The 5 Most Important Storylines Heading into MLS Decision Day

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 13, 2015

The 5 Most Important Storylines Heading into MLS Decision Day

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    For the first time in Major League Soccer history, the final day of the regular season will replicate that of the Premier League and other major European leagues. 

    The 10 games that will be played on October 25 will feature two blocks of simultaneous action in each conference. 

    The Eastern Conference kicks off the day at 5 p.m. ET with its quintet of matches, while the Western Conference starts its action at 7 p.m. ET. 

    Throughout Decision Day, we will find out who will be the top seeds in each conference and who earns the coveted Supporters' Shield. 

    A few close battles for individual titles will also be decided on the final Sunday of the regular season before the MLS Cup playoffs kick off three days later. 

    Here's a look at the five biggest storylines to watch on MLS Decision Day. 

Who Will Win the Supporters' Shield?

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    With eight months of play completed, we still aren't sure who the best team in Major League Soccer is. 

    Many teams have made their case over stretches of time, but those same clubs have regressed back to the mean at some point in the year as well. 

    The current favorite to hoist the Supporters' Shield and earn home-field advantage all the way through MLS Cup is the New York Red Bulls. 

    Jesse Marsch's side dominated the Eastern Conference during the summer, and even though they've faced some difficulties in recent weeks, they still look like the most cohesive unit. Powered by a high-press system used by their trio of central midfielders, the Red Bulls have the ability to put any team under duress. 

    However, the Red Bulls will face a difficult trip on Decision Day as they have to exorcise their demons at Toyota Park. If they are able to finally win on the road in Chicago, they should be lifting the Shield. 

    If the Red Bulls slip up, the L.A. Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps or FC Dallas could swoop in and claim the crown. 

    L.A.'s difficult remaining schedule has discounted it a bit, while Vancouver and FC Dallas could eliminate each other with another draw on October 14 after their October 7 scoreless stalemate at BC Place. 

    If all three Western Conference teams are in contention on Decision Day, Vancouver and FC Dallas would be seen as the favorites to challenge the Red Bulls since they host Houston and San Jose, respectively, while L.A. visits Sporting Kansas City. 

Eastern Conference Playoff Seeding

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    The six playoff participants in the Eastern Conference distanced themselves from the pack during the summer, but where each team lands in the seeding process is still up in the air. 

    Regardless of their Supporters' Shield status, the Red Bulls should do enough in the coming weeks during their games in hand to secure the top spot in the East. 

    Behind them, the race for second place and the all-important berth in the semifinal round of the MLS Cup playoffs is wide open. D.C. United, Columbus and New England have rotated in and out of the No. 2 spot in the East over the last few months, while Toronto has lurked beneath the trio in fifth place. 

    New England has to go to Yankee Stadium to play New York City FC on Decision Day in a game many believe the Revolution will earn three points in. 

    But the real match to keep an eye on occurs at Mapfre Stadium, as Columbus hosts D.C. with seeding position on the line. Even if New England locks up second place, the Crew and United will be fighting to avoid Toronto in one of the knockout-round games. 

    But there is no guarantee that earning the No. 3 seed will help either team avoid Toronto, as the Reds have to go to Stade Saputo for the final installment of the 401 Derby. 

    If Montreal can pull off a victory over its biggest rival, it could leap into fifth place and throw a wrench into the strategies of D.C. and Columbus, who will certainly be scoreboard-watching from Columbus. 

Western Conference Seeding and Race for the Sixth Playoff Position

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    Just like we expected when conference realignment took place after last season, the Western Conference is the more competitive conglomerate of 10 teams in MLS this season. 

    Every week has provided a new plot twist in the race for home-field advantage and all six of the playoff positions. 

    What we do know is L.A., FC Dallas and Vancouver are in the playoffs, while Sporting Kansas City and Seattle look safe as long as they don't hit a major bump in form ahead of Decision Day.

    That leaves four clubs fighting for the final playoff position: San Jose, Portland, Houston and Real Salt Lake. The quartet of contenders for the No. 6 spot in the West haven't proven they want the position yet, but it appears the Timbers will be in the best shape to clinch. 

    On the final day of the regular season, Portland hosts lowly Colorado at Providence Park, while RSL, Houston and San Jose make road trips to Seattle, Vancouver and FC Dallas, respectively. 

    Since Portland's opponent will be playing for nothing, it will presumably have the easiest task at hand. As for the other three sides, they will face plenty of competition from their opponents, who will be jockeying for position in the top six. 

    The most intriguing match of the set in the Western Conference will come from Sporting Park as Sporting KC hosts the Galaxy in a contest that has a chance to turn the standings on its head by the final whistle. 

    A win by Bruce Arena's side would likely secure a top-two spot for the Galaxy, but if Sporting KC come out victorious, the defending champion could be forced into the knockout round of the MLS Cup playoffs. 

Who Takes Home the Golden Boot?

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    One of the most intriguing storylines throughout the 2015 season has been the scoring output of the superstar forwards across the league. 

    Unlike 2014, when Bradley Wright-Phillips had the Golden Boot locked up by the end of summer, the competition will come down to the final day. 

    Columbus' Kei Kamara has been the front-runner to win the title of MLS' top scorer for most of the year, but he has faced stiff competition from Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco, who could also end the regular season as the league leader in assists. 

    In two matches against Decision Day opponent D.C. in 2015, Kamara produced a goal and an assist, both of which came in the 2-1 win by the Crew on September 19. 

    Giovinco has one goal and two assists to his name in two contests against Montreal in 2015, but neither of those performances came against a reinvigorated Impact side with an in-form Didier Drogba leading the line. 

    Both players have also been in form of late as Kamara has four goals in his last four matches, while the Atomic Ant has four tallies in his last three games. 

    With both Columbus and Toronto facing pressure to win in order to earn the best seed possible, expect both of these stars to find the back of the net at least once on Decision Day. If that occurs, Kamara should keep the slight edge he's had over Giovinco for most of the year. 

Which Team Earns the No. 1 Overall Pick in 2016 MLS SuperDraft

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    It's never too early to look forward to next season. 

    In fact, a few clubs across MLS have already done so, as Philadelphia and Chicago have let go of personnel who left them in the basement of the Eastern Conference. Out in the Western Conference, Colorado failed to put everything together in 2015, and it could earn the top pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft if it falls to Portland on Decision Day. 

    As we saw in 2015 with Orlando City and Cyle Larin, drafting a player first overall can change the track of a franchise. Although they were just an expansion side, the Lions were able to contend up until the final weeks of the regular season due to the exploits of Larin in front of goal. 

    Chicago is currently the favorite to land the top pick, but Philadelphia and Colorado could easily snatch it up if the Fire continue their historically good form against the Red Bulls at Toyota Park. 

    The prize that awaits the worst team in the league may be Georgetown defender Joshua Yaro, who is widely regarded as the top pro-ready player on the college circuit. 

    Of the three sides, Philadelphia is the only team to select first in the SuperDraft. They chose Danny Mwanga as an expansion side in 2010 and goalkeeper Andre Blake in 2014. 

    Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90

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