar season, checking in at 15 goals and six assists, though you might argue that he's not even the MVP of his own team given the impact that 15-assist Victor Vasquez has had.
3. Who will prevail in the West?
The Western Conference is a veritable mosh pit. While nine points separate first from second in the east, that's the difference between first and eighth in the west. The Timbers are first, but have just five games remaining. Vancouver lies third but has eight remaining and has averaged the most points per game.
Kansas City, meanwhile, has seven left, but also has more than an eye on the U.S. Open Cup final against the New York Red Bulls on Sept. 20. Heck, even Real Salt Lake and the San Jose Earthquakes are still in the mix, as is the Jekyll and Hyde outfit that is the Houston Dynamo. And an eight-game winless streak hasn't ruled out Dallas just yet (more on that later).
Each team's approach to roster construction will be validated -- or not -- over the coming weeks and injuries have already begun to bite. In the case of the Seattle Sounders, in second just a point behind Portland, the absence of Jordan Morris due to a hamstring problem will reveal just how shrewd a pickup winger Victor Rodriguez is.
Portland has been getting by without Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi and the return of one or both will likely determine whether it gets a first round bye or steps on to the high wire act that is the knockout round.
4. Can Atlanta United reverse the history of expansion teams?
In the immortal words of the magic eight ball: "Signs point to yes." United is currently in the sixth and final spot in the Eastern Conference standings, hinting at a tenuous position in terms of its postseason hopes. But Atlanta has some significant of factors in its favor.
Seven of its remaining nine games are at newly opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which it christened in fine style with a 3-0 hammering of FC Dallas. It has two and, in some cases, four games in hand on its nearest competitors, which is why its points per game average is good enough for fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Not every factor is working for Atlanta. Sunday's win began a spell of eight games in 23 days, which will no doubt require a bit of rotation on the part of manager Tata Martino. But the fact that there are only two road games left should mitigate the fatigue factor. At this stage, Atlanta indeed looks set to be the first expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to reach the postseason.
5. Can FC Dallas halt its freefall in the standings?
Dallas' fall from grace has been stunning. Following Sunday's walloping at the hands of Atlanta, FCD has gone eight games without a win. Its defense has been a shambles, conceding 2.4 goals per game over that span. It's two best attacking players this season, forward Max Urruti and midfielder Michael Barrios, were at the center of a transfer tug-of-war with owner Dan Hunt insisting the two had communicated a desire to stay while Urruti countered that wasn't exactly the case.
So after operating near the top of the Western Conference standings for most the season, Dallas now finds itself in sixth, just a point ahead of San Jose. It's shocking to think Dallas won two trophies last year, though it wouldn't be the first double-winning side to have the bottom fall out. In fact out of the 11 MLS teams to have claimed a domestic double, three failed to make the playoffs the following season: D.C. United (2000), Chicago Fire (2004) and LA Galaxy (2006).
More concerning to Dallas has been the play of defender Matt Hedges and midfielder Kellyn Acosta who, since returning from Gold Cup duty, have not looked close to their form of last year, or even earlier this season. Moreover, new acquisitions like Cristian Colman have done little to pick up the team's struggling defense.
There is still time for Dallas to turn things around and it has the modest cushion of a game in hand over the Quakes. Either way, a rethink in how this team has been built is in order this offseason.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.