Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy choke away playoff berth on MLS Decision Day
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's time in MLS could have come to an abrupt end, as the Los Angeles Galaxy choked away a two-goal lead in the second half against the Houston Dynamo, falling 3-2 on Decision Day to miss out on the 2018 MLS playoffs.
There was plenty of drama in the Eastern Conference as well, with Atlanta United losing in Toronto, allowing the New York Red Bulls to swoop in and capture the Supporters' Shield trophy.
1. Ibrahimovic kept in check as playoffs slip past Galaxy
All that was needed for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy to reach the playoffs was a win against an already eliminated Houston Dynamo, and after the first 45 minutes, it looked like Ibrahimovic would get a crack at the postseason and it would come against preferred opponent and city rivals LAFC.
Holding a 2-0 lead, the Galaxy then proceeded to choke away a match they absolutely had to have. They conceded three second-half goals to the Houston Dynamo and lost 3-2, gifting a playoff spot to Real Salt Lake.
While Ibrahimovic has been crucial to the Galaxy's season, with 22 goals and 10 assists, his Sunday afternoon was a picture of frustration and disappointment. The Swedish striker's only real chance at scoring came early, when he found himself alone just yards in front of the Dynamo goal, but visiting goalkeeper Joe Willis stood tall to make the save. Otherwise, there were more hands thrown up in frustration than touches from Ibrahimovic, who lacked service while being kept in check by Houston's defense.
This could prove to be the end of Ibrahimovic in MLS. His Galaxy future was already in doubt before Sunday's match, and with talk of a return to Europe this winter, there is a sense that the final whistle at the StubHub Center marked the end of Ibrahimovic's time in the United States.
If so, it was no doubt entertaining for fans across the league, but the fallacies of the Galaxy as a squad outnumbered Ibrahimovic's magical moments, and Sunday's finale showed why besides their superstar striker, the Galaxy were simply not a good team in 2018.
2. Atlanta United's pain is Red Bulls' gain
For the past week, Atlanta United maintained that Gerardo "Tata" Martino's decision to leave the club at season's end would not be a distraction. In fact, it would have a galvanizing effect, and in the end, that might still be true, but after Sunday's 4-1 loss at Toronto FC, the skeptics will be coming out in droves.
In a match against a team already eliminated from playoff contention, Atlanta United dropped a clunker and coughed up their chance to win their first trophy. instead, it was the New York Red Bulls raising the Supporters' Shield after a 1-0 home win against Orlando City.
Atlanta United's history is short, but in that brief period, their record in big-time games isn't something to write home about. They failed to score in last season's playoff loss against Columbus, and now on Sunday, with a trophy at stake, they played arguably their worst match of the season.
Full credit is due to the Red Bulls. Many thought they would falter after the departure of coach Jesse Marsch, but they have only gotten better under Chris Armas and now have their third Supporters' Shield trophy since 2013. There is no reason this team cannot end its MLS Cup jinx this season.
3. Rooney and D.C. United nail down home date
For Wayne Rooney and D.C. United, there has been no place like home in 2018. Since the arrival of the former Manchester United striker on July 14, D.C. United are an astounding 12W-1D-2L at home, and thanks to Sunday's 0-0 draw at Chicago, combined with Philadelphia's 3-1 loss at New York City FC, Rooney & Co. will get to play in front of the home fans at Audi Field in their playoff opener.
No one could have imagined how profoundly Rooney would impact D.C. United, but his 12 goals and seven assists have spearheaded a second-half charge rarely seen east of Seattle. The same could be said for away from the field. It might seem like a little thing, but reinforcing his commitment to D.C. United and electing not to go out on loan this winter means all the focus can be on the playoffs and not Rooney's uncertain future with the team.
Not only will D.C. United have the chance to host the Columbus Crew in the winner-take-all playoff game this week, but with a victory they'll also get a crack at Supporters' Shield winners New York Red Bulls or Atlanta United in the conference semifinals, two teams that have yielded goals to Rooney. Considering Rooney's form, it would not surprise to see the Englishman lead his team on a deep run in the postseason.
4. Seattle surges to the 2-seed
It is simply remarkable how the Seattle Sounders have become kings of the second half of the MLS season. Two years ago, a hot late summer and fall stretch ultimately ended with the team's first MLS Cup. Last year, a similar win streak paved the way for a second straight appearance in the final, and after Sunday's 2-1 comeback win over San Jose, the Sounders have completed another scorching run-in.
Sunday's result was their 14th win in the past 16 games, and more importantly the victory, coupled with FC Dallas' dismal 2-1 loss in Colorado and LAFC's 2-1 defeat at Sporting Kansas City, means the Sounders have clinched the 2-seed in the Western Conference, a feat that some supposed experts (ahem) thought was impossible back in the spring.
Like in 2016, when Nicolas Lodeiro arrived from Boca Juniors, Seattle's revival has been spurred by a midseason acquisition, this time in the form of Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz, who proved his worth with two goals on Sunday. With Lodeiro and Spanish midfielder Victor Rodriguez running circles around defenses, the Sounders are once again primed to play in December.
5. Playoffs a deserved reward for Columbus faithful
It has been an emotional season in Columbus. All year, fans thought they were watching the Crew's final games in Columbus as relocation to Austin, Texas, loomed. That all changed two weeks ago, with the news that the Columbus Crew are likely to stay, so it was fitting that those in attendance for the team's must-win on Sunday against Minnesota United were rewarded with a 3-2 victory and another playoff appearance.
The off-the-field feel-good story will dominate the headlines, and rightly so, but all along coach Gregg Berhalter has done an excellent job of guiding the team amid not only the distraction of the Austin move but also the talk of him being named the next United States national team head coach.
Berhalter's future in Columbus remains cloudy, but it's not like distractions haven't prevented Columbus from performing above expectations before. In 2017, Columbus showed tremendous grit in reaching the Western Conference final right as the news broke of owner Anthony Precourt's Austin intentions. Part of that journey included a road win at Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. The Crew will have every reason to believe they can pull the same trick in D.C. this week.