At long last, Decision Day is upon us. All 20 MLS teams have played 33 games, and only one two-hour outburst of madness remains before we finally know for sure who will be making the MLS playoffs, and who will be watching them at home with the rest of us.
But Decision Day, still a new concept in MLS, isn’t without its flaws. Some of them emanate from in Week 33, which saw multiple teams in various stages of playoff success scupper opportunities to make things more interesting in the season’s final week than they currently are. The New England Revolution only had to get a draw against the league’s worst team to stand a chance at qualifying. Instead, they lost, and now the Eastern Conference race is about as boring as can be on Decision Day: the playoff teams are set, no team is in Supporters’ Shield contention. All that’s at stake is seeding.
Out West, those flaws are nowhere to be found. The conference not only has both of the contenders for the Shield, but also a fascinating race for the conference's final three playoff spots, which could go to any of four teams (Real Salt Lake, Seattle, Sporting Kansas City, and Portland Timbers). Of those four, only one (Portland) took advantage of the opportunities presented to them in Week 33. And Portland is the only one of that quartet that still sits outside of a playoff spot.
Given all of that, I’m augmenting this week’s Power Rankings with a quick guide to what each team will be hoping to accomplish once Decision Day gets underway on Sunday. Some, like FC Dallas, will be looking for a trophy. Others, like the Chicago Fire, will be looking to play spoiler. Most are somewhere in between.
ESPN2 will be showing a live whip-around style show for Decision Day starting when the games to at 4 p.m. ET. But if you’d rather sit down and watch a whole game beginning to end, here are the top three games you’ll want to tune in to:
If you want to see a great game
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake (ESPN)
This is, by some distance, the most impactful match of all in the Decision Day lineup. Both RSL and Seattle are in playoff position, but neither have clinched passage. The teams are right next to each other in the standings, separated only by a point, and with Sporting KC and Portland breathing down their necks, neither can afford to settle for a draw. With a national TV audience inside what is sure to be a raucous CenturyLink Field in Seattle, this is the type of game that promises to be engaging from beginning to end.
If you want to see silverware
LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas (FS1)
FC Dallas already added to its trophy cabinet by winning the U.S. Open Cup this year, but the Supporters’ Shield means something special in such a long, grueling season. That Dallas could win it at the StubHub Center, where they dispatched the Galaxy from the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, would make a nice set of SoCal memories for Oscar Pareja & Co. If there’s a knock against watching this game, it’s that the Galaxy are locked into their playoff spot and have little to play for, and also that Dallas playmaker Mauro Diaz suffered a reported Achilles tear and will miss the trip, the remainder of the season and potentially much more.
If you want to see “a bye fight”
NYCFC vs. Columbus Crew (CW Columbus, YES Network, MLS Live) OR Toronto FC vs. Chicago Fire (TSN 4, CSN-Chicago, MLS Live)
The difference between second and third place in the conferences is bigger than it may initially seem; while the second-placed team will enjoy a full week off before its playoff matchup, the third-placed team must immediately prepare for a midweek one-off knockout game against the final playoff qualifier in its conference. In the East, NYCFC holds second spot by a single point over Toronto FC, and both teams are playing non-qualifiers that they should expect to beat. However, Columbus has had no problem scoring goals this season, and Chicago spoiled two teams’ playoff hopes this week. Whichever side you choose to watch in this battle will likely be a good one.
Offensive player of the week: Adam Jahn, Columbus Crew SC
Jahn may be a relatively low-publicity player on a disappointing team, but he impressed this week with three goals in two games for Crew SC. Jahn struggled to get consistent playing time alongside Chris Wondolowski in San Jose, but he has fit in well as a traditional target striker in Greg Berhalter’s system. If he can form a cohesive partnership with Ola Kamara (or even just provide depth off the bench), we may be looking at his acquisition as a sneaky good move come next season.
Defensive player of the week: Matt Besler, Sporting KC
After riding the bench for mysterious reasons at the club level the last few weeks, Besler returned to the spotlight with a solid outing for the U.S. national team against New Zealand over the recent international break. The trip looks to have done wonders for Besler in the eyes of SKC manager Peter Vermes, who handed the defender his first start in nearly a month and was repaid with a solid, shutdown performance against RSL’s multi-pronged attack.
1. New York Red Bulls
On Decision Day: The Red Bulls travel to Philadelphia, but there won’t be much on the line for them. The Red Bulls are out of the running for the Supporters’ Shield, and the only way they lose top seed in the East is if they lose to Philadelphia and NYCFC wins by an obscene number of goals (likely at least 10).
2. FC Dallas
On Decision Day: Dallas will travel to the Galaxy with hopes of wrapping up the Supporters’ Shield. They can secure their second trophy of the season (after the U.S. Open Cup) with a win, a tie, or a loss and a tie/loss by Colorado. If Dallas loses and Colorado wins, Colorado takes the Shield.
3. Colorado Rapids
On Decision Day: Colorado will host lowly Houston with a chance at winning the Supporters’ Shield. The club can capture it with a win and an FC Dallas loss. Anything else, and Colorado will miss out on the Shield. Either way, the Rapids are assured of at least the second overall seed in the West and a knockout-round bye.
4. Toronto FC
On Decision Day: TFC will be hosting already-eliminated Chicago with a first-round bye on the mind. TFC can earn that first-round bye with a win and an NYCFC tie/loss. Anything other than that, and TFC will be hosting a first-round playoff game.
5. D.C. United
On Decision Day: D.C. United travels to Orlando and will be playing for home-field advantage in a Wednesday night knockout-round game. D.C. can secure that with a win or a tie/loss and a Montreal tie/loss. Anything else, and D.C. will play the knockout game away from home (likely at Montreal).
6. New York City FC
On Decision Day: NYCFC will be hosting already-eliminated Columbus with a first-round playoff bye on the mind. It can secure that bye with a win, or a tie/loss and a Toronto FC tie/loss. Anything other than that, and NYCFC will be hosting a first-round playoff game at Yankee Stadium.
7. LA Galaxy
On Decision Day: The Galaxy will host FC Dallas, but won’t have anything to play for–they’re locked into the third seed in the West. The best they can do is hope to play spoiler for Shield-chasing Dallas, doing Colorado a big favor in the process.
8. Seattle Sounders
On Decision Day: The Sounders host Real Salt Lake and will look to finally wrap up a playoff spot, and maybe, just maybe, host a knockout game. They can secure the latter with a win over RSL. A tie or loss will leave the team at the mercy of results from Sporting KC and Portland, and could see it miss the playoffs altogether.
9. Montreal Impact
On Decision Day: Montreal travels to New England and will hope to secure home field advantage for its knockout round matchup. The Impact can only do this with a win and a D.C. United tie/loss. A Montreal tie will only give them home field if D.C. loses by nine or more goals. A Montreal loss opens up the possibility of a drop in seeding, meaning a trip to NYCFC or Toronto for the knockout round.
10. Portland Timbers
On Decision Day: The Timbers will travel to Vancouver, and the goal is clear: make the playoffs. The Timbers can assure that with a win (though it’s worth noting they haven’t won away all year). A tie puts Portland squarely in Western Conference playoff chaos with Kansas City, Seattle, and Salt Lake. A loss, and Portland must hope Kansas City loses its game and a one-goal advantage in goal differential.
11. Sporting Kansas City
On Decision Day: SKC hosts the already-eliminated San Jose Earthquakes and will hope to secure its playoff position. They can do that with a win. A tie would work only if Portland does not win. An loss will only work if Portland also loses, and even then it will come down to how badly each team loses; if SKC loses by one more goal than Portland does in its hypothetical loss, Portland will make the playoff on the goals scored tiebreaker.
12. Real Salt Lake
On Decision Day: RSL travels to Seattle looking to finally wrap up a spot in the playoffs. They can do that with a win, but a tie or a loss opens up all sorts of possibilities. A loss, plus wins from Sporting KC and Portland, will mean that RSL will watch the playoffs from home.
13. New England Revolution
On Decision Day: The Revolution will host the Impact, but the only way they make the playoffs is if they win, Philadelphia loses, and the Revs somehow make up a 12-goal differential on Philly in the process. A Revs loss would have improved their SuperDraft pick, but they traded that pick to Columbus earlier this season for Kei Kamara. In every way, this has been a lost season for New England.
14. Philadelphia Union
On Decision Day: The Union host the New York Red Bulls, and will aim to improve their seeding to avoid having to travel to NYCFC or Toronto in the knockout round. The Union can do that with a win and a Montreal Impact tie/loss.
15. Chicago Fire
On Decision Day: Chicago will travel to Toronto, where it can continue its spoiler streak and prevent TFC from getting a first-round bye with a win. Outside of that, Chicago will be playing to avoid owning the worst record in the league, which it can secure only with a win and a Houston Dynamo tie/loss.
16. Orlando City SC
On Decision Day: Orlando will host D.C. United, but the game will mean little for the Lions outside of the chance to impact seeding in the middle of the East bracket.
17. Houston Dynamo
On Decision Day: Houston will travel to Colorado and could hand the Supporters’ Shield to their Texas rivals FC Dallas with a win. Having that to hold over Dallas’ head next season would be a not-insignificant positive to come from this disaster of a season.
18. Columbus Crew SC
On Decision Day: Columbus will travel to NYCFC, but won’t have too much to play for themselves. A win would be doing their Trillium Cup rivals Toronto FC a huge favor, though.
19. Vancouver Whitecaps
On Decision Day: Vancouver will host their Cascadia rival Portland Timbers in a game that will have massive implications in the West playoff race. A Vancouver win would be a devastating (but not mathematical) blow to the Timbers’ playoff chances.
20. San Jose Earthquakes
On Decision Day: The Earthquakes travel to SKC, where they can spoil their opponents’ chances to make the playoffs.