It’s the Final Countdown... to the MLS Playoffs!
Written by Thomas Hair
Autumn has arrived in Charlotte, which means lovely hiking weather, pumpkin spice everything, and, soon, high-stakes late-season MLS matches! With playoff positioning on the line and the air crisp, this is when the games really start to feel different. More intense.
Six matches remain this season, and the home stretch starts this weekend. If you want to experience the drama before CLTFC is in the thick of it, here’s what you need to know:
#1: New England Revolution are running away from the field
The only question now is whether they will break the all-time points record. With 65 points, the high-mark of 72 set by LAFC in 2019 is tantalizingly within reach.
The Revs could lose ALL of their remaining matches and still finish 8th all-time. That is just absurd.
With an eight-point cushion over Seattle, that’s pretty much what it would take for them to somehow not win the Supporter’s Shield (best regular-season team). They’ll also probably win Landon Donovan MVP (Carles Gil), Coach of the Year (Bruce Arena), and Goalkeeper of the Year (Matt Turner). That said. Longtime MLS fans know such accolades won’t matter to this club. We’re talking about the Buffalo Bills of soccer, a club with a brutal 0-5 record in MLS Cup Finals. The Revs will not be satisfied unless they bring home what has repeatedly slipped through their fingers... MLS Cup.
#2: Nothing Else is Set in Stone
We know New England will be the #1 overall playoff seed and that Seattle will probably be #1 out west. That’s your two first-round byes. Below the two flag-bearers, the other six playoff positions in each conference are still highly contested.
The Eastern Conference, our future home, is a big jumble. There is only one match separating #2 Nashville and #3 Philadelphia, only one match separating the Union and #4 Orlando City, and then a whopping four teams within a match of Orlando. At the moment, the fourth (Atlanta United) being narrowly cut out of the playoffs. Atlanta is in form, though, and could easily get back in. New York Red Bulls and defending champions Columbus Crew are still in the frame as well.
The Western Conference has a bit more definition. At the top, at least. A group of three have separated themselves in #2-4 for first-round home advantage (Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Portland Timbers). However, for the final three playoff slots, it’s shaping up for a mad scramble between SIX teams still in contention. One of which is Chicharito’s LA Galaxy, who started the season on fire but have since plummeted. Other teams that face a grind to get in include expected heavyweights Minnesota United, and LAFC, both of which started slow and never quite hit their stride (partially due to injuries). Both are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs if they don’t turn it on now.
#3: What to Watch This Weekend
Eastern Conference: New York City FC @ New York Red Bulls (Sunday 1pm on ESPN)
With a massive Hudson River Derby win, NYRB would draw level with their bitter rivals on 40 points, perhaps getting back above the playoff line. For NYCFC, their eyes are further up the table. With a win, they could push upwards into the top four (home playoff match).
Western Conference: San Jose Earthquakes @ LAFC (Saturday 3:30pm on Univision & MLS Twitter)
These California rivals are both two matches below the line. They both need to start winning streaks ASAP if they want to make a run back up the table. A draw helps no one here, so this should be an entertaining match with both teams desperate for all three points.
#4: Mark Your Calendars: Decision Day is November 7!
For the uninitiated, Decision Day is essentially Major League Soccer’s annual Season Finale. All the teams in each conference kick off their final match of the season at the same time. With everything unfolding simultaneously, it’s an exhilarating experience for fans. Each goal that comes in shuffles the playoff places on the live table.
This year’s edition will take place on Sunday, November 7. All Eastern Conference matches will kick at 3:30pm, with the Western Conference at 6pm.
#5: Will the Golden Boot still be up for grabs?
Most seasons, it’s already clear who will be the top scorer by Decision Day. That’s not the case in 2021, though!
With a healthy helping of penalties, journeyman DC United striker Ola Kamara currently leads with 17 goals. However, deadly Seattle poacher Raúl Ruidíaz and breakout Kansas City winger Daniel Sallói are right behind Kamara with 16 apiece.
Six different players have 13 goals and could leap right into the conversation with a timely hat trick. One of those is teenage sensation Ricardo Pepi, who returns to FC Dallas in form after a brace for the USMNT in World Cup Qualifying. I can’t remember a tighter Golden Boot race in my time as an MLS fan. Keep an eye on who’s scoring the goals for these teams in the remaining matches. The prize that all strikers covet could add another interesting wrinkle to Decision Day this season!