MLS playoff preview: Can Toronto FC do the double? Who wins the West?
It took every single second of the MLS regular season to decide who will take part in the playoffs, with Marco Urena's stoppage-time winner allowing the San Jose Earthquakes to beat Minnesota United 3-2 and edge out FC Dallas for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Now it's a case of 374 MLS regular season games down and 17 postseason games to go until the MLS Cup champion is decided. MLS can only hope the drama that characterized Decision Day will be replicated from here until Dec. 9.
Can Toronto FC do the double?
The MLS playoffs do very little to reward regular-season dominance. The two-leg format in the conference semifinals and finals pretty much wipes out any advantage given to the higher seed and results in a steady diet of upsets. The Supporters Shield winners have been especially susceptible. You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time a Supporters Shield winner went on to claim MLS Cup, when the LA Galaxy did the deed.
Now the onus is on Toronto FC, which is coming off the most dominant season in MLS history with a league-record 69 points. With an absurdly deep roster as well as a varied attack, TFC seemingly has the antidote to avoiding the upset bug. But the MLS Cup playoffs have historically come up with all sorts of obstacles to trip up the presumed favorite, whether it be an untimely injury, a controversial sending off or a hot opposing striker. That said, Toronto look every bit the side that will be hosting the MLS Cup final for the second year running.
Wide open in the west
Decision Day provided a bit more clarity to the Western Conference. The Portland Timbers edged out Cascadia rivals the Seattle Sounders for first place, with the remaining four spots going to the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose. Yet the west still finished as a jumbled mess, with just four points separating first from fifth. Any of the six teams could represent the Western Conference in the MLS Cup final and for those quick to dismiss the sixth-seeded Quakes, they owe their place in the postseason to a recent 2-1 victory over the top-seeded Timbers.
That said, recent years have revealed that form down the stretch is a reasonable predictor of postseason success, at least as it relates to the eventual MLS Cup champion. Both the Timbers in 2015 and the Sounders last year finished the season strong on their way to an MLS Cup title. In 2017, Portland went 8-3-2 down the stretch, Seattle lost just two of its last 18 games and Houston caught fire in the last six weeks. Vancouver, Kansas City and San Jose were more inconsistent. Still, predicting who will emerge seems a fool's errand.
Can the Crew maintain focus?
Entering the postseason, there is probably no hotter team in the league than Columbus. Unbeaten in their last 10 matches, the Crew surged to claim the fifth seed in the east. But the vibe surrounding the team has been shaken by the news that owner Anthony Precourt is exploring the possibility of moving the team to Austin, Texas -- the kind of distraction that has the potential to scuttle any hopes of making a deep playoff run.
The Crew did manage to secure a 2-2 road draw against New York City FC on Sunday, which speaks well of the team's ability to focus on the task at hand. Now Columbus is faced with a daunting road assignment in Atlanta to start the playoffs. If the Crew can survive, it will open the conference semifinals at home and with an atmosphere that will no doubt be highly charged.
Atlanta's maiden postseason voyage
Atlanta United's spectacular inaugural season ended with a record for average attendance, and a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, making the Five Stripes just the second expansion side since the start of the millennium to reach the postseason.
It's as fun a team to watch as any in the league and now Atlanta will get the chance to play its first playoff match against Columbus in front of what is expected to be a raucous crowd. That said, Atlanta scuffled a bit in the regular season's final weeks, and playing at home in the postseason is no guarantee of success. Just ask Toronto, last year's beaten finalist.
Which absence will cut the deepest? Who will step up?
Injuries and suspensions are always a concern during the postseason and 2017 is no different. Seattle will be forced to begin the playoffs without forward Clint Dempsey after he was sent off for an elbow to the head of Mike da Fonte in Sunday's 3-0 win over Colorado. Dempsey will miss the first game of the conference semifinals, and was riding the edge of receiving supplemental discipline when he failed to leave the field right away. It's by no means an ideal scenario for the Sounders.
In Houston, A.J. DeLaGarza's knee injury doesn't look good. Losing his consistency and quiet leadership would be a big blow for the Dynamo. The same could be true for Michael Parkhurst in Atlanta though according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Parkhurst said the injured knee that forced him to leave Sunday's 2-2 draw against Toronto shouldn't keep him out of this week's match.
Then there are players like Chicago's Bastian Schweinsteiger and Portland's Fanendo Adi who have been sidelined for weeks. A return by either player would boost their respective teams' playoff hopes.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.