The MLS XI: Playoff, Shield Stakes Set for Decision Day; D.C., Portland Clinch

With one week remaining in the MLS regular season, only two playoff berths remain unclaimed, but there is plenty more to be decided.
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With one week remaining in the MLS regular season, only two playoff berths remain unclaimed, but there is plenty more to be decided.

D.C. United and the Portland Timbers became the latest teams to punch their playoff tickets in an action-packed penultimate weekend, joining eight others guaranteed to play on into November. Yet next Sunday's Decision Day, when every team–save for one, given the uneven total of 23–will be in action simultaneously, will still be able to live up to its name.

There's the matter of determining who wins the Supporters' Shield, which will go to one of two record-breaking teams. There are the remaining two playoff berths, for which four teams are in contention. There are two all-important first-round byes out west, for which four other teams are in contention. There are home games in the wildcard round in both conferences, none of which have been cemented just yet.

So while there may not be a full-on death element for the majority of teams still in contention, there are still more favorable playoff pathways to be sought after and fortunes yet to be decided. After a Sunday in which all Eastern Conference teams in action played in one time window followed by the 12 in the west, here's what was clinched, who still has work to do and who's on the outside looking in with one matchday left in the MLS regular season:

I. Two record breakers, one Shield

The league's best record will be determined on the final day between a pair of teams that could both wind up breaking the MLS single-season points record and have already broken the single-season wins record (in the post-shootout-era). Both Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls have 21 wins–one more than the previous mark held by Toronto FC (2017) and the Seattle Sounders (2014). Atlanta pulled even with Toronto FC's 2017 mark of 69 points, but the New York Red Bulls kept pace with a win of their own and sit on 68. It's possible both will wind up snapping it, though TFC will have a say.

The disappointing Reds are playing solely for pride at this point but host Atlanta in Sunday's finale. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, have a much more palatable matchup, hosting Orlando City.

With a win, the Shield belongs to Atlanta regardless. With an Atlanta draw, it would take a Red Bulls win to turn the table. With an Atlanta loss, things get more complicated. A loss and a Red Bulls win, and it belongs to New York. A loss and a Red Bulls draw, though, and it'd come down to a tiebreaker–and perhaps multiple tiebreakers. Since they're both on the same number of wins, it'd go to goal differential, an area where Atlanta leads by one. Beyond that, it's goals scored, where Atlanta's edge is decisive. Regardless, both are overwhelming favorites to make it out of the east and host MLS Cup.

Columbus Crew Set to Avoid Austin Move After New Local Buyers Emerge

II. Not all is celebratory in Columbus

While the people of Columbus are understandably giddy about the prospect of the Crew being saved by new local ownership, the club's immediate present is suddenly in some peril. The Crew looked golden for the playoffs, and had they just beaten or drawn an Orlando City side that hadn't won in 13 games, they'd be in a much more advantageous position heading into their season finale.

But a devastating 2-1 loss, capped by a Sacha Kljestan penalty kick six minutes into stoppage time, means they lead the Montreal Impact by just two points. Columbus still controls its destiny in a match it should win, but it has left the door open for disaster. A draw or a loss at home vs. Minnesota United coupled with an Impact win in New England would send Montreal to the playoffs and Columbus home for the winter. At least the winter doesn't figure to be as dreary for the Crew faithful, playoffs or not.

III. An odd clause

It's not quite as maddening for Crew fans as the Austin clause in Anthony Precourt's deal with MLS, but this is an absurd addendum to a trade agreement. This wasn't a loan, in which these kinds of provisions are more regularly accepted–it was a full-on trade. Bizarre doesn't even begin to cover it, provided this is as black and white as Gregg Berhalter makes it sound.

IV. D.C. completes the job

It was not that long ago that D.C. United resided in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference. By virtue of losing just twice in their last 16 games, going unbeaten in their last nine and winning their last five, D.C. is in the playoffs with a game to spare. 

It's a remarkable turnaround sparked by the addition of Wayne Rooney, which was questioned plenty for myriad reasons. And regardless of whether Rooney's long-term value to the club remains as high, it goes without saying that his immediate impact has been everything the club could've hoped for. With 12 goals (some of the sensational variety) and seven assists in 19 games, Rooney could even make an MVP case, though Atlanta's record-setting goal-scorer Josef Martinez remains the favorite despite sputtering down the stretch.

V. Fate in someone else's hands

There's nothing else Real Salt Lake can do except pray for help. With 23 teams in the league, RSL is the odd one out from the Decision Day madness, and it finds itself in a unique situation. Its regular season is over, and its 2018 could be done too–unless the Houston Dynamo do a solid and hold the Galaxy to a draw or loss. RSL finishes its 34 games one point clear of the Galaxy with one more win, meaning it would hold the tiebreaker should the Galaxy earn a draw. It left the door open for LA with a disappointing 3-0 loss in Portland, one that came on the heels of a 4-1 win over New England just days earlier. Such has been the up-and-down case of RSL this year, following wins with losses on seven occasions. Its playoff fate is out of its hands.

VI. Zlatan walks the walk

Minnesota United pushed hard on a "50K To Midway" promotion designed to draw over 50,000 fans to the club's finale at its temporary TCF Bank Stadium venue. And despite the club being well out of the playoff picture, the Loons faithful obliged. Some 52,242 impressively turned out for the 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy, bidding farewell to the club's two-year home. Allianz Field will hold just a fraction of 50,000 fans, but it's safe to say its inclusion in the American soccer landscape is going to be quite welcome. It looks like an absolute gem in the making.

TCF Bank Stadium, meanwhile was given the gift of Zlatan for its farewell. Prior to the match, Zlatan Ibrahimovic claimed that the 50,000+ were only turning out to see him and the Galaxy, and he delivered with the opening goal, marking the second time he's scored in five straight matches this season.

"Playing away in front of 50,000, but like I said, they came for me, us, and didn’t come for them," Ibrahimovic said after the match. "We made them enjoy it, so I think they are happy, just as us. It is a nice memory, because I think it is the last game at this stadium. I came, I won, I went, that is the memory they will get.”

Ibrahimovic is talking the talk again with a game to go and the Galaxy needing a win to reach the playoffs. Anybody betting against Ibra from delivering another time?

VII. Attendance perspective

There's pushing for 50,000+ for one game–and then there's averaging it at home over the course of a season. Wow, Atlanta.

VIII. Speed kills

The Timbers are playoff-bound after their win over RSL, and Diego Chara helped seal the result with a spellbinding run through the midfield. One of these things is just significantly faster than the other.

IX. Who wants the west?

Apparently not FC Dallas. On a weekend when the National Soccer Hall of Fame re-opened for inductions at the club's Toyota Stadium, Oscar Pareja's side folded in a 3-0 home loss to Sporting Kansas City that could hamper its chances at securing a first-round bye.

As it stands, Sporting KC leads the west on 59 points, followed by LAFC and FCD at 57. Sporting KC hosts LAFC in the season finale with both knowing a win will secure first place, while Sporting KC could also secure the top spot with a draw. SKC and LAFC would both edge FCD in any potential tiebreaker should the latter beat Colorado on Sunday, and Dallas is now forced to look over its shoulder just to make sure it hosts a playoff game at all.

There is a scenario in which Dallas loses and finishes behind both Portland and Seattle all the way down in fifth. It's a far cry from the top seed in the conference that was well within reach, and the fact FCD could finish in one of four places in the conference tells you all you need to know about how wild the west has been this season.

X. A commendable accomplishment

Of course, it's not Bob Bradley's best achievement with an expansion team–that being winning an MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double with the Chicago Fire in 1998–but in a new era and facing new challenges, Bradley's side is poised to be a tough out this postseason. Naturally, LAFC would've liked to set this mark in a manner in which it didn't blow a 2-0 home lead to settle for a draw vs. Vancouver, but it's commendable nonetheless.

XI. Will Ferrell on the capo stand

This isn't Will Ferrell's best achievement, either. But it's mighty cool to see this part of LAFC's star-laden ownership group remain engaged with supporters and quite visual during the gameday experience.