1. All eyes on Montreal
L'Impact won twice in Week 30, further consolidating its hold on sixth in the Eastern Conference. Six points puts Montreal four up on seventh-placed Orlando City, and just a point behind fifth-placed Toronto. Were Montreal to win the games in hand it has over the teams above it in the East, it would be second in the Conference on 48 points from 31 matches played.
L'Impact has revived a somewhat lackluster campaign by acquiring Didier Drogba, who scored three goals this week and now has scored seven times in six appearances for his new club. The 37-year-old Ivory Coast and Chelsea legend has transformed Montreal from a dangerous-but-limited team to the hottest side in the league: six games since its last loss (the longest active unbeaten streak in MLS), and wins in its last three matches.
Drogba hasn't appeared in every one of those six games (he didn't play on September 16 against San Jose), but Montreal hasn't lost since he made his first start for the club (on September 5 against Chicago) and opened his MLS scoring account with a hat-trick.
So all eyes in the league must now be on Montreal. It is the form team in MLS and the opponent everyone currently would prefer to avoid in the playoffs. It has navigated the last six games unbeaten by winning all four of the home matches in that stretch and tying on the road. And that is the formula for playoff success.
L'Impact isn't assured a place in the post-season just yet, however. It is being chased by the two other teams in the league with active three-game winning streaks: Orlando City and NYC FC. And it plays OCSC next week, in Orlando.
Montreal's run-in is a tough stretch of four-games-out-of-five on the road. The extended tour of MLS comprises Week 31's visit to Orlando (as hot as Montreal at this moment), then a trip to play RBNY (among the best in the league when it has its act together), followed by a game in Colorado (a long journey to play at high altitude). And all that travel is compressed into seven days, from October 3 to October 10.
Subsequently, there is an October 17 game to play in New England on one of the league's least-forgiving surfaces. Gillette Stadium has already cost Montreal one forward this season (Cameron Porter), so Drogba might not be risked for that outing - especially since L'Impact will doubtless want him fresh not only for the playoffs but also for its regular season finale: Toronto FC in Montreal on October 25.
Six points from those five remaining games clinches a playoff place for L'Impact, if OCSC wins out (which would mean, effectively, Montreal needs six points from four games, since it will have lost to Orlando). IMFC should be playing in the post-season this year, but it still has some work ahead to get there.
But it will want to keep Drogba fit and fresh for the playoffs. There may be a regression to pre-Drogba Montreal ahead, as the team manages his minutes during the run-in.
It will be interesting to see if form can be sustained without him for the game or two he likely sits out. And it will be interesting to see whether the rest of the league forgets that Montreal looks increasingly like a contender for MLS Cup, if L'Impact starts losing games as its protects its playing resources for the big matches it expects to have in November.
2. The Shield race is still a shambles
It happened again this week. Well - not the part where the Red Bulls won. RBNY kicked off the second consecutive week of bad results for the good teams by losing, 5-2, to Orlando at Red Bull Arena. Then DC and Columbus lost, and New England tied Philadelphia. The top four teams in the Eastern Conference got one point out of Week 30.
In the West, Vancouver lost to visiting NYCFC, Seattle tied Sporting Kansas City (who had already lost midweek to Houston), and Dallas lost in LA. The top five teams in the Western Conference mustered one win between them - and that was the Galaxy's 3-2 victory over fellow Shield-chaser FCD.
LA is now the league leader with 50 points from 31 games. RBNY, Vancouver and Dallas all have games in hand and the mathematical potential to pass LA if those games are won. But games in hand have lost significant value in the last couple of weeks.
The Shield race has devolved into a desperate scrap for points from an ever-dwindling number of games. The lead seems to change hands weekly, as contenders take turns to fall flat. It makes for a thrilling end to the season if you have no emotional investment in the outcome. For the rest of us, a nerve-wracking October beckons.
3. There isn't a playoff race in the East...for now
The late surge in form from both Orlando City and NYCFC has spurred some excitable chatter about their respective playoff chances. Enough: their respective playoff chances are negligible.
Both teams are clinging to a remote mathematical chance of qualifying for the post-season largely because the better sides in the East have been tripping over themselves recently, and Montreal hasn't played quite enough games pull clear of those below the red line in the East.
How slender are their chances? If Orlando had lost this week, it would be eight points behind TFC and seven points behind Montreal with three games to play. As it stands, the 5-2 win in New York - which was impressive, no question - simply gives OCSC the privilege of trying to stave off likely elimination for another week.
If it loses to Montreal and TFC beats Philadelphia in Week 31, Orlando will (finally) be officially out of the playoffs.
Likewise, NYCFC did RBNY a big favor by beating Vancouver this week, but its chances of making the post-season are not substantially improved - merely not extinguished. Anything less than a win in Week 31 (against DC), and NYC is eliminated if TFC and Montreal both win their next games.
There is no margin for error for either team, and even if they keep winning, they need the teams above them to keep losing.
Unlikely is not the same as impossible, as results over the past few weeks have demonstrated. But any talk of a playoff race in the East is currently premature. The top six are firm favorites to progress to the post-season, and it will take at least another week of topsy-turvy results for that to change.
4. There is a playoff race brewing in the West
The primary reason there is no playoff race in the East right now is that the teams below the line won't move into the post-season places if they win their next match. And there are not many games left in the season.
In the West, however, it is conceivable that we might see a change in the top six in Week 31. San Jose has finally snapped its winless streak (four games up to Week 30) with a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. Next week, the Quakes play Vancouver - and if the Quakes win, they will rise above the red line in the Western Conference.
San Jose currently has 43 points. Immediately above it are Portland on 44 and Kansas City on 45. The Timbers play KC in Week 31. If the Quakes beat the Caps next week, they will have 46 points. Either Portland or KC will have fewer than 46 points at the end of Week 31.
San Jose can also take sixth place on tie-breakers if it gets a point next week and Portland loses. And if the Timbers lose, Houston could beat them down to eighth in the West with a win in Dallas.
Portland and KC have a game in hand on San Jose and will be favorites to make the playoffs regardless of what happens next week. But if you're one loss away from potentially dropping below the red line, you're in a playoff race. And the Timbers have their unexpected Week 30 upset of Columbus Crew to thank for the fact they're not already looking up at San Jose.
5. MVP and Rookie of the Year are decided
Sebastian Giovinco has officially been deemed the first player to record 20 goals and 10 assists in a MLS regular season, after he was retroactively awarded a goal against Chicago Fire this weekend. He is also, therefore, the first player to register 20 goals and 15 assists in a MLS regular season, since those are his current totals. And he has set a new record for combined goals and assists in a single MLS season.
Pair those unique statistical achievements with the fact he is clearly the league's dominant attacking player: he's the 2015 MLS MVP.
Whether TFC wins every game from here to MLS Cup or loses every remaining match and contrives to miss the playoffs: Giovinco will be the league MVP. (Unless Kei Kamara goes on a tear and breaks the league's single-season scoring record, since he is himself just two assists shy of being the second player to register 20 goals and 10 assists in a MLS regular season.)
In other news, Cyle Larin scored his second hat-trick of the season, leading Orlando to a surprisingly comfortable win over RBNY. He set a new MLS rookie scoring record along the way. Larin is the 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year. It's hard to imagine a circumstance that allows for another player to even enter the conversation.
Two end-of-season awards were effectively settled this week. For the rest, we'll likely have to wait until the more traditional end-of-year debate.