MLS’s inaugural Decision Day a rousing success as drama abounds

Major League Soccer’s Decision Day was a fitting ending to a regular season of a league that values its parity
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Major League Soccer’s first attempt at Decision Day, having every game in each conference kick off at the same time on the final day of the regular season, passed in a flurry of chaos. It was a just ending for a league that’s proud of its parity, as teams shuffled up and down the standings all day long.

By the time the dust settled, the New York Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield on goal difference after having the same record as FC Dallas. The Columbus Crew dominated D.C. United in their battle for second place in the East, while five teams in the West finished within two points of one another (Just before halftime, four of them were stuck on 51 points each).

New York and Columbus secured first-round byes and will await the winners of the knockout round, as will Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps in the West. Those play-in games in midweek should be just as tight as Sunday’s encounters, with one rematch: The Montreal Impact will host Toronto FC, staying at the scene of the 2–1 derby in which Didier Drogba scored twice in two minutes on Sunday.

On the heartbreaking end of the spectrum, two teams that still had an outside chance to make the postseason walked away without a place on Sunday. Neither Orlando City SC nor the San Jose Earthquakes could pull out the results they so desperately needed, and opponents elsewhere didn’t bother to help in their own matches.

Here are a few key points from a crazy final day of the MLS regular season:

Red Bulls win Supporters’ Shield

The Supporters’ Shield trophy traveled to Chicago for the Red Bulls’ match against the lowly Chicago Fire, and for good reason. The Red Bulls were always favored to take first place in the overall league table, especially considering that they’ve only lost four times since mid-July.

Jesse Marsch’s team won its second Shield in the past three years with a 2–1 win over the Fire, rendering Dallas’s win by the same score against San Jose moot as far as that trophy battle is concerned. Bradley Wright-Phillips needed just eight minutes to put away a corner, standing unmarked as Sal Zizzo headed Sacha Kljestan’s service toward the far post.

Top of the table again: New York Red Bulls win MLS Supporters' Shield

​Kljestan scored the second on a penalty just before halftime, three minutes before Mauro Díaz equalized for Dallas to come back from Quincy Amarikwa’s individual effort that gave the Earthquakes an early lead of their own. Gilberto pulled one back for the Fire late on, and Victor Ulloa scored one just moments later for Dallas to give the Supporters’ Shield battle a little drama.

Still, the standings finished as they started the day, with the Red Bulls ahead on goal difference.

Neither Dallas nor New York’s top conference seeds were on the line heading into Sunday, but the latter’s win does give it the inside track on hosting the final. The Red Bulls will have to get there, of course, but they’ll have home-field advantage as long as they’re in the competition.

An MLS Cup final in New Jersey’s unforgiving December weather would seem to be a pretty heavy advantage, not unlike Sporting Kansas City’s in 2013 when it defeated Real Salt Lake on penalties at a frigid Sporting Park. With the Red Bulls’ form heading into the postseason, that doesn’t look out of the question right now.

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Revs, Timbers, Sounders, SKC clinch playoff berths

Only one playoff spot remained available in the East heading into Sunday’s games, but the New England Revolution quickly put that contest to bed. Lee Nguyen scored just two minutes into the game against New York City FC, and Charlie Davies added one a few minutes before halftime.

Not too long later, Sébastien​ Le Toux scored a penalty for the Philadelphia Union, ending Orlando’s hopes before halftime with the only goal of the game. The Revs ended up winning, 3–1, to leave no doubt as to which team deserved the final place.

The teams ahead of them all knew they were in, but a fair amount of reshuffling occurred with the final-day results. The Crew dominated what essentially amounted to a match for second place against D.C., earning a first-round bye. Up north, two early second-half goals for Montreal erased Toronto’s first-half lead.

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With those results, the East’s play-in games will feature D.C. hosting New England, while Montreal earned a second successive match at home against Toronto just a few days after Sunday’s close one. In the West, the Seattle Sounders host the LA Galaxy, and the Portland Timbers host Sporting Kansas City after the second batch of Decision Day matches.

Seattle’s simplest path to playoff qualification would have been a win over Real Salt Lake, and the Sounders showed no interest in leaving their fans breathless. The Obafemi Martins-Clint Dempsey pairing cashed in twice in the first 20 minutes, book-ending a Marco Pappa strike from the right wing on the way to a 3–1 win.

Portland jumped into third place with a 4–1 win over the Colorado Rapids, coupled with the Whitecaps’ two-goal win against the Houston Dynamo. The Whitecaps, long-time leaders in the West and at one point contending for the Supporters’ Shield, secured their first-round bye with the victory.

Despite losing 2–1 in Kansas City, the Galaxy will point to a goal from Kevin Ellis that should have been called offside in the first half. Sporting had a much better second half than it started, but it was far from a convincing victory from a team that struggled in the regular season’s final run-in.

Orlando, San Jose miss out on postseason

San Jose needed a couple results to work out to make it: a win on the road and one of Portland, Seattle or Kansas City slipping up in their respective home games. Amarikwa put the pressure on with his 13th-minute opener, at the same time as the Rapids equalized in Portland, but the Timbers would cruise to three more goals.

Instead, it was in Kansas City that the Earthquakes’ best chance for a last-day miracle emerged. Sporting took the lead on Ellis’s goal, but Robbie Keane equalized on the stroke of halftime with his little chip over sliding goalkeeper Tim Melia.

San Jose couldn’t make anything happen in the second half, as Dallas looked likelier to score for much of the half. Matías Pérez García picked up a red card in the 67th minute for the Earthquakes, and Ulloa scored 12 minutes later. Dom Dwyer would score in the 65th minute for Sporting, even though Peter Vermes’s team wouldn’t end up needing all three points to get in.

On the other hand, Orlando City never had much more than a prayer before the final day. It needed a win, a Revs loss and some combination of scores to make up an eight-goal difference.

The Lions finish an inconsistent season just barely on the wrong side of the red line. As Kaká mentioned on the Planet Fútbol Podcast on Thursday, they were too streaky to expect to make the playoffs, mixing a five-game unbeaten run early and five straight wins at the end of the season with a long run of 11 games in which they won just once.