As the 2021 Major League Soccer season hits September and the stretch run toward the playoffs, the Eastern Conference race is tightening up.
Well, the race behind the front-running New England Revolution, who are leading the sprint toward the Supporters' Shield.
But behind the Revs the competition in the East is separated by very few precious points. Only five points separate second-place Orlando City (35) and seventh-place D.C. United (30).
Also caught in the midst of that six-team logjam are Nashville SC, New York City FC, the Philadelphia Union and CF Montreal. In the coming weeks, positioning will be key for those teams for valuable home-field advantage scenarios in the playoffs.
Here is what you need to know for the weekend in MLS, which features nine games despite more than 70 players away on national team duty:
MLS game of the week
Nashville SC vs. New York City FC (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+): In a first meeting between the two clubs welcomes, on paper, two defensive masterclasses. Nashville SC has conceded just 20 goals in 21 matches played and it hosts an NYCFC side that is tied with Seattle Sounders FC for the league’s fewest goals allowed (19) thus far. Both NYCFC and Nashville complement prolific defenses with in-form center forwards. Valentín “Taty” Castellanos is just one of eight players who has scored 10 or more goals this season, scoring five in his last four outings. Not far behind him in Nashville’s CJ Sapong (9), who has scored four goals in his last four matches.
MLS player to watch
Ryan Gauld, Vancouver Whitecaps FC: The 25-year-old Scottish playmaker took the month of August by storm for Vancouver, which signed him to a designated player contract on July 31 from SC Farense in Portugal. Since making his MLS debut Aug. 8 against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Gauld has scored four goals and added two assists in six total appearances. Vancouver has not lost in MLS since Gauld arrived.
By the numbers
75: It's finally that time of the calendar when national teams enter the final stage of qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. A total of 75 players in MLS are representing 25 different nations in qualifying through early next week. The LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union each have seven players out for international duty, the most of any MLS club.
MLS news and notes
LAFC loans out 2020 MLS Golden Boot winner: Diego Rossi, who scored the first goal in Los Angeles FC history, has been loaned to Fenerbahce, one of the biggest clubs in Turkey. The Rossi-to-Europe move has been expected ever since LAFC announced his acquisition before their inaugural season of 2018. He scored 59 goals in 121 appearances in all competitions for LAFC, but had just six goals in 19 games as the team has struggled in 2021.
Ricardo Pepi just keeps scoring goals: FC Dallas' talented young forward earned his first USMNT call-up for this week's World Cup qualifiers by going on a goal-scoring tear that has him chasing records for a teenager in MLS. After scoring two goals Sunday, Pepi has 11 goals in 2021, trailing Diego Fagundez (13 goals in 2013) for the most in a single season for a teenager. The 18-year-old Pepi also is quickly moving into position to become the league's most prolific goal-scoring teenager. Those two goals also gave Pepi 13 in his career and helped him pass Freddy Adu (12), trailing only Jozy Altidore (15), Eddie Gaven (20) and Fagundez (22) for most among MLS teenagers.
Timbers, USMNT player out for season: Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson, who played for the USMNT in this summer's Concacaf Gold Cup, will miss the rest of the season after suffering a left knee injury in his team's 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders. Williamson is the third Timbers player to be lost for the season, joining forward Andy Polo and defender Ish Jome. For Williamson, the injury is devastating, likely pushing him out of the USMNT picture for World Cup qualifying as well as the 2022 World Cup, if the U.S. were to qualify.
MLS rankings: Top 10 power poll
1. New England Revolution: The Revs had a four-game winning streak and nine-game unbeaten run come to an end last week against NYCFC. It will attempt to start a new one in an Eastern Conference heavyweight showdown with the Philadelphia Union on Friday night.
2. Seattle Sounders: The idle Sounders get a lengthy amount of time to let a 2-0 loss to Cascadia rival Portland fester before hosting Minnesota United on Sept. 11.
3. Sporting Kansas City: SKC are riding a six-game undefeated streak, but have played to ties in their last three. A road game against reeling LAFC - who they trounced 4-1 at Banc of California Stadium on Aug. 4 - might just get Kansas City back into the win column.
4. Colorado Rapids: The Rapids have quietly emerged as a threat to the Western Conference hierarchy, doing so with a leading goal-scorer (Michael Barrios, five goals) who isn't anywhere near the MLS Golden Boot leaders but a defense that has allowed the second-fewest goals in the conference.
5. Nashville SC: Six teams are within five points of each other in the Eastern Conference standings, a cluster that includes Nashville SC (35 points) and New York City FC (34), two teams that square off in a pivotal tilt Friday night.
6. New York City FC: With a 2-0 win Saturday over the frontrunners for the Supporters' Shield, the Revolution, NYCFC has asserted itself as a strong Eastern Conference contender.
7. Los Angeles Galaxy: After rallying to earn a 3-3 draw against Los Angeles FC last week, the Galaxy have now gotten a result in nine of the 12 editions of El Tráfico.
8. Orlando City SC: A six-game unbeaten streak has placed Orlando City in a tie for second in the Eastern Conference, but now must face a desperate Columbus Crew side that is clinging to playoff hopes.
9. Minnesota United: Currently comfortably residing in fifth place in the Western Conference, the Loons have some pivotal showdowns coming up in September: at Seattle on Sept. 11, at Sporting KC on Sept. 15 and at home against the Galaxy on Sept. 18.
10. Philadelphia Union: The Union have a big game against the conference-leading Revolution, but will be short-handed with seven of their players away on national team duty.
Moving in: Minnesota United
Dropping out: Club de Foot Montréal (previously: 10)
Others receiving votes: DC United, Club de Foot Montréal
USA TODAY Sports Network MLS top 10 power poll voters: Pat Brennan, Cincinnati Enquirer; Drake Hills, The Tennessean; Jacob Myers, The Columbus Dispatch; Jim Reineking, USA TODAY.
MLS schedule: What are this weekend's games?
Nashville SC vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Houston Dynamo vs. Portland Timbers, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Los Angeles FC vs. Sporting Kansas City, 10 p.m. ET (Unimas/TUDN, Twitter)
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Austin FC, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Orlando City SC vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN+)
FC Cincinnati vs. Inter Miami CF, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Colorado Rapids, 10 p.m. ET (UniMas/TUDN, Twitter)
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLS notebook: Eastern Conference playoff race is tight