Ultimate Guide to MLS Weekend: League Gets It Right with Decision Day Format

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 23, 2015

Oct 18, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls midfielder Lloyd Sam (10) and Philadelphia Union defender Fabinho (33) battle for the ball during second half at Red Bull Arena. The New York Red Bulls defeated the Philadelphia Union 4-1.
Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The end of the Major League Soccer regular season is here. 

After a few weeks that seemed to drag on in length in September and October, the last day of the regular season should produce some of the most exciting moments of 2015. 

The busy Sunday across North America starts at 5 p.m. ET with four Eastern Conference showdowns. Seeding for the playoffs, which begin on Wednesday and Thursday with one-off knockout games, will mostly be on the line. But if Orlando City beats Philadelphia and New England loses at Yankee Stadium City FC and there is an eight-goal swing, the Lions will miraculously sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. 

Aug 8, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando City forward Cyle Larin (21) during the second half at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Orlando City and Philadelphia Union ended in a 0-0 tie. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since that scenario is unlikely, even though the Union seem to have given up on the season after their U.S. Open Cup final defeat at the end of September, most of the focus will be on seeding. D.C. United enters Decision Day with the best chance to capture the No. 2 seed and enjoy a rest along with the New York Red Bulls ahead of the conference semifinals. 

Columbus controls its own destiny as well, as it needs a win over D.C. at Mapfre Stadium on Sunday to clinch the No. 2 seed. A draw in Columbus could allow Toronto FC to slide into second position with a win, but the Reds face a tough battle against rival Montreal at Stade Saputo.

Montreal could launch itself as high as third place with a win and some help on Sunday, but it is more likely the Impact will be fighting for the opportunity to host the knockout-round game between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, which could see them face Toronto again. 

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Oct 17, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Montreal Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush (1) and defender Victor Cabrera (36) and defender Ambroise Oyongo (2) celebrate a victory against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TO
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

As for New England, win and get in is the formula it will look to follow. The 2014 MLS Cup runner-up could finish as high as third with a victory, a Columbus loss and a draw in Montreal, but the real focus is set on qualifying for the postseason first.

While there will be some excitement during the early slate of matches, the 7 p.m. ET kick offs are the set that should ignite plenty of fireworks, starting with the race for the Supporters' Shield. 

MLS did the right thing by moving back the New York Red Bulls' match with Chicago to coincide with FC Dallas' home clash with the San Jose Earthquakes. The Red Bulls have an advantage at the moment on goal differential, but winning at will be no easy task for the club that has been historically poor at the home stadium of the Fire. FC Dallas will also face stiff competition from San Jose, who is in contention for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. 

Speaking of the wild, wild Western Conference, only FC Dallas has locked down their position for the postseason, as they are set as the No. 1 seed. The LA Galaxy enter Decision Day as the No. 2 seed, but they may be stricken by their poor road form against a desperate Sporting Kansas City team. 

Oct 18, 2015; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget (17) handles the ball against the Portland Timbers during the first half at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Vancouver looks to be in good shape to finish no lower than third as it hosts Houston, a team knocked out of playoff contention last time out. However, beneath those three teams, all chaos is set to break loose between four clubs. 

Portland, Seattle, Sporting KC and San Jose come into Decision Day in that order. The Timbers should avoid the madness against Colorado at Providence Park, but they must be aware of the Rapids' hunger to play spoiler, as they defeated Sporting KC on the road on Wednesday. Seattle hosts a Real Salt Lake team that is playing for nothing at . A win seems likely for Sigi Schmid's side. 

The battle for the No. 6 seed will be where all the drama occurs. Sporting KC is ahead of San Jose by one point, and both teams are set to take on the two best teams in the West. Peter Vermes' club will be treating the match like a final, and the qualifying process is simple, as a win would lock them into the postseason. A draw would only hurt them if San Jose wins, and a loss would put their fate on the shoulders of San Jose's result.

Sporting KC @SportingKC

"It's a final." - Peter Vermes on Sunday's #DecisionDay showdown vs. #LAGalaxy. https://t.co/FmNSMztO49

But since this is MLS, where the unexpected becomes the expected, there is a possibility four teams will be deadlocked on 51 points in third through sixth after Sunday's games. Soccer By Ives' Ives Galarcep detailed that possible scenario:

Ives Galarcep @SoccerByIves

From the MLS parity dept: if KC beats LA, Seattle beats RSL, Timbers tie Rapids & Vancouver ties Houston we get 5 West teams on 51 points

No matter what the final results are on Sunday, a ton of praise should be given to the league office for scheduling all the matches on one day. In past years, games have been played on different days, thus silencing the drama during the final week of the regular season. 

With live look-ins planned on each national television broadcast and kickoffs synchronized, the league can't fail in terms of Sunday's excitement. This should be the format for every season after 2015. All that's left for us to do is set up multiple screens and enjoy the action.

Decision Day Schedule

Toronto FC at Montreal Impact (5 p.m. ET)

New England Revolution at New York City FC (5 p.m. ET)

D.C. United at Columbus Crew (5 p.m. ET, 1) 

Orlando City at Philadelphia Union (5 p.m. ET)

New York Red Bulls at (7 p.m. ET)

Houston Dynamo at Vancouver Whitecaps (7 p.m. ET) 

Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders (7 p.m. ET) 

San Jose Earthquakes at FC Dallas (7 p.m. ET)

Colorado Rapids at Portland Timbers (7 p.m. ET)

LA Galaxy at Sporting Kansas City (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Players to Watch

Ethan Finlay, RM, Columbus Crew 

The Crew will be at a disadvantage on Sunday as leading scorer Kei Kamara and creative midfielder Federico Higuain are serving one-game suspensions for yellow-card accumulation. 

That means most of the pressure to produce chances will fall on the shoulders of the wingers in the Crew attack. Ethan Finlay, who is one of three players with 10 goals and assists in 2015, will be relied to produce most of the scoring opportunities. 

With Kamara and Higuain both out, the D.C. United defense will put more defensive focus on Finlay, who may have to track inside from the right wing to find space. 

Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo, CB, LA Galaxy

After getting thumped by Portland in the final 25 minutes of the second half in Week 33, the LA Galaxy center back duo of Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo must do better against Sporting KC in order to earn the best seed possible in the playoffs. 

Oct 18, 2015; Carson, CA, USA; Portland Timbers forward Lucas Melano (center) attempts a shots defended by Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez (right) during the first half at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzalez and Leonardo were torn apart by Portland's post-up forward Fanendo Adi and creative midfielder Diego Valeri in that 5-2 defeat at home. The pair will face a similar threat in the form of Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber at Sporting Park. 

Taking Feilhaber out of the game is more important to the Galaxy's success than Dwyer's involvement, which means we should see one of the two step up and disrupt Feilhaber as he surges into the box. If Feilhaber is contained, Gonzalez and Leonardo should be able to deal with the physical nature of Dwyer without a key passing outlet. 

Chris Wondolowski, FW San Jose Earthquakes

Outside of Chris Wondolowski, the San Jose Earthquakes do not have a consistent scoring threat. That means the United States international will be counted on to score in the key road clash with FC Dallas. 

September 16, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski (8) celebrates after scoring a goal against Montreal Impact goalkeeper Eric Kronberg (22, not pictured) during the first half at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Te
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The scorer of 16 goals in 2015 did not fare well in his previous meetings with Oscar Pareja's side this season, going scoreless against the FC Dallas defense on two occasions. 

Scoring, or even finding space, against the FC Dallas back four will be a difficult task for Wondolowski since FC Dallas have three clean sheets in their last three contests. 

Game of the Week

LA Galaxy at Sporting Kansas City 

With all due respect to the great slate of games on Decision Day, LA's road trip to Sporting Park is the marquee showdown. 

After looking like one of the top two teams in the West for most of the year, the Galaxy have limped to the finish line and are in danger of playing in the knockout round during the middle of next week. 

In order to avoid that possibility, with Vancouver playing an easy game at home versus Houston, the Galaxy must correct their putrid road form. Bruce Arena's side has two wins in 16 road contests in 2015. 

The good news for the Galaxy coming into Sunday is Sporting KC have suffered from the same type of late-season slump. Unfortunately for the one-time favorites to hoist the Supporters' Shield, they must win in order to safely secure passage into the postseason.

Vermes' side will be highly motivated to record three points in front of their home fans after suffering a disappointing loss at Sporting Park to Colorado on Wednesday.

A draw does neither side any good, so expect a strong attacking pulse in this game from the start as both teams look to secure the highest seed possible in the West.

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

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