A few minutes before 12:30 Eastern time Sunday morning in Portland, OR, Los Angeles Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimović drew a yellow card for berating a referee.
Back east, some interested observers likely berated their televisions.
Ibrahimović's booking in a 4-0 loss to the Portland Timbers earned him a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation. That game will be Saturday at Atlanta United, the team that will take over first place in the East this weekend if it wins and the Union lose.
(Executives at Fox also might be annoyed by Ibrahimović's absence since Atlanta-L.A. will be nationally televised at 5 p.m.)
October might feel far away in a sweltering summer, but in Major League Soccer, it isn’t. The Union, third-place D.C. United, and sixth-place Montreal each have 10 games left, while four other teams in the top eight each have 11. And over the next few weeks, the teams at the heart of the postseason scramble are going to crash into each other often.
This weekend, the first-place Union (11-7-6, 39 points) will visit D.C. (9-6-9, 36 points), and the fifth-place New York Red Bulls will host eighth-place (just outside the playoff spots) Toronto FC. Next weekend, Atlanta (11-9-3. 36 points) will host New York City FC, currently in fourth place, but with three games in hand on some rivals and four on others, including the Union.
On Aug. 17, the Red Bulls host New England Revolution, which has risen from the ashes to seventh place with an 11-game unbeaten streak since Bruce Arena took over as head coach in May. Four days later, the Red Bulls go to D.C. to renew the most-played rivalry series in MLS history.
On Aug. 24, these games will kick off within 30 minutes of each other: a Hudson River Derby between NYCFC and the Red Bulls; New England-Chicago; Philadelphia-D.C. (Wayne Rooney’s first visit to Chester), and Toronto-Montreal.
Along the way, nearly all the contenders will face big games against Western Conference teams, including some long road trips.
On Saturday, New England will host Los Angeles FC, MLS’s best team by far, and NYCFC will visit the Real Salt Lake team that recently demolished the Union, 4-0. On Aug. 8, NYCFC hosts Houston. On Aug. 10, New England visits Seattle.
On Aug. 11, there are three big games: the Union host the Dynamo; D.C. hosts the Galaxy (Rooney vs. Ibrahimović), and the Red Bulls visit LAFC.
And if that isn’t enough, D.C. visits Vancouver on Aug. 17, and Atlanta visits Portland on Aug. 18 (a rematch of last year’s title game).
If it sounds like a lot, well, that’s the point. Every sport has its scoreboard-watching season, and soccer’s has arrived. It’s time for fans to pay attention.
Eastern Conference standings
Standings are as of Friday, Aug. 2. The top seven teams make the playoffs; the top four teams start at home; and the first-place finisher gets a first-round bye.
Games to watch
Here’s a summary of the important games to watch this month in the Eastern Conference playoff race. National or local TV broadcast information is noted where applicable. All other games are available online via ESPN+.
Aug. 3: Atlanta vs. Los Angeles Galaxy, 5 p.m. (Fox29, Fox Deportes); New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto, 6 p.m.; New England vs. Los Angeles FC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 4: D.C. vs. Union, 7:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)
Aug. 8: New York City FC vs. Houston, 7 p.m.
Aug. 10: Seattle vs. New England, 4 p.m.; Chicago vs. Montreal, 9 p.m.
Aug. 11: Atlanta vs. New York City FC, 4 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes); Union vs. Houston, 6 p.m. (PHL17); D.C. vs. Los Angeles Galaxy, 7:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes); Los Angeles FC vs. New York Red Bulls, 10 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)
Aug. 17: New York Red Bulls vs. New England, 7 p.m.; Columbus vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.; Cincinnati vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.; Chicago vs. Union, 8 p.m. (PHL17); Vancouver vs. D.C., 10 p.m.
Aug. 18: Portland vs. Atlanta, 10 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)
Aug. 21: New York City FC vs. Columbus, 7 p.m.; D.C. vs. New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m. (UniMás, TUDN)
Aug. 23: Orlando vs. Atlanta, 8 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
Aug. 24: New York City FC vs. New York Red Bulls, 7 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes); Union vs. D.C., 7:30 p.m. (PHL17); New England vs. Chicago, 7:30 p.m.; Toronto vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 28: Montreal vs. Vancouver, 8 p.m.
Aug. 31: Union vs. Atlanta, 7:30 p.m.; Montreal vs. D.C., 7:30 p.m.; New England vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.; Vancouver vs. New York City FC, 10 p.m.