Major League Soccer still unpredictable as Decision Day looms
With the penultimate round of the 2015 Major League Soccer regular season done and dusted, it's time for Jason Davis to run the rule over the biggest talking points of the weekend.
Canada's trio of MLS teams are all playoff-bound in 2015. The Vancouver Whitecaps secured their place in the postseason on Oct. 8, making them the first of the Canadian clubs to do so. Toronto FC then celebrated making their first-ever playoff tournament in fine style six days later, when a stunning goal by Sebastian Giovinco lifted them to a victory over the first-place Red Bulls.
On Saturday, it was the Montreal Impact's turn. The arrival of Didier Drogba in Quebec turned the season for the club, who rode their famous signing to a six-game unbeaten streak through September that pushed them into contention for a postseason berth in the wide-open Eastern Conference. A pair of losses in October created some doubt, but the fact that the Impact had several games in hand on their rivals for a spot gave them a bit of breathing room.
But the schedule wasn't easy, and there was plenty of reason to think that Montreal might run out of gas in the end. Sunday's trip to New England was the kind of game the Impact team of three months ago would have lost in ugly fashion. The team of today put together a strong performance, got a pretty goal from Ignacio Piatti and locked up their playoff spot with one week to spare.
With no team setting themselves apart in either conference, every one of the Canadian teams has a chance to make some noise in the postseason.
Leaving it late
While not yet official, it appears we know the playoff field for the Eastern Conference. Though Orlando City is mathematically still in the hunt headed into Decision Day, their hopes rest on overturning a nearly impossible gap in goal differential with the New England Revolution.
Out west, it's a different story. Dallas, LA and Vancouver have earned their way into the playoffs, but three spots remain unclaimed. The caveat is that only one team currently below the red line, the San Jose Earthquakes, can still sneak into the field.
The final day of the season will sort out which three teams secure their places, thanks in part to the failure of a couple of highly rated teams in Week 33. Both Kansas City (1-0 losers in San Jose) and Seattle (who played Houston to a 1-1 draw on Sunday) had the playoffs in their sights and came up short.
The idea that either could miss out is stunning on its own. The fact that they each have so much to play for on the last day of the regular season guarantees that Decision Day will be dramatic.
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Seeding the field
Even for the teams already able to dream about making a postseason run to an MLS Cup title, there's much to play for in Week 34. A combination of surprising results over the past week means seeding is up in the air in both conferences.
Even at the top of the respective conference standings there's intrigue. Dallas and the Red Bulls are set at the top seeds, but the fate of the Supporters' Shield remains in play. With the two teams tied on points and wins, New York has the advantage thanks to a six-goal lead in the third tiebreaker, goal differential.
Dallas closes at home against the Quakes, while New York must travel to Chicago. Dallas is dominant at home, where they've lost just twice all year, while the Red Bulls have never won at Toyota Park. Don't etch New York's name on the Shield just yet!
Seeding is crucial, and not just because the team with the highest point total come the MLS Cup will host the title game. The top two teams in each conference get byes into the semifinals, while teams seeded three to six must battle it out in one-game playoffs to make the final eight.
Of the teams already in or still alive for a playoff spot, only Montreal and San Jose are unable to climb into a top-two seed. That sets the table for an incredible last day.
At halftime of the Galaxy's home date with the Timbers on Sunday, the defending MLS Cup champs held a 1-0 lead thanks to a goal from defending league MVP Robbie Keane.
Forty-five minutes later, when the referee blew the whistle for full time, the Timbers were the ones celebrating a 5-2 win. In a league known for throwing up surprises, Portland's dismantling of LA was one of the more stunning results in recent memory.
If it wasn't shock enough that the Timbers won at the StubHub Center, where the Galaxy had lost just once all year, the attacking explosion from Caleb Porter's team added an extra dose. For a team that has struggled all year to find a clinical touch in front of goal and isn't known for closing games out on the front foot, the win might be a launching pad into the playoffs.
For the Galaxy, the loss is disheartening, though it would be folly to imagine they're not championship-caliber. Defensive issues persist for Bruce Arena's team, but with the firepower available and their knack for navigating the postseason tournament, no one should write them off quite yet.
It's very possible that an ever-changing MLS might not have room for a player like Mike Grella one day. Rather, it's very possible that an ever-changing MLS may not be the type of league that gives a player like Grella a chance to resurrect his career.
The former Duke Blue Devil, who bounced around the lower leagues of England, was on the verge of retirement when the Red Bulls signed him for 2015. All he's done to reward them is score nine goals and star on the attacking end of the field for a team that finished first in the East and could secure a Supporters' Shield next weekend.
On Sunday, he was in record-breaking form as he netted the fastest goal in league history. Maybe an MLS that doesn't give a Mike Grella a chance is a better MLS. That doesn't mean it would be a more fun MLS.
Team of the weekend
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.