The 2018 MLS regular season is in the books, and it ended in dramatic, emotional fashion for many on Decision Day.
The New York Red Bulls are the Supporters' Shield winners yet again, leapfrogging Atlanta United on the final day, while the star-laden LA Galaxy will be left watching the playoffs on TV after a choke job for the ages. Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew wrapped up the final playoff berths, while Sporting Kansas City emerged from a crowded pack to top the standings in the Western Conference.
As a result, we're left with four wild card matchups later this week. Wednesday night will feature NYCFC vs. the Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas vs. the Portland Timbers, while Thursday has D.C. United hosting the Crew and expansion side LAFC welcoming RSL to Banc of California Stadium.
Here's a look back at the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) of the season finales:
I. Red Bulls set the standard
A year after Toronto FC dominated its way to the best regular season in MLS history, the Reds have been topped.
The Red Bulls are now the possessors of the Supporters' Shield, doing so with a league-record 22 wins and a league-record 71 points following a 1-0 win over Orlando City. They were helped, naturally, by Toronto, whose 4-1 win over Atlanta capped their disappointing title defense and opened the door for the Red Bulls to pounce.
When you consider what the Red Bulls have become, a team not built around big-money talent anymore but instead one crafted by looking within the organization's ranks and by making shrewd signings and trades, it makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. And when you consider that they pulled it off despite losing manager Jesse Marsch to sister club RB Leipzig in the middle of the season, it takes that level of impressive up another notch. Kudos to Chris Armas for stepping in and not just steadying the ship, but keep it on course for silverware. Not all midseason transitions (see: NYCFC) are as seamless.
It's the Red Bulls' third Supporters' Shield in the last six seasons, and if MLS operated like playoff-less leagues around the world, that'd be the fodder of a championship dynasty. As it stands, the club is still seeking its first MLS Cup, but the road to the trophy will go through Red Bull Arena for as long as RBNY remains alive in the playoffs.
II. Galaxy choke, bigtime
This is going to be a tough one for the LA Galaxy and brazen superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic to swallow. After holding a two-goal lead, at home needing a win to edge RSL for the final playoff spot in the west, the Galaxy conceded three unanswered second-half goals and fell 3-2–to a team that had won on the road only once all season entering the match.
There's no excuse, no positive spin, no reasoning that should make any Galaxy players, coaches or fans feel better. The team flat-out choked, and really shouldn't have let itself be in this position to begin with. That the club's star players, including Ibrahimovic and Dos Santos brothers Giovani and Jonathan, reportedly skipped out on making any postmatch comments speaks to the lack of accountability and responsibility held by those with the highest stature on the club.
It'll be interesting to see what the latest remake of the Galaxy entails. Interim coach Dom Kinnear surely won't be brought back–not that the struggles during the season were his doing–and Jonathan Dos Santos has openly flirted with the idea of he and Gio going to Club America. Then there's Zlatan, who is signed through 2019 but remains in the crosshairs of transfer rumors around the globe. That he won't get to hit the playoff stage is a major disappointment for the neutral fan and casual viewer.
III. RSL goes for the jugular
For a team that managed to win without playing a single minute on Sunday–as the odd team out in the 23-team league when 11 matches were held simultaneously–Real Salt Lake sure managed to pile on at the expense of Ibrahimovic.
Of course, with a loss of their own to the other L.A. team, LAFC, in their midweek wild card showdown, RSL could be hit by the karma police real, real fast. It may or may not age well, but it was ruthless at the time.
IV. The Sounders get a bye
The Seattle Sounders endured a horrid start to the season, winning just three of their first 15 games and sinking to the depths of the Western Conference before flipping the switch like never before. And given their penchant for second-half surges over the years, that's saying something.
Boosted by the post-World Cup addition of Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle lost just two of its final 19 games, going an otherwordly 15-2-2 to close out the season. The Sounders, 2-1 winners over the San Jose Earthquakes on Decision Day thanks to Ruidiaz's 79th-minute equalizer and stoppage-time winner, finished just three points behind Sporting KC for first place in the west and managed to secure a first-round bye in the process. It's a truly stunning turn of events for a team that looked unrevivable as the calendar turned to July.
V. Delay zaps drama for Columbus
A weather delay scrapped the league's plans to have all of the 22 teams in action play at the same time, as Columbus's home bout vs. Minnesota United was pushed a bit, allowing the Crew to have the luxury of knowing what was going on in the other match that was of great concern to them–New England vs. Montreal. A Columbus slip-up and Montreal win would have put the Impact in the playoffs and the Crew below the postseason line, but with the Revolution doing the Crew a solid, it lifted some of the pressure at Mapfre Stadium.
Not that it mattered. Gyasi Zardes's first career hat trick came at the perfect time to seal the 3-2 win and playoff berth. Even if it came a few minutes later than expected.
VI. LAFC, FCD left to rue their finishes
LAFC and FC Dallas were contenders all season long for first-round byes and were in position to secure them for weeks, yet they wound up as two of the biggest losers on Decision Day.
The teams' inability to secure the results they needed–LAFC lost at Sporting KC while Dallas dropped a game to lowly Colorado–allowed Seattle to pip them to the bye and forced them to recalibrate their playoff planning now that they need to go through the single-match wild card route if they're to lift MLS Cup.
Dallas's late dip is the more worrisome of the two. Going into the playoffs on the heels of three straight losses, including one to a Colorado team with nothing to play for, is not a good sign for Oscar Pareja's side, which has suffered late-season lapses in the past. At the very least, there's a clean slate and a home match against the Timbers. The teams played to a pair of draws in their two matches this season.
LAFC, meanwhile, will host RSL, a team it thrashed 5-1 in the second game of the season and beat again 2-0 in August.
VII. D.C. gets a home playoff game
Like Seattle, D.C. was left for dead earlier in the summer. And like Seattle, a midseason acquisition changed everything (not to mention a very backloaded slate of home games due to the July opening of Audi Field). The club's 0-0 draw with Chicago to close the season, paired with other results, secured a home playoff game for D.C., something that seemed unthinkable even as recently as a few weeks ago.
A five or six seed seemed like D.C.'s most reasonable way into the playoffs, but such was the power of the Wayne Rooney-led surge that D.C. ended in fourth place, edging the Crew on the goals scored tiebreaker. D.C., which ended the season on a 10-game unbeaten run, split a pair of meetings with Columbus earlier in the season, with the "home" match taking place in Annapolis while Audi Field was still under construction.
VIII. Where's the defense?
This season featured the three worst defensive records of all time, with Orlando City (74 goals conceded), Minnesota United and the San Jose Earthquakes (71 goals) all lowering the bar when it comes to the standard of futility in the back. To concede over two goals per game takes some serious deficiency, and these three teams featured it in full. It's nothing new for Minnesota, which had set the previous mark of 70 goals conceded just last season.
There'd better be a full focus on the back for all three this offseason. You can be sure new Earthquakes coach Matias Almeyda will make that a focus of his rebuild, but it seems as if Adrian Heath and his staff will return in Minnesota, while James O'Connor was thought to be a long-term replacement for Jason Kreis in Orlando. Their approaches to roster building will have to change in a big way over the next few months.
IX. One of these things is not like the others
Josef Martinez had a sensational season for Atlanta United, setting the league's single-season scoring record with 31 goals, but putting him in the company of Messi, Salah, Lewandowski and Cavani seems ... like a stretch. Atlanta may compare to teams of that ilk when it comes to average home attendance, but that's about it, at this stage in MLS's growth. Celebrate Martinez's accomplishment for what it was–a stellar season in a league on the rise.
X. What a sendoff
Alphonso Davies is leaving the Vancouver Whitecaps for Bayern Munich this winter, but he delivered a parting gift to the BC Place faithful in the form of a two-goal masterpiece and a win over Cascadia rival Portland.
Davies finished his last season in MLS with eight goals, 11 assists and a whole lot of highlights.
XI. The clock starts early on FC Cincinnati
The league's 2019 expansion team, FC Cincinnati, was booted out of the USL playoffs in the quarterfinals by New York Red Bulls II (what a weekend for that organization!), expediting the start to its full focus on MLS.
FCC will have the first pick in the 2019 MLS draft, a good deal of allocation money and assets to play with as it tries to craft its inaugural MLS roster over the next four months. It already has its manager Alan Koch, and started crafting its roster by trading for and signing MLS-tested talent in Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe. It also reportedly tried to make a splash with U.S. veteran Fabian Johnson only to be rebuffed, over the summer, and another winter approach could be worth watching.