Major League Soccer's Decision Day serves up thrilling end to the season
That's it, it's all done. The 2015 MLS regular season is over, and 12 teams remain alive in the race to lift the MLS Cup trophy on Dec. 6. Decision Day, the league's bid to ramp up the drama on the final day of the season, delivered a series of fascinating results that now have us considering the ramifications with the playoffs starting in just three days.
Full MLS Cup playoff schedule here.
No. 2 in style
With a second-place finish and the bye to go straight to the conference semifinals on the line, Columbus Crew SC manhandled D.C. United at Mapfre Stadium. The 5-0 win was a comprehensive domination by Columbus of a team not known for conceding many goals and with its own designs on locking up a bye. What's more, the Crew dished out the beating without the team's top two goal scorers in the lineup. Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain missed out because of yellow card suspensions, but it hardly mattered for Gregg Berhalter's team. Pushing forward with a style that occasionally bordered on reckless, Crew SC victimized a lackadaisical United team that looked unmotivated on the regular season's final day.
If momentum heading into the playoffs is important, the Eastern Conference should be wary of Columbus. The gaps that come as part of their attacking mentality were evident against United (the visitors were unable to exploit them), but there's just enough strength in the defense and advantage through possession to make Crew SC a legitimate contender to go all the way to MLS Cup. Throw in the bonus of Jack McInerney gaining a healthy dose of confidence and Ethan Finley looking unstoppable, and the night could not have gone better.
MLS #DECISION DAY HIGHLIGHTS
- NY Red Bulls 2-1 Chicago Fire
- Sporting KC 2-1 LA Galaxy
- Portland Timbers 4-1 Colorado Rapids
- Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 Houston Dynamo
- Seattle Sounders 3-1 Real Salt Lake
- FC Dallas 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes
- NYCFC 1-3 New England Revolution
- Montreal Impact 2-1 Toronto FC
- Columbus Crew 5-0 D.C. United
- Philadelphia Union 1-0 Orlando City
All Day Didier
Matches between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact don't need more than pride on the line to be among some of the most intense in North American soccer. But when seeding -- and a home playoff game -- is tossed into the mix, the heat is off the charts.
That was the case on Decision Day, when Montreal hosted TFC. Despite the visitors having designs on finishing the regular season on a high and perhaps bringing a home playoff game to BMO Field for the first time, they couldn't overcome a force of nature clad in blue. As he has done time and time again since arriving in Quebec, Didier Drogba took over a game and pushed his team to a big victory. The Ivorian striker scored twice in a minute -- both of them on clever redirections of driven balls into the box -- to erase Toronto's 1-0 lead and, thanks to a flip in the goal differential column brought about by D.C. United's 5-0 loss, earn his team a home game in the playoffs.
Drogba has been so good, and the Impact so much better with him in the lineup, that it's not crazy to suggest Montreal should be considered a dark horse to make the MLS Cup final out of the Eastern Conference. In fact, when Drogba took a cleat to the knee late in the game and took several minutes to shake off the knock, it felt as though Montreal's chances in the playoffs hung on whether the injury was serious.
It seems it's not, which is great news for the Impact. Thanks to New England's win, it's Toronto they'll host in the first round of the playoffs.
Grabbing the Shield
MLS moved Sunday's Chicago Fire-New York Red Bulls match to the late window so that the two teams competing for the Supporters' Shield would be playing at the same time. FC Dallas hosted San Jose with a chance to steal the Shield away from the Red Bulls with a win and some help from the Fire up in Bridgeview.
But the Red Bulls didn't give FC Dallas a chance. A first-choice lineup (that crucially included a returning Matt Miazga) earned the club's first-ever win at Toyota Park 2-1, showing again that this New York team has something perhaps no other New York team has ever had: complete harmony. Working with the league's smallest salary budget, Jesse Marsch molded a highly effective unit that operates as exactly that. Without a marquee name in the group, the Red Bulls jelled remarkably quickly into a team that knew how it wanted to win and then effectively deployed that strategy more often than anyone else in MLS.
This Red Bulls team is drama-free and holds home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs. MLS Cup final at Red Bull Arena, anyone?
Headed into Decision Day, the number of possible ways the standings in each conference could shake out was mind-boggling. The word "permutations" was involved, enough to make the non-math people among us reach for the aspirin.
Luckily, with the games all done, there's no more need for permutations. The results are in and the matchups are set. The playoffs loom, and we barely have a chance to catch our breath from a thrilling Decision Day. The format proved to be a massive success, providing all of the drama anyone could have hoped for out of two sets of simultaneous matches.
L.A.'s loss in Kansas City (which locked up Sporting's place in the field) combined with a Sounders win over RSL means the Galaxy must now travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders in a knockout game Wednesday night. Seattle cobbled together some confidence, they've got the home-field advantage and none of the Galaxy's stars will enjoy playing on the turf at CenturyLink Field. Suddenly the defending champs don't seem like such a good proposition to repeat.
That matchup is about as high profile as it can get, and it comes in the first round. Oh, and the West also delivers a tasty match at Providence Park, with Sporting visiting the Timbers on Thursday. "Toss-up" doesn't begin to describe it.
The East might not have the marquee power of the West's first round, but there's plenty of history in D.C. United versus New England (set for Wednesday night) and nothing needs to be said about a Canadian derby match coming Thursday.
The regular season is over. The playoffs are here. Who's ready?
Team of the weekend
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.