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We're reaching the business end of the MLS season as teams are pushing for playoff positions while looking over their shoulders at a red-hot Inter Miami side. The Herons have been unstoppable since adding Lionel Messi to the ranks averaging a whopping 2.5 points per game in league play since the MLS All-Star Game. If they can continue that pace, not only will it likely see the Herons secure a playoff spot but it could also see them have one of the largest points per game increases in MLS history from before the break to after it.

While it's a moving target since the midseason break happens at a different time each season and MLS sides also play an imbalanced schedule, it's currently held by the 2018 Seattle Sounders with a 1.30 PPG jump. For context, Inter Miami are currently on a 1.88 PPG jump. A side that has become known for being one of the best second-half teams in league history, the Sounders are the only squad to make the top five in points per game increases twice also pulling it off in 2016 when they won MLS Cup. Each team to have one of the top increases in league history has made MLS Cup Playoffs and Miami could make it six for six.

On average, the line for ninth place over the last three seasons was 43.3 points per game. Miami currently have 28, and if they stay at their current pace, they'll reach 43 points. But of course, this is a team that has yet to lose with Messi in the fold, so the aim will likely be higher. 

How many teams make MLS playoffs?

Heading into the season, the playoff picture expanded from seven teams making the postseason to nine. The eighth and ninth-placed teams will square off in a wild card round before being pitted against the one seed in the conference. With the Herons gaining steam, that could create quite a tough challenge for the one seed which will likely be FC Cincinnati. The new format will see each side play in a best-of-three series so if Miami do make the first round, they will get a home game while potentially playing two games away versus the top seed.

But where do the Herons stack up against the rest of the league in their remaining games? By looking at the table and figuring out the average strength of schedule for the Eastern Conference, here are the results:

Eastern Conference table ranked by PPG

PlaceTeamMPPPGPTSAverage standing of remaining opponents
1FC Cincinnati272.115710th
2New England Revolution271.78488th
3Philadelphia Union261.77466th
4 Orlando City SC271.74479th
5 Columbus Crew271.67456th
6Atlanta United281.5426th
7 Nashville SC271.48406th
8CF Montreal271.3354th
9D.C. United281.213410th
10Chicago Fire271.193210th
11 Charlotte FC261.19319th
12Inter Miami261.08289th
13 New York City FC281.073011th
14New York Red Bulls271.07299th
15 Toronto FC270.812211th

One of the biggest takeaways from breaking down the remaining games is that most of the schedule is incredibly balanced. Nine of 15 teams have a strength of schedule between sixth and ninth despite everyone not having the same remaining amount of games. Inter Miami are a team also falling into the in-between although they have an added benefit of facing Charlotte FC twice before the close of the season.

CF Montreal are a side that will feel hard done with the hardest path to retaining their playoff place which is something else that will give Herons hope that there is another team that they can pass. NYCFC and Toronto FC have the easiest remaining schedules but given their form it's unlikely that they'll actually make the playoffs. 

Will Messi play versus Atlanta United on Saturday?

While Messi was held out of Argentina's recent World Cup qualifier against Bolivia, his injury isn't expected to be serious enough to keep him out of facing Atlanta United on Saturday. There were concerns about if Messi would play on turf but he addressed those.

"I'm feeling comfortable even if you never get accommodated to this weather," Messi said. "But we were able to consider that and I have no issues even with the artificial grass"

That raises expectations for him to play and give Miami a better chance at a critical victory in Tata Martino's return to Atlanta.