Nicolás Miremont –
It is that time of the year again, the time every Major League Soccer fan has been waiting for: the MLS Cup playoffs are just around the corner, and we could not be more excited about it! Although it might seem like the season opener was not that long ago, more than seven months of soccer have been played since then and all that is left to play is round 34 of the regular MLS season, symbolically called Decision Day, because not even soccer is safe from the American sports model and its commercial evangelization.
This last matchday is inevitably interesting to watch for its outcome is always unpredictable—even more unpredictable than what MLS usually is. At the end of Sunday, six teams from the East and the West will be qualified to challenge their conference pairs in the hopes of reaching the MLS Cup final against the winner of the opposite conference. Those that fail to reach the playoffs will go into the preseason earlier than expected, always disappointed and undoubtedly determined to rethink their strategy both on and off the pitch upon the arrival of the following season.
The first and second-seeded franchises from each conference go straight to their two-legged conference semifinals where they will wait for those from third to sixth to eliminate each other in the two single-match knockout rounds. Both the conference semifinals and finals are two-legged affairs. The MLS Cup final, however, is a single match hosted at the venue of the franchise that got the more points during the regular season.
For more info on the continuity of the ML.S season click here.
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS SCHEME
After what was a fascinating regular season full of surprises, sloppy challenges, failed clearances in the box, unexplainable red cards (like when Kei Kamara got sent off for a twerking celebration). It is safe to say that almost every contender has reached this stage in good form, playing interesting football and avoiding football agonization, something the fan is always grateful for.
Decision Day – Match Previews
If the United States have learnt anything from football is that simultaneous transmissions are a caress to the soul. That, added to their socialist resource model and certain attractive events like rivalry weeks, makes Major League Soccer quite an entertaining product, even if its soccer standards are not as high. Decision day will be broadcasted simultaneously for the excitement of the neutrals. Hardcore fans, however, might not find it such a pleasant experience.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 19, 2017
Decision Day Preview – Atlanta United vs Toronto FC
Atlanta United have probably invested their funds in a better way than their expansion partners, Minnesota United FC. The signing of Miguel Almirón as the primary designated player, the inauguration of a soccer-dedicated stadium earlier in the season and last but not least Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino’s appointment as manager only go to show how high their expectations are for the future. Their attacking style of play has proven to be too much for most of its rivals, leading to some of the most exuberant goals feasts in recent years. As a result, they have become the first expansion franchise to reach the playoff stages during their first season in MLS since the Seattle Sounders did the same in 2009.
Even though Atlanta are already in, a win and a strike of luck could leave them second which means a direct semifinal. In front of their intentions, however, will be Toronto FC. As MLS Cup finalists last year and this season’s Supporters’ Shield winners, Greg Vanney’s lads have become the side to beat in recent seasons. After revolutionising MLS with the signing of Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus and thus proving that the league does not necessarily have to be a retirement house like some belief, their contribution to good football has been more than welcome ever since.
Toronto might seem unbeatable, but of the five matches they have lost all season, two were in the last three games. This Decision Day, Toronto could break two records: most wins in a regular season and the Galaxy’s 1998 best single-season goal differential. It will be interesting to see how they manage to contain Atlanta’s ambition while away.
Season records (W-L-D): Atlanta United (15-9-9) / Toronto FC (20-5-8)
Last encounter: Toronto FC 2 – 2 Atlanta United
Futbolgrad Prediction: Atlanta United vs Toronto FC 2-1
Decision Day Preview – New York City FC vs Columbus Crew SC
Patrick Vieira’s boys in blue have already shown they are not messing around when it comes to challenging for Eastern hegemony. Their number 7, David Villa, the club’s first ever captain, is leading the way for a team that plays good football and is undergoing a much-needed generation change. With the departure of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo’s retirement already announced, players like Maximiliano Morález arrived to offer more tangible experience—the kind that is used on the pitch. This reorganisation also helped the likes of Thomas McNamara, who is now enjoying much more playing time and the results are pleasing.
The Columbus Crew are at no risk of missing the playoffs regardless of what happens on Sunday since they rounded up a respectable second half of the regular season with some spectacular performances by their Argentine designated player Federico Higuaín (yes, it’s his brother, the better/worse one. Cross out whichever does not apply to you). Reaching the playoffs again can be considered a sensational achievement for the Crew this season since the franchise is not experiencing the best years of its existence.
After their impressive MLS Cup campaign in 2015 when they lost the final to the Portland Timbers, only gloom has followed after they missed the playoffs in 2016 influenced by bad results and Kei Kamara’s exit after a dressing room quarrel with Higuaín. Even though they somehow managed to sign Ola Kamara, someone with a three-letter name, the same surname, that looks practically the same, is equally good and is NOT related at all to Kei Kamara; the Crew are transiting a path of uncertainty as the franchise is at risk of moving to Austin, with all that would mean for the Columbus fanbase of one of MLS’ founding members.
Both teams need to win to increase their chances of making their way to the final easier. Quality on both sides and the promise of an entertaining affair.
Season records (W-L-D): New York City FC (16-9-8) / Columbus Crew SC (16-12-5)
Last encounter: Columbus Crew 2 – 3 New York City FC
Futbolgrad Prediction: New York City FC vs Columbus Crew 1-1
Decision Day Preview – Portland Timbers vs Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Portland’s emergence as a top side in MLS is something beyond question. However, it is their consistency that stands out this year after 2016’s failure which saw them eliminated from their CONCACAF Champions League group and also left outside of the MLS Cup playoffs qualification zone. Lead by humble Diego Valeri, a possible challenger for this season’s Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player award, the Timbers have looked reliable and capable of beating anyone that stands in their way. A win would guarantee first place in the West, since not even a Seattle win would leave them second, for a total number of wins is their tie-breaker, and they would beat Seattle there. A draw, however, could leave them fifth. Better be careful.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are by many considered this season’s dark horses for their team-work, efficient signings and a great job by their manager Chris Robinson has them on the brink of claiming the top spot in the West, only a draw is needed. As our expert and regular Whitecaps follower Manuel Veth writes here, Vancouver have their eyes placed on their first-ever MLS Cup, something that would upset their rivals Toronto FC and Montreal Impact. Judging by last season’s CONCACAF Champions League run all the way to the semifinals, Vancouver are undoubtedly capable of upsetting any other franchise. In fact, they could have been the Supporters’ Shield winners if Brek Shea had not missed a thousand chances this season.
Whereas it is a must-win situation for the Timbers, the Whitecaps just need a draw to secure a top spot in the West. Guaranteed magic in the feet of Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco, guaranteed team-play in Chris Robinson’s team. A strong contender for the most interesting match of Decision day.
Season records (W-L-D): Vancouver Whitecaps FC (15-11-7) / Portland Timbers (14-11-8)
Last encounter: Vancouver Whitecaps 1 – 2 Portland Timbers
Futbolgrad Prediction: Portland Timbers vs Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0
Decision Day Preview – Seattle Sounders FC vs Colorado Rapids
The Sounders are the defending champions and now have the chance of revalidating their title with their ninth consecutive playoff appearance—that’s the longest active streak in MLS. They beat Toronto FC to win the 2016 edition of the MLS Cup. With Clint Dempsey back with his heart in tip-top condition, Lodeiro in good form and several good reinforcements such as Víctor Rodríguez and Lamar Neagle (again), the Sounders will look to win against a Colorado Rapids team that seems completely unrecognisable compared to last season’s Supporters’ Shield runners-up and Western Conference finalists.
Even though the top spot is already out of reach, a win and a little (unintended) help coming from Portland could see the Sounders avoid the knockout stage. The Rapids are under the orders of an interim coach and were eliminated a long time ago, two reasons to not underestimate them if you are familiar with the axioms of football.
Season records (W-L-D): Seattle Sounders FC (13-9-11) / Colorado Rapids (9-18-6)
Last encounter: Colorado Rapids 1 – 3 Seattle Sounders
Futbolgrad Prediction: Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids 3-0
Decision Day Preview – Houston Dynamo vs Chicago Fire
After effectively changing their strategy, the Chicago Fire franchise has clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2012. The miserable days of finishing last are over now that Bastian Schweinsteiger dominates the midfield, supplying this season’s top scorer Nemanja Nikolic. As for the Dynamo, they are also back after a long absence.
Although avoiding the knockouts is a real possibility for both sides, the odds of the teams above them dropping the needed amount of points are frankly low. It is not impossible, however, which means that both sides will take to the pitch with a winning mentality.
Season records (W-L-D): Houston Dynamo (12-10-11) / Chicago Fire (16-10-7)
Last encounter: Chicago Fire 1 – 0 Houston Dynamo
Futbolgrad Prediction: Houston Dynamo vs Chicago Fire 1-3
Decision Day Matches with no Impact
FC Dallas vs Los Angeles Galaxy
The 2015 Supporters’ Shield winners and 2016 CONCACAF Champions League semifinalists looked unstoppable earlier in the season. Now after a string of bad results they need to beat Sigi Schmid’s always tricky Galaxy and hope that San José lose to claim the last playoff spot in the West.
San José Earthquakes vs Minnesota United FC
A win for San José would mean heartbreaks for both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, so this is a match many will be watching apart from Chris Wondolowski’s mother. Speaking of the all-time active MLS top-scorer (133 goals), his presence is always an excuse to watch any San José’s games.
Philadelphia Union vs Orlando City FC
Both teams are already eliminated, and Kaka has already played his last game for Orlando, stating he is looking for a new challenge closer to his children. Unless you are an unconditional fan of either club, I would strongly recommend watching another match.
Montreal Impact vs New England Revolution
Neither side can make it into the playoffs; they are both already eliminated. Nevertheless, this could be a fascinating match due to the quality of players such as Ignacio Piatti, Blerim Džemaili, Kei Kamara and Lee Nguyen.
Real Salt Lake vs Sporting Kansas City
Kyle Beckerman’s RSL is taking on the last U.S. Open Cup champions Sporting KC, who have only won one out of their last five games since said feat. While Sporting are already in, a better-seeded finish is still doable. Real, on the other hand, need a win and pray for Dallas and San José to not win at home.
D.C. United vs New York Red Bulls
Jesse Marsch’s men led by Bradley Wright-Phillips do not need to be nervous since there is no way they are missing the playoffs. However, a better finish is also impossible. If the Red Bulls want to prove their haters wrong and show them that apart from playing well they can also win matches, a victory against a dreadful D.C. United would pretty much set the tone for their upcoming knockout round.
The Show Must go on in MLS
With the ghost of the World Cup Qualification failure still lurking around, Major League Soccer must pretend as nothing happened and move on with its enormous display despite the evident flaws in the American soccer model.
Since the competitive tragedy much has been said about Major League Soccer, the US Soccer Federation, Commissioner Don Garber and the league model in itself. The fact that MLS has helped soccer grow in the continent cannot compensate its erratic reality which shows nothing but lack of development, small interest in football as a social tool and an arrogant approach to the international project perfectly evidenced by Jürgen Klinsmann’s exit after he tried to mess with the league’s perfectly designed business model.
As of now, the show must go on in MLS. Once the American party is over, they will have four long years to think about where they want the United States’ football project to be by that time.
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico