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Decision Day: How to untangle MLS’ bloated playoff field

Decision Day: How to untangle MLS’ bloated playoff field

There are some things we know about the MLS Cup playoffs, which start next week. We know most of the teams in the Eastern Conference, including a superb FC Cincinnati, who will be in the field. We know Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF will not, one of six teams in the league eliminated from contention heading into the final match of the season. And we know plenty will be decided Saturday on Decision Day.

While every game counts in the standings, it often comes down to match 34 for teams, and this year is no exception. While the hole was too large for Messi’s Miami to dig out of, and fellow big spenders Toronto FC have been eliminated for even longer, there is still plenty of drama and star power fighting for a place on the final day.

Five spots for the playoffs are still undecided, with both conferences also seeing top teams jockeying for seeding, especially a place in the top four that means homefield advantage in at least the first round.

Things would’ve been even more jumbled in past years, but another format overhaul means nine teams from each conference make the cut, instead of seven like last year. The eighth- and ninth-place finishers in each conference do have to play a midweek Wild Card game in just four days to determine who moves on to meet the No. 1 seed in the conference in Round One’s best-of-three series.

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Who will play for the privilege to meet Cincy?

In years past, there wouldn’t have been any final-day drama in the East, where the top seven teams are already decided. This year, though, five teams are mathematically still in the hunt.

One of those five, CF Montréal, controls its own destiny. The Canadian squad sits in eighth with 41 points despite having lost four more matches (16) than it has won (12). Add to the win total with a victory against the Columbus Crew, and Hernán Losada’s team would be playing on.

While the New York Red Bulls sit a point behind and are currently out of the playoffs, they, too, likely control their own fate. A win against Nashville SC would get the Red Bulls into the postseason provided the Chicago Fire don’t also get a win and do it by a margin of seven goals more than the Red Bulls get theirs. Both teams, though, need a win away from home, with the Red Bulls taking a 3-8-5 record as visitors into Nashville, while Chicago goes to New York City FC with a slightly better 4-9-3 mark on the road.

NYCFC are unlikely to play on but very well could. With a win in that contest against the Fire, the Pigeons would have 41 points, good enough to sneak in if the Red Bulls also lose and if Charlotte FC falls to an Inter Miami set to have Messi back. The World Cup winner missed the team’s midweek match, rescheduled because of Inter’s run to the Leagues Cup title, playing with Argentina but says he’s ready to go: Bad news for a Charlotte team that drew 2-2 even as Miami missed not only Messi but a handful of other internationals. Still, the Crown, too, know with a home win and other results breaking right, they could be in.

The number of wins, the first tiebreaker, is working against Charlotte and could work against NYCFC. In the event of a Red Bulls draw and an NYCFC win, the Red Bulls would have the edge even on the same number of points. It works in favor of Montréal.

Fans of chaos may root for Montréal to lose and the Red Bulls, Fire and Charlotte all draw. That would put four teams on 41 points. It would be Montréal hosting the Wild Card game in that scenario, securing the No. 8 slot thanks to its dozen wins. The Red Bulls would finish ninth, hopping a D.C. United team that is inactive this weekend but can not stay in the ninth position where it currently sits.

The top two seeds are set, and the home-field advantage that goes to the top four is mostly out of reach. The New England Revolution could pass Columbus with a win over No. 3 seed Philadelphia Union. Cincinnati and Orlando City SC are locked into first and second.

The wild, wild West

Out West, five teams are vying for three spots. The Portland Timbers, FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes all are above the cutoff line, and one will finish with a guaranteed place in Round One rather than having to go to the Wild Card contest.

They’ll feel as good as a team can on Decision Day without a postseason place already clinched, all knowing a win will secure their place in the MLS Cup playoffs. They also know their only competitors, Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United, are playing each other. A draw in that game would clinch playoff qualification for that trio.

Any other result, however, and things could get tricky.

Sporting KC lurk in the 10th spot with 41 points but critically have 11 wins, one more than FCD or San Jose. Minnesota is level with those squads on 10 wins. That means a win for either SKC or Minnesota United, coupled with a draw by FCD or San Jose, would see the latter jumped.

The solution for those teams is simple. FCD need to beat the eliminated LA Galaxy on the road. San Jose needs a win at home against Austin FC, who is also eliminated. Portland has the inside track on bypassing the Wild Card and a game at home, but the win necessary to secure its postseason place is no guarantee against the fourth-seeded Houston Dynamo.

When it comes to seeding, the race is tight.

Houston goes into that match at a desperate Portland with just two away wins this season. At 48 points and with Real Salt Lake and the Vancouver Whitecaps one point back with 47, the Dynamo could find themselves without a crucial homefield advantage in Round One. Only one team has won more home matches than Houston this season. RSL face the last-place Colorado Rapids on the road, while Vancouver hosts an LAFC team that will be hoping to get a result to secure the No. 2 seed ahead of the Seattle Sounders, who sit just a point behind.

Nobody can catch St. Louis City SC, which in its inaugural season has managed to run up 56 points with 17 wins and will look to go into the playoffs on a high by beating the Sounders at home.

Those teams know heading into Decision Day that they’ll be in the playoffs and have a chance to make a run at MLS Cup. Other teams aren’t so fortunate. For fans of those clubs, it will be a nerve-wracking Saturday. For everyone else, the full picture will come together in a thrilling way.

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Jon Arnold

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