Goals were plentiful. Teams already eliminated still put up a fight. And at the end of 900 simultaneous minutes of soccer in 10 venues across the U.S. and Canada, MLS’s 21st regular season concluded with a wounded FC Dallas squad claiming the second piece of an historic treble and the reigning champions left out in the cold.
Dubbed “Decision Day” by MLS, Sunday’s glut of games started fast as the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake traded goals in the first four minutes of the only match featuring two clubs with something significant at stake. Both traditional Western Conference powers needed a win to ensure playoff soccer. The Sounders, who surged from the cellar under interim coach Brian Schmetzer, secured the necessary three points. But RSL and Sporting Kansas City also moved on thanks to the Portland Timbers’ blowout loss in Vancouver. The setback ensured that Portland, the 2015 MLS champion, finished 2016 without a road win and out of the playoffs.
Toward the top of the standings, the New York Red Bulls—unbeaten in 16 league games—coasted to first in the Eastern Conference for the third time in four seasons. And Bradley Wright-Phillips secured the league’s golden boot trophy with his 24th goal of the campaign in a win over Philadelphia.
Up I-95, New York City FC held second place and the second bye, lost it to Toronto FC then got it back with a late defeat of Columbus. Across the country in L.A., Dallas won the Supporters' Shield for the first time after tying the Galaxy. Now FCD will attempt to add the MLS Cup to its trophy haul (it claimed the U.S. Open Cup last month) with home-field advantage but without injured playmaker Mauro Díaz, who was lost to an Achilles injury suffered last weekend.
There’s not much time for analysis or review. It took MLS eight months to eliminate just eight teams. Four more will see their campaigns end this week and then an additional four will say goodbye Nov. 6. That crunch of season-defining matches prompted several coaches to rest players Sunday, as they apparently decided that a mid-week road trip was preferable to fielding a tired lineup in a one-and-done setting. Home teams have won 10 of the previous 12 knockout-round games.
While the top two finishers in each conference are off until next weekend (three of those four slots were secure before Sunday), the remaining eight playoff qualifiers meet in single-elimination knockout round games Wednesday or Thursday.
Here’s a quick primer on the path to the Dec. 10 MLS Cup final in the East and West.
Bye to home-and-home conference semifinals
No. 1 New York Red Bulls (16-9-9), No. 2 New York City FC (15-10-9)
No. 6 Philadelphia Union (11-14-9) at No. 3 Toronto FC (14-9-11) | Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, UniMas)
TFC missed out on the bye by a point but at least will enter the postseason having ended its five-game winless streak and with Sebastian Giovinco healthy—he had an assist and a goal on a penalty kick Sunday after missing the previous five matches. In its 10th MLS season, Toronto will host a playoff game for the first time. The Union will limp to BMO Field on a 0-5-2 slide, but might take some confidence from the 1-1 draw it earned in Toronto last month.
No. 5 Montreal Impact (11-11-12) at No. 4 D.C. United (11-10-13) | Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET (UniMas)
Both teams gambled Sunday and rested important starters. Both lost. And that means United, which was among the most in-form teams in MLS heading into the finale, sort of won. It will welcome Montreal to RFK Stadium. D.C.’s key players, from Luciano Acosta and Patrick Mullins to Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell, will be rested. Will Didier Drogba, who hasn’t played since September 28, be available for Montreal? Both games between the two this year ended 1-1 and featured late Impact equalizers.
Bye to home-and-home conference semifinals
No. 1 FC Dallas (17-8-9), No. 2 Colorado Rapids (15-6-13)
No. 6 Real Salt Lake (12-12-10) at No. 3 LA Galaxy (12-6-16) | Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET (UniMas)
There’s a ton of playoff history between these two, from the 2009 MLS Cup final won by RSL to the 2011 conference decider won by LA. This will be their fifth postseason meeting overall. LA should be favored this time. The Galaxy had nothing to play for Sunday and will be rested. They’re 10-1 in home playoff matches over the past five seasons. RSL lost at Seattle Sunday and enters the playoffs in a 0-4-3 funk.
No. 5 Sporting Kansas City (13-13-8) at No. 4 Seattle Sounders (14-14-6) | Thursday, 10 p.m. ET (FS1, UniMas)
Seattle is as dangerous as a .500 team can be. Since Schmetzer took over and Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro arrived from Boca Juniors (it happened the same day at the end of July), the Sounders are 8-2-4. That’s the second-best record in MLS in that span. Sporting lost just one of its final six games. They don’t have much scoring punch beyond Dom Dwyer (16 goals), but still had enough to Seattle twice this year by an aggregate 4-0.
Here's what else stood out from Decision Day: