The Los Angeles Galaxy's reward for scrambling back into Major League Soccer's Western Conference playoff chase is a crystal-clear picture of what needs to be done to extend the season.
The Galaxy (13-11-9, 48 points) play host to the Houston Dynamo on Sunday knowing a victory is needed to grab the sixth and final playoff spot in the conference. A tie or a loss means the season is finished and Real Salt Lake makes the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake (14-13-7, 49 points) concluded their regular season with a 3-0 loss to the Portland Timbers last Sunday.
The Dynamo (9-16-8, 35 points) have been reduced to a spoiler role, but they can make a definitive mark if they can deny a red-hot Galaxy club a spot in the playoffs.
Unbeaten in their past four matches, including a 3-1 victory at Minnesota United last Sunday, the Galaxy are in peak form under interim head coach Dominic Kinnear. Since he replaced Sigi Schmidt, who resigned on Sept. 10, the team is 3-1-1.
"I think our playoffs started five games ago because we needed to win to make it still possible to make the playoffs," forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic said. "If we lost any of them, we were out. To play under pressure like that is not easy. The guys should have all the credit for that because we are playing under high pressure and we are handling it well."
Ibrahimovic most definitely has done his part by scoring a goal in each of the past five matches. It is the second time he has scored a goal in five consecutive starts this season.
Second in MLS with 22 goals, Ibrahimovic is expected to get plenty of attention Sunday with the Galaxy's season on the line.
The Dynamo will enter on a three-match losing streak, having surrendered 11 goals over that stretch. The Galaxy have scored 10 goals over their past four matches.
"We know the Galaxy has to win, in their house, to get to the playoffs," Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza told reporters Sunday after Houston's 3-2 defeat to the Seattle Sounders. "It's a place where I have played a lot, and it will be a battle and a grind. We have only one road win this season. We have to be ready to play. It's as simple as that."
Houston is just 1-10-5 on the road this season, tied with Minnesota United and D.C. United for fewest road victories this season. The Galaxy are 8-4-4 at home and have won their last two matches in their own venue by a combined 6-0 score.