What to expect on MLS Decision Day
2:12 | Planet Futbol
What to expect on MLS Decision Day
Monday October 17th, 2016

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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”

(Please allow for the creative interpretation of Kevin Garnett's epic interview with Craig Sager)

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. 


MLS Power Rankings, Week 33
Plus, Decision Day scenarios for every club
  • 1
    1New York Red Bulls
    last week: 1
    record: 15-9-9
    The final score was closer than it should have been, but the Red Bulls will still be happy with a 3–2 win over Columbus. Bradley Wright-Phillips surged into the Golden Boot lead with a brace, the Red Bulls extended their unbeaten run to 15 games and secured a first-round bye in the MLS playoffs in the process.
    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
    2FC Dallas
    last week: 2
    record: 17-8-8
    FC Dallas took back the top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race thanks Carlos Ruiz’s dramatic late winner in a 2–1 win over Seattle. However, the team lost playmaker Mauro Diaz to a reported Achilles tear, which would rule him out for the remainder of the season, playoffs and beyond. That, to put it mildly, is a gigantic loss.
    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
    3Colorado Rapids
    last week: 5
    record: 15-6-12
    With a midweek win over San Jose, Colorado briefly took the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race. But a 1–0 loss to Portland on Sunday dented those hopes and also brought the team’s six-match winning run to a close. Still, the team’s defense looks as solid as ever heading into the playoffs.
    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
    4Toronto FC
    last week: 3
    record: 13-9-11
    Toronto FC got Sebastian Giovinco back from his adductor injury, and the team was able to salvage a 2–2 draw at Montreal after twice coming back from behind. At one point the hottest team in MLS, Toronto has cooled considerably, having not won since early September.
    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
    5D.C. United
    last week: 7
    record: 11-9-13
    D.C. took advantage of a sloppy NYCFC display to win 3-1, a fourth straight victory. The win extends D.C.’s unbeaten run to six games and secures a playoff spot. The club is 6–2–7 in its last 15 games, undoubtedly hitting form at the right time. Nobody will want to face this team in the playoffs.  
    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
    6New York City FC
    last week: 4
    record: 14-10-9
    NYCFC is just as capable of dominating its opponents as it is of hapless displays, and Patrick Vieira's side showed more of the latter in a 3–1 loss at D.C. United. The team still holds on to the second spot in the East, thanks mostly to Toronto’s draw in Montreal.
    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
    7LA Galaxy
    last week: 8
    record: 12-6-15
    The Galaxy took care of business in tough, humid conditions in Houston on Sunday as a scrappy Alan Gordon goal (is there any other kind?) gave the club a 1–0 win. The win will be a nice confidence boost to the Galaxy going into the playoffs, after the team lost consecutive games for the first time all year in its previous two contests.
    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
    8Seattle Sounders
    last week: 6
    record: 13-14-6
    The Sounders had two chances to secure a playoff berth this week, and fell short in both instances. On Wednesday, the team missed several huge opportunities at home against Houston. They then allowed a late goal on Sunday in a 2–1 loss to FC Dallas. Now, the Sounders will face a much nervier final day than they should have.
    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
    9Montreal Impact
    last week: 12
    record: 11-10-12
    The Impact gave up a late goal in a 2–2 draw with Toronto, a result that damages the club’s chances of hosting a knockout round game. However, the club now has an off-field issue to deal with, after DP striker Didier Drogba asked out of the 18-man squad for the Toronto game after being told he wasn’t going to start. Disharmony between head coach Mauro Biello and Drogba is an uncomfortable undercurrent to what should be an intriguing squad in the playoffs.
    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
    10Portland Timbers
    last week: 13
    record: 12-13-8
    The Timbers faced a tough test at home with the Supporters’ Shield-hungry Rapids in town, but a first-half Fanendo Adi PK was all Portland needed in a 1–0 win. If Portland fails to make the playoffs, it will be the first time in MLS history that both of the previous season’s MLS Cup final contenders miss the following postseason.
    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
    11Sporting Kansas City
    last week: 14
    record: 12-13-8
    Goalkeeper Tim Melia came up big several times as SKC earned a 0–0 draw away from home at Real Salt Lake. Dom Dwyer has taken 117 shots this season. That’s the most on his team, and about two-and-a-half times the number of second-placed Roger Espinoza. Shut Dwyer down, as RSL did, and playing SKC gets a whole lot easier.
    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
    12Real Salt Lake
    last week: 10
    record: 12-11-10
    Real Salt Lake missed yet another chance to secure a playoff spot with a scoreless draw at home against Sporting Kansas City. Yura Movsisyan is banged up, but the RSL front line is still too talented to be shut out in such an important game. RSL hasn’t won since August 26, and has only picked up three points in the six games since that date.
    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
    13New England Revolution
    last week: 9
    record: 10-14-9
    Of all the teams in MLS, none missed a bigger opportunity than the New England Revolution. All the Revs had to do was get a positive result at league-worst Chicago to keep their playoff hopes alive. Instead, they succumbed to tame 2–1 loss. The Revs’ late surge to relevance was nice to see, but the team is now basically (but not yet mathematically!) eliminated from postseason contention.
    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
    14Philadelphia Union
    last week: 11
    record: 11-13-9
    The Union are in free-fall. Any kind of positive result–even a draw–at home against already-eliminated Orlando would have secured the playoffs for Philly. Instead, they looked awful in a 2–0 loss and were booed off the field. The Union haven’t won since August and have lost four of their six games since.  
    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
    15Chicago Fire
    last week: 18
    record: 7-16-10
    Despite the team’s bad record, the Fire actually had one of the better weeks of any team in MLS in Week 33, ruining playoff dreams along the way. First, the Fire eliminated the Crew with a 2-2 draw at home, then did the same with a surprising 2–1 win over New England. Michael De Leeuw scored in both.
    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
    16Orlando City SC
    last week: 20
    record: 8-11-14
    After a nightmarish couple of weeks that saw the Lions fall out of playoff contention, Jason Kreis’ side pulled off one of the more unlikely results of the weekend with a 2–0 win at Philadelphia. The win is nice, but it would have been nicer had it come earlier, when the talented squad could still hope for the playoffs.
    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
    17Houston Dynamo
    last week: 17
    record: 7-14-12
    The Dynamo have long since been eliminated from the playoff race, but they did half the Western Conference a huge favor by forcing a 0–0 draw at the Seattle Sounders midweek. They followed that up with a 1–0 home loss to Los Angeles, the team’s third loss in its last four.   
    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
    18Columbus Crew SC
    last week: 15
    record: 8-13-12
    The Crew’s pursuit of a playoff spot came to an end this week, killed by a 2–2 draw to the Chicago Fire midweek before a 3–2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday. Adam Jahn was a bright spot–the midseason acquisition from San Jose scored three of his team’s four goals this week, giving him five in just half a season with his new club.
    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
    19Vancouver Whitecaps
    last week: 19
    record: 9-15-9
    The Whitecaps played in the league’s only meaningless game on Sunday, earning a scoreless draw at San Jose in a battle of two teams already eliminated from postseason contention. The biggest news to come out of this game might have been that Paolo Tornaghi, Vancouver’s backup goalkeeper, got the clean sheet. Not exactly headline stuff.
    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
    20San Jose Earthquakes
    last week: 16
    record: 8-11-14
    The Earthquakes had a very, very distant chance of making the playoffs, but even that was extinguished as Kevin Doyle buried a second-half PK in the Quakes’ 2-1 midweek loss to Colorado. Sunday’s draw with Vancouver was almost entirely devoid of meaning–both teams were eliminated from playoff contention, and there were no goals.
    On Decision Day: The Earthquakes travel to SKC, where they can spoil their opponents’ chances to make the playoffs.

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