Dramatic Decision Day sees San Jose sneak into playoffs, Portland top West
Major League Soccer's Decision Day for 2017 saw 11 games kick off all at once, with one playoff spot up for grabs and 10 seeds still to be determined. As if ordered by a room full of screenwriters, the games contained all the drama we could have wanted, spiced with penalties, red cards, video reviews and --perhaps most crucially for the standings -- an epidemic of poor marking on set pieces.
The last thing anyone wanted for the Decision Day program was a slew of tight, cagey matches dictated more by defending in numbers than by open play and an appetite for goals.
Thankfully, through a combination of bad defending and strong performances from some of the league's stars, Decision Day delivered on the attacking end of the field. The day opened with a burst of goals in Frisco, Sandy and Houston, tallies that set a tone that would carry through the rest of day.
Nowhere on Decision Day was the situation more fraught than in Frisco and Sandy. The San Jose Earthquakes, playing at home, needed a win over Minnesota United to lock up a playoff place and eliminate FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake in the process. Winning wouldn't be enough for both last year's Supporters' Shield winner and an RSL club riding a second-half surge to the brink of the playoffs.
Dallas and Real Salt Lake might have arrived on the final day in similar circumstances, but the stories of their recent results was very different. While RSL rose under the direction of early-season replacement coach Mike Petke, the Texan side utterly collapsed through the second half of the season. The nosedive was bad enough that Oscar Pareja's leadership was up for debate. Nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs, but getting in was the first step in putting out the flames of discontent.
Set-piece defending, of the questionable variety, nearly saved the blushes of Dallas and Pareja. His team did what it needed to against the Galaxy, putting LA to the sword 5-1, but the Quakes' inability to prevent an equalizer by Francisco Calvo on a Minnesota corner kick momentarily gave FCD real hope.
Marco Urena and Chris Wondolowski decided they weren't going to let that be the end of the story for the Quakes. Earlier in the game, Wondolowski had scored in the traditional Wondolowski manner (at the back post, ghosting off a defender) to become the second-all-time leading goal scorer in MLS history. At the end of the game, he played a perfect ball for Urena in front of the United net, resulting in a stoppage-time game winner and a playoff spot for San Jose.
Real Salt Lake also won, but as they needed a loss or a draw by both San Jose and Dallas, their 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City ultimately meant nothing. It also bears mentioning that the finish in the West means that MLS' failure to penalize FC Dallas with a forfeit for its violation of eligibility rules against Orlando three weeks ago won't be a black eye.
In the battle for seeding, Portland, Seattle and New York City FC were the big winners on the day.
A pair of David Villa goals helped New York City FC and coach Patrick Vieira to a 2-2 draw with a clearly emotional Columbus Crew SC side at Citi Field in Queens. But the Chicago Fire's loss against Houston and Atlanta United's draw with Toronto kept the New Yorkers in position for a bye into the conference semifinals. A late penalty miss by Villa didn't impact their finish, much to his club's relief.
Portland took down Vancouver 2-1 at Providence Park, leaping over the Whitecaps into first place in the Western Conference. Liam Ridgewell opened up the scoring for the Timbers, but former Whitecap Darren Mattocks scored the winner. Watch out for Portland; not only will it have the inside track to an MLS Cup with a bye and home-field advantage in the West, but Darlington Nagbe looks intent on joining Diego Valeri in willing them to big things in the postseason.
Seattle won on the day because the Sounders' win over Colorado also lifted them above Vancouver and into the No. 2 seed in the West. The bad news for coach Brian Schmetzer is that he won't have his biggest name in the lineup when Seattle's playoff campaign kicks off in the conference semis. Clint Dempsey was appropriately sent off after a check of VAR for throwing an elbow; while Dempsey's game has always turned on emotion, his lapse in impulse control is a big blow to an already-thin team.
The status of a few players who came off early Sunday is worth watching. Both A.J. DeLaGarza of Houston and Michael Parkhurst of Atlanta left due to injuries.
Atlanta couldn't jump NYCFC for the second spot in the East, but the incredible story of its inaugural year will continue with a home playoff game midweek against Columbus. A record 71,874 people showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to close out the regular season, so the expectations will be that the Five Stripes will have vocal support in their first playoff game.
Decision Day delivered plenty to look forward to with the rest of the playoff matchups. Dax McCarty and Chicago will host the U.S. international's former club, New York Red Bulls. Old foes Sporting Kansas City and Houston will renew their playoff rivalry. Vancouver will host San Jose fresh off the latter's magical final day.
For good measure, let's toss in several other non-playoff stories that added an extra twinkle to the last day of the regular season. Among them: RFK Stadium's last hurrah as the home of D.C. United; TFC setting a record for most points in a season; Sebastian Giovinco's preternatural ability to score goals from free kicks; a farewell to Canadian soccer legend Patrice Bernier in Montreal; and Kaka's final match as an Orlando City Lion on a humiliating day for the club.
From coast to coast, it was a Decision Day that had no shortage of drama.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.