With MLS’ self appointed #DecisionDay today, we take a look at the teams with playoff places already confirmed, those on the cuff and what makes the playoffs so special.
Straightening a few things out
First things first, it is MLS. A common misconception is referring to America’s main football (or soccer) league as ‘the’ MLS. However, being that MLS stands for Major League Soccer, having the prefix sounds wrong.
Secondly, it is not a retirement league. For years, America has been viewed as a place for past-it players to go and cash in whilst still padding their career stats. Now that is finally no longer the case. A surge in interest following the USMNT’s 2014 World Cup run, as well as influx of exciting young players, new clubs and funding have reignited the American public’s interest in ‘soccer’. As a result, the league is looking more exciting than ever. To further the point, the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic and LA Galaxy currently sit outside the playoff places.
Lastly, what are the playoffs and what on earth is #DecisionDay? Over the 34 game MLS season, clubs in each Conference (due to the size of the country, Eastern and Western sides are split into their respective divisions so as to save on travelling etc.) battle to win the Supporter’s Shield, awarded to the team with the most points. However, the top 6 teams in each MLS Conference qualify for the playoffs, a secondary competition culminating in the playoff final for the MLS cup, the ultimate prize. Speaking of which, let’s look at the teams.
Eastern conference new boys Atlanta only started playing in 2017. However, thanks to a handful of exciting young South American signings, a ferocious fan support, a very glamorous new stadium and the careful guiding hand of former Barcelona and Argentina manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino the side have quickly shot to success. Finishing third in their inaugural season last year, they lead the pack this time around and have played some of the most exciting football in the league.
Josef Martinez has a very impressive 30 goals in his 33 games thus far. The supporting cast of exciting Argentine Hector Villalba and supposed Arsenal target Miguel Almiron (before he was struck down with injury) have also been great to watch. However, as fruitful as their attack has been their defense can be quite porous at times, although this has improved somewhat this season.
The leaders host Toronto, who despite being one of the top teams in MLS in recent years have had a tumultuous season and currently sit on 33 points, well out of reach of the playoffs. Whilst MLS playoffs-wise it may be a deadwood fixture, both sides play fluid, beautiful football on their day and with Toronto having something to prove after a disappointing year and Atlanta only leading the Supporter’s Shield race by one point plus already being even with the all-time record for points in a season (coincidentally set by Toronto last year), this has the potential to be a great match.
New York Red Bulls
The Big Apple’s maiden side sits just one point behind Atlanta in both the Eastern Conference and the Supporter’s Shield, so look to try and leapfrog them at the final hurdle tonight. The Red Bulls have been up and down somewhat recently, with last year’s sixth place finish underwhelming fans, but new coach Chris Armas has been re-energising the side and has reaped the rewards.
New signing Alejandro ‘Kaku’ Gamarra has injected the side with excitement and home grown midfielder Tyler Adams has shot to prominence. He has been playing well enough to earn his first national team cap around a year ago and go on to establish himself as a regular. The main danger man is Bradley Wright-Phillips (yes, that one), who’s 20 goals this season have helped establish the Red Bulls as New York’s no.1 side at the moment.
Orlando are the visitors at the Red Bull Arena tonight, another side who have been underwhelming this season. The Lions sit bottom of the Eastern Conference having lost 21 of their 33 games, the most of any side in the league, but will hope to save face at least a little by bagging a final win to close a very disappointing season for them. A good omen for the visitors however is their earlier 4-3 win over the Red Bulls, and winning their last home game of the season 2-1 against the Colombus Crew will have done them no harm either.
New York City FC
Much like their parent club over here, New York City are the ‘noisy neighbours’ of the city’s red side, entering the league in 2015. City are the first New York team to actually be based within the city itself, with the NYRB being based in New Jersey, and the two sides contest the Hudson River Derby each year. Patrick Vieira coached the side from 2016 until midway through this year and his free-flowing style of football remains, with former Guardiola assistant Domenec Torrent taking over as head coach.
However after 5 wins in his first 6, Torrent’s side have fallen dramatically and won just twice in the 12 games since. Club captain and Spain legend David Villa has become a legend in his 3 years with the club, scoring 74 goals and to his own admission falling in love with the city and club, and will hope to be the catalyst for change here. Helping him will be the South American midfield duo of Paraguayan playmaker Jesus Medina and Venezuelan defensive mid Yangel Herrera, on loan from Manchester City.
Two losses on the trot for the Blues does not set the best of tones for the crucial final match against the travelling Philadelphia Union, but Philly themselves had their 4 game winning streak broken by New York opposition in their last match, losing 1-0 to the Red Bulls. This could well be Villa’s final game for the club and City will want to send him off right, but the Union sit in fourth position in the Eastern Conference, just 3 points behind City and could leapfrog them with a win tonight. Which leads us to…
The Union are a team for the masochists. Often shoddily run, the front office catches a lot of abuse from fans and the fans themselves are as self-deprecating and pessimistic as they come, so even as the team has begun to rise and succeed this season, they’re not being too hopeful. It was to be said though new signing Borek Dockal has been a revelation, bagging a league-leading 17 assists in his first year in MLS and helping the side in a slow climb up in form to where they currently sit in fourth having won 13 of their last 23.
But unlike other sides in the league, the U are a collective: no big names, just a solid unit working together under a coach that his worked his way up through the club to get where he is. A wholesome idea and perfect for a fanbase as beleaguered as Philly’s, but will it be enough to get them to that playoff final?
Tonight’s game against NYCFC is for nothing in playoff terms, so the Union have the chance to play with some freedom and really make a statement heading into the knockout games. Prior to their narrow loss to the Red Bulls the Union had been on a 4 game undefeated streak, and a return to form would be just what’s needed ahead of a playoff run that should really show what they’re made of.
DC are the last of the Eastern teams with a confirmed playoffs spot, and arguably the one with the most coverage in the UK currently thanks to a certain Wayne Rooney. The capital city side have been on fire recently, winning their last 5 league games and remaining undefeated in 8, with Rooney leading the charge with 12 goals since his debut in July.
Behind him Luciano Acosta has been electric with 10 goals as well as a joint-top 17 assists, so the pair will no doubt be keeping the Chicago Fire defence on edge for the duration of the game. Interestingly, the Fire have resorted to playing Rooney’s former Manchester United teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger at centre back this season, something they may have to do again with defender Johan Kappelhof suspended.
Completely negating their disappointing start to the season, they’ve shot into the playoffs and could be in line to host their first playoff game with a win tonight against struggling Chicago. However, the Black-and-Red have struggled on the road this season, picking up only 9 points away from their new home the Audi Field and not winning on the road with Rooney at all, so this could be the real test of their form.
Still in Contention
Off the pitch the Crew have had a really rough season, with their owner announcing his plans to move the club over 1200 miles away to Austin, Texas. Whilst the fans of the league’s oldest team battle their owner and the league itself to keep their club where it belongs, the team itself have been working to keep smiles on fans’ faces, to mixed results. 3 games without a win (and before last week, 2 without a goal) have dampened spirits somewhat, but new boy Gyasi Zardes has been a bright spot.
Scoring 16 times for the Crew after some up and down years with his home side LA Galaxy, including at times being deployed as a full back, he’s been the star this season and will hope to be the difference tonight, especially seeing as he’s one of only 4 Crew players with more than 1 goal this season. Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp have both become national team regulars this season too, so there are plenty of reasons for the Crew to remain optimistic.
Minnesota are the visitors to the MAPFRE Stadium, in only the second meeting between the sides in history. A win will be enough to confirm a playoff spot, but Minnesota will be looking to improve on their poor away record this season and will happily spoil the party in Ohio to do so.
The Impact need to win in the Gillette Stadium and for the Crew to draw or lose to Minnesota in order to progress. They’ve been building momentum recently with back to back wins, including one at rivals Toronto last week, and will look to use this to leapfrog Columbus and make the playoffs right at the last gasp. Argentine attacker Ignacio Piatti will be the key player for Remi Garde’s side as his 16 league goals have helped them get this far, including both goals against Toronto last week. At the back their french contingent of Bacary Sagna and Rod Fanni will be the most notable names for European fans, whereas in the midfield former Inter, Bologna and Southampton midfielder Saphir Taider has been crucial to the Impact’s push for the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Canadian side, they face a Revs side with just 1 win in 6. The prior meetings of the sides early in the season have both produced a lot of goals, with a 4-0 win for the New England side in April being followed by a 4-2 victory for Montreal in May.
Sporting Kansas City
After winning the Eastern Conference twice and an MLS cup win in the years from 2011 to 2014, the move to the Western Conference wasn’t initially too successful for the bi-state side. 3 fifth place finishes and a sixth place didn’t cover the side in glory, but they always felt just a few signings away from something big.
This years side seems to back this point up, as the former Kansas City Wiz have been flying. Former Derby winger Johnny Russell leads the team on goals with 10, tied with his Hungarian counterpart Daniel Salloi on the opposite wing. Keeper Tim Melia has 13 clean sheets thus far this season, a huge factor in KC’s dominance at home: they’ve lost just 3 times at home in the last 2 seasons.
They welcome their competition to the top spot, league new boys LAFC. The Black and Gold have only been prevented from scoring once away from home this season and they sit just 2 point behind the leaders, so all is still there to play for.
Los Angeles FC
Starting a new team can often be a struggle, but in a city with a team as big as LA Galaxy its easy to build off that underdog spirit. The new kids on the block have had a flying start to life in the league, already setting the record for most points in an inaugural season and their grassroots approach (as opposed to star-studded neighbours Galaxy) seems to be paying off. Their main big name is ex-Arsenal and Real Sociedad attacker Carlos Vela, who forms part of a front 3 that has 35 goals between them.
The other two members of said attacking trident are ex-Hull striker Adama Diomande and Uruguayan starlet Diego Rossi, both on 12 goals apiece. Solid MLS players like Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber back them up in the midfield and a solid mix of youth and experience shore them up at the back, although they have conceded 11 more goals than tonights competition.
The trip away at Children’s Mercy Park is always a tough one, but with Vela having 14 goals and assists away from home this year they’ll be hoping to go one better than their disappointing 2-2 draw with Vancouver last time out. The previous fixture between the sides this season ended 2-0 in favour of Sporting so this may be the perfect time for revenge, especially for LAFC shareholder Will Ferrell, who was called out to attend the game by SKC captain Matt Besler.
Another team in with a shout of topping the West, Dallas are in a tricky spot heading into their clash with the Colorado Rapids. A loss could see the Texans drop as low as fifth, whereas a win and some help from the teams above them could see them finish the regular season in the top spot. A slight goal drought seems to be holding the side back at the moment, which striker Maxi Urruti will hope to remedy.
A menagerie of speedy wingers are at the disposal of manager of Oscar Pareja as well, with top scorer Roland Lamah being the most notable. They’ve only scored one goal from open play since the start of September as well, so something is needed.
A 3-0 loss to visiting rivals Sporting KC did them no favours, whereas their hosts this week have just kept back to back clean sheets. Interestingly, Rapids’ top scorer this season is Dominic Badji, who will likely lead the line for FC Dallas in this match. The last 2 meetings between the sides have been draws however, so the visitors will need to show exactly how good they can be tonight.
Despite winning 4 on the trot, Seattle can (agonizingly) only reach second place in the division if results go their way. Nicolas Lodeiro continued to make his case as one of the best in the MLS by making 3 assists last week in their win over Houston Dynamo, becoming just the 3rd Sounder in history to do so. He’s also contributed 8 goals this season, as has new Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz who got his first against tonight’s opposition back in July. Veteran defender Chad Marshall marked his 400th career league appearance last week with a goal, and will be looking to mark his 401st with another win.
San Jose haven’t won a game since August but at least managed a draw last time out. Legendary striker Chris Wondolowski is 1 off the all time league goals record held by Landon Donovan, so that looks to be the Quakes’ main aim for the final game of the season. A win against Seattle would be a fantastic (and admittedly hilarious) for San Jose, who’s travelling fans will definitely be craving a win by now.
The Timber’s Argentinian core have once again been their most exciting feature this season, with both starring in last weeks 3-0 win over Real Salt Lake. Diego Valeri assisted the opener before Sebastian Blanco finished the third to cement their MLS playoffs spot. Electric winger Andy Polo will also look to make a difference as the final piece of the South American midfield trident.
Young striker Jeremy Ebobisse has looked great in recent games and will look to build on this form against a Vancouver Whitecaps side that has essentially nothing to play for, although saying farewell to Alphonso Davies before his big move to Bayern Munich will surely be on everyone’s minds.
The last 4 meetings of the sides have ended 2-1, with the winning being split with 2 victories apiece. Former Norwich and Middlesborough man Kei Kamara will look to keep a usually quite sturdy Timbers defence busy, whilst speedy young winger Alphonso Davies will want to give his club a fond farewell by putting away the Oregonians.
Still in Contention
Of course, everyone knows about the Galaxy. Since signing David Beckham the LA side have brought in the likes of Gerrard, Cole, Dos Santos (x2) and their latest big name, the self proclaimed ‘lion king’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Who of course has been scoring, because that’s what he does. The big Swede instantly put himself in MVP contention with 22 goals this season. Without that crucial MLS playoff spot, however, he will not be considered a real success. With the likes of French winger Romain Allessandrini and prolific Norwegian striker Ola Kamara around him, the biggest name side in MLS will need to pull it out the bag on the last day to qualify.
Houston Dynamo, their opponents, need only draw with the Galaxy to score an upset and cost them their playoffs spot. They don’t really have anything to play for on paper, but who doesn’t like a surprise to liven things up, and the US Open Cup champs will certainly be no pushovers.