It's crunchtime as Major League Soccer gears up for the playoffs
Photo: PabloPicassoToronto, CC BY-SA 4.0
European leagues just entered the quarter-turn in their campaigns. MLS, on the other hand, prepares for the final week in its regular season. When operating a sporting competition in North America, the term ‘regular’ is a necessary addition to stress the minor importance of the 34-game campaign.
The Premier League and most other competitions on this planet, if not the entire galaxy, play a balanced round-robin schedule in which each team plays the other home and away to fairly and equitably decide a champion. Playoffs are not necessary. Yanks and Canucks play whomever they want then say the games don’t really matter. Don’t get me wrong. Matches contested from March through October aren’t completely without meaning. The regular season determines which 12 teams make the MLS playoffs. Sometimes, it just seems like a monumental, money-grabbing waste of time.
Happily, the time-wasting ends now. Twenty-two of the league’s 23 teams have played 33 games. One, out of necessity, has already played 34. Eleven games are lined up today to put the 2018 regular season out of its misery and settle the final playoff order. Decision Day is upon us.
There are several matters to decide. Despite, or perhaps because, teams don't take the regular season seriously, every game on the final weekend holds some importance.
- Two teams in each conference have unfinished business. Either they’re in or they’re out, depending on the outcome in three matches.
- Two other matches affect the Supporters Shield, the [meaningless] trophy awarded to the club who wasted their regular-season more successfully than the rest.
- Four matches in the Eastern Conference will [ahem] Impact the first-round play-in seeding.
- Another four matches in the Western Conference determine both the top two who earn playoff byes and the order among the other four who contest the first round play-in.
If you counted 13 matches on a day when eleven are played, don't panic. Understand a couple are pulling double-duty. To clear up any further confusion, MLS refers to its first-round playoff matches as play-ins because they are one-off affairs at the higher seed’s ground whereas the Conference semifinals and finals are two-legged ties. The MLS Cup final reverts to a one-off format at the highest-ranked survivor’s park. I suppose that's the play-out.
Whatever you wish to call it, here’s a look at each match on Decision Day and what it portends for the playoffs. They all kick off at 9.30pm UK time, so choose your match carefully.
Stakes for both teams: First place in the Western Conference and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Peter Vermes' Sporting Kansas City hold a two-point advantage atop the Western Conference. Bob Bradley's fledgling LAFC are second on 57 points and goal difference. A draw sews up the top spot and a first-round bye for SKC. The Wings need to win to do both. Anything less leaves the door open for FC Dallas to leapfrog them and claim a little downtime to rest up and prepare for the playoffs.
Players to watch for SKC: The Wizards spread the magic around but Scotsman Johnny Russell and Hungarian Daniel Salloi are the primary movers and shakers. Each has a dozen goals. Russell's added 11 assists, Salloi eight. Roger Espinoza has an eye for a pass, too, but also a penchant for collecting bookings. His temper can undo all the team has worked for in one red-misted moment in a playoff scenario.
Players to watch for LAFC: Belgian Laurent Ciman commands the defence. Midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen feed Bradley's rotating attack force that includes Carlos Vela [14 goals, 10 assists], Diego Rossi [17/8], Adama Diomande [12/4] and Latif Blessing [7/7].
At stake for Atlanta: Winning the Supporters Shield as top regular season team against the holders while keeping everyone healthy for the playoffs.
At stake for Toronto: The opportunity to finally put a forgettable season to bed.
In their sophomore campaign, Atlanta United is in a place it took TFC 11 years to reach. They're the dominant team in MLS. They're not running away with the league like the Reds did last year, and they'll want to consolidate their position in 2020, but first things first. There's a season to close out on the right note, especially with manager Tata Martino announcing his departure, and an MLS Cup to win in front of 71,000 home fans if they can keep their momentum going.
Players to watch for Atlanta: You may have noticed Josef Martinez's coy pose above and been dying to ask why? When you have shattered a long-standing league scoring record and gone on to reach the 30-goal plateau you needn't answer why. If you must know, however, it was part of a league-wide Valentine's Day promotion. Be grateful I didn't include the photo with Tata on a bearskin rug. Along with Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel drive the Five Stripes attack. Hector Villalba will miss the game with a leg injury.
Players to watch for Toronto: Sebastian Giovinco is the clear star in a battered side. Jozy Altidore is doubtful with an ankle injury. Victor Vazquez is ruled out altogether. If manager Greg Vanney sends the Italian out to finish the season rather than give him the rest of the year off, he won't be alone. Ten-goal man Jonathan Osorio will be on hand to continue his rise to stardom.
At stake for New England: More time to plan Hallowe'en costumes.
At Stake for Montreal: One last desperate chance to sneak into the playoffs with a little help.
Brad Friedel's first season as a manager began brightly then faded. Although it wasn't former Lyon and Aston Villa boss Remi Garde's first time around the block, the same can be said for the Frenchman and his Montreal Impact squad although their campaign still shows signs of life. A win away to end the season, coupled with a Columbus defeat or draw lets them back in from the cold. If the Crew take a single point in their final match, the teams will be level but Montreal owns more wins, which takes precedence over goal difference in MLS.
Players to watch for New England: Christian Penilla, Teal Bunbury and Diego Fagundez are the goal threats. The Revs front office treated playmaker Lee Nguyen like dirt before finally dealing him to LAFC, however, so the team deserves its fate.
Players to watch for Montreal: If you've never seen Ignacio Piatti play, this may be your last chance until next year. The Argentine no.10 is a bull terrier with just the right amount of finesse to leave defenders gobsmacked. Saphir Taider and Jeisson Vargas have their moments, too.
At stake for Chicago: Additional time for local reporters to google 'World Cup' before asking Bastian Schweinsteiger what the Fire can hope to gain with him in the lineup.
At stake for DC: An opportunity to finish 3rd or fourth, securing home advantage for the first-round play-in.
Fire boss Veljko Paunovic seemingly had all the pieces in place to make a serious push in the Eastern Conference. Chicago is the Windy City, though. Hopes blew away rather quickly. DCU began the season on the road, save for two games played at alternate 'home' venues. No one was shocked that Ben Olsen's side were bottom of the table. Then Audi Field opened and so did the owner's wallet. Suddenly, the Black and Red are seriously eyeing the MLS Cup.
Players to watch for Chicago: Schweini sets 'em up. Nemanja Nikolic  and Aleksandar Katai  knock 'em in.
Players to watch for DC United: Owner Jason Levien provided the funds for the club to sign this British fella named Rooney. He's got a bit of a dad-bod and a bad hair transplant but neither stops him putting goals in the net. Wazza's got a dozen and half as many assists in 19 appearances.
At stake for the Rapids: Nothing. Nada. Bupkis.
At stake for FCD: A firm chance for a first-round bye but mostly damage prevention.
The Rapids are so bad; they traded away their most promising scorer to the team they're facing tonight. Meanwhile, after a season lost to retooling, the Toros are back with their horns sharpened and as good a chance as any Western Conference team to pull an upset in the MLS Cup. With the top two western teams facing off, the maths don't allow Oscar Pareja's crew a chance to steal the top spot but they can take second with a win. That will allow them to avoid any first-round pitfall. A draw can do the job only if LAFC lose to SKC.
Players to watch for Colorado: Former Everton and USMNT keeper Tim Howard has turned into the guy who slaps you on the back too hard and says embarrassing things in public, but even at 39 he can pull a world-class save or two out of that briar patch he calls a beard.
Players to watch for Dallas: Dominique Badjii is on nine goals for the season. He scored seven with the Rapids before changing shirts in late July. Roland Lamah and Max Urruti boast eight and seven respectively. Maynor Figueroa is the bedrock of the squad in central defence but he's lost a step at 35.
At stake for Columbus: Their playoff lives.
At stake for Minnesota: [see Colorado]
The Loons aren't as woeful as the Rapids when it comes to results. They have some teeth in attack. The problem is they ship more goals than all but two other MLS franchises. Amazon and eBay have nothing on Adrian Heath's defence. Gregg Berhalter's problem in Columbus, other than the possibility the team won't be there much longer, is his away record [3-9-5] is an unflattering near-mirror image of his home mark [10-2-4]. This match is at MAPFRE Stadium, however, and the Crew must win to prevent Montreal from stealing their playoff thunder. That said, the pressure isn't on Berhalter. Sixth or seventh place in the Eastern Conference makes him the odds-on favourite to be the next USMNT boss.
Crew players to watch: Gyasi Zardes has been a success since arriving from the Galaxy. Gonzalo Higuain's brother Federico is the playmaker who designed several of his 16 goals.
Loons to watch: In a physical, athletic league, it's surprising how many little guys thrive. Five-foot-five-inch Darwin Quintero is one. The 31-year-old Colombian who now calls Mexico home [shh, don't tell Trump] has 11 goals on the campaign. Miguel Ibarra contributes another seven.
At stake for LA: A playoff berth that might convince Zlatan Ibrahimovic to stick around.
At stake for Houston: Time to take a refresher course on 'clutch'.
At stake for Real Salt Lake: Their playoff hopes rest in Houston's hands.
Americans are often clueless when it comes to the beautiful game but they aren't going all WWE on it with triple-threat and fatal four-way matches. Although, when you think about it... No. Stop thinking about it. RSL is the 23rd team, the one who's already finished their campaign. Unfortunately, a pair of losses to Portland by a combined 7-1 score opened the door for Ibra to continue his title mojo stateside while Mike Petke's bunch can only watch, wait and burn offerings to the football gods in hopes of a miracle. Caretaker boss Dom Kinnear finally has LA's defence supporting Ibra's 22 goals. Houston are buried in tenth, which is difficult to fathom for a club who's yielded only one goal more than they've scored. They should be in the playoff picture but fall apart on Wilmer Cabrera at critical moments.
Houston players to watch: Mauro Manotas potted 17 goals in the first 33 games, Alberth Elis 11. Phillip Senderos, of Arsenal and Fulham fame, occasionally pitches in from the back with another four.
Galaxy players to watch: Zlatan thinks I've already covered this, but Ola Kamara has a dozen markers and Romain Alessandrini 11 to back the Swede's play. Ashley Cole is pumping crosses into the box from the left flank. Not with a shotgun or air rifle, though.
At stake for NY: The Supporters Shield.
At stake for Orlando: One last chance for Sacha Kljestan to prove to the second over-all Red Bulls they were wrong to trade him.
The Lions turned the money freed up when Kaka retired and went off the books into a daunting strike force that should have struck fear into opponent's hearts. Unfortunately, manager Jason Kreis invested little in his defence and paid with his job. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls allowed their boss, Jesse March, to depart for Leipzig to become Ralf Rangnick's number two. If anything, the team improved under his assistant, Chris Armas. A win against the league's joint second-worst squad will give them the league's best record if Toronto can help them out by knocking off Atlanta.
Red Bulls to watch: The club retired Bradley Wright-Phillips' 99 jersey pending the 33-year-old hanging up his boots. BWP posted another 20-goal season in 2018. Daniel Royer was a force with 11 but is doubtful for this clash with an undisclosed injury.
Lions to watch: Kljestan, the former NYRB captain posted six goals and seven assists in his first season in Disneyville. Dom Dwyer knocked in 13. Don't look at the defence if you've eaten within the last hour.
At stake for the Sounders: An outside chance at a first-round bye but a definite opportunity to secure the home advantage if that doesn't materialise.
At stake for the Quakes: Time to shop online for drawing boards and lobby against promotion/relegation.
San Jose is seven points behind Orlando and Colorado in the table. They've outscored five teams and are level with two others. They've conceded four fewer goals than Orlando. They're joint-third for worst goal difference. That they're not MLS' worst team by every measure is the second-nicest compliment I can give them. That they somehow hired CONCACAF Champions League-winning manager Matias Almeyda away from Chivas to sort their mess deserves higher praise. The Sounders didn't change managers but righted the ship anyway after sinking to the bottom early in the season. Like DC United, they've steadily climbed the table since a superstar made an unexpected move. In their case, it was Clint Dempsey retiring. Without their ageing talisman, they've found the scoring formula to contend for a second MLS Cup in three years. A win against the Quakes guarantees fourth spot but losses by LAFC and Dallas would lift them all the way to second.
Seattle players to watch: Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro pulls strings in attack and leads the team in goals but d-mid Ossie Alonso is equally important. Christian Roldan and Will Bruin are scoring threats while Gustaf Svensson teams well with Alonso.
San Jose players to watch: At 35, Chris Wondolowski still found 10 goals. So did Valeri Qazaishvili, a Georgian ten years the American's junior. Dutchman Danny Hoesen outdid both with a dozen. Almeyda just needs to fill in the squad behind his younger forwards in 2019.
At stake for Vancouver: Cascadia bragging rights.
At stake for Portland: Home advantage in the first round, maybe.
Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson parked the bus at home in the first leg of last year's playoff tie with Seattle, somehow expecting to win on the road. When that failed and playmaker extraordinaire Fredy Montero left for what has been a mildly successful stint with Sporting CP, the Welsh boss signed proven striker Kei Kamara only for his defence to go so far south Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott will need to be raised from the dead to rescue them. While that expedition is organised, former New York Cosmos boss Gio Savarese traversed the Oregon Trail to replace Caleb Porter at Providence Park. Another club that began the season with an extended road trip while their ground underwent renovation, the Timbers sorted themselves in late spring and moved into the playoff picture. A win tonight coupled with either a Seattle or Dallas defeat will keep them at home for the first round play-in.
Whitecaps to watch: As mentioned, Kamara leads the way at BC Place with 14 goals. Christian Techera seconded with eight.
Timbers to watch: Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri are a formidable attacking combination, especially in the second half. Fifteen of their equally divided 20 goals came after the restart. Samuel Armenteros is the early riser. Five from his eight were struck in the opening 45 minutes.
At stake for both teams: Home advantage in the first-round play-in
I'll be the first to admit it. I slept on the Sons of Ben. Franklin, that is. When the season began, the Philadelphia Union were Montreal without Ignacio Piatti to my mind. It turned out the Argentine may be on the wrong team. Jim Curtin's squad, always competitive, found just enough goals to sit fourth entering the final weekend. City, meanwhile, were slated as the New York team that would fight it out with Atlanta for the top spot. Like the Red Bulls, their manager left for Europe. Domenec Torrent hasn't found the same success in Patrick Vieira's wake that Chris Armas did following Jesse Marsch. While both sides would give any Western Conference side a run for their money, they're not in Atlanta United and the Red Bulls' league [figuratively speaking]. Each side needs a win in this affair to keep Wayne Rooney and DC United off their back. Philly's at even greater risk than their hosts. If they suffer defeat while DCU and Columbus both win, they'll fall to sixth and be back in the Bronx on Wednesday or Thursday for a rematch with their season on the line.
City players to watch: David Villa remains the man. The 36-year-old scored 13 goals after starting the campaign on the trainer's table. Ismail Tajouri showed his worth, adding 11 more while Maxi Morales, another waterbug in the Sebastian Giovinco/Darwin Quintero mode, played well above his 5' 2" head. The 31-year-old Argentine scored nine and created eight. Unfortunately, he's ruled out with a calf injury.
Union players to watch: Fafa Picault and Cory Burke have been the key on the Union's kite string this season. The Haitian-American has 10 goals, the Jamaican promoted from Bethlehem Steel this season nine. Fellow Reggae Boy Andre Blake ranks among the league's best goalkeepers.