Supporters' Shield race and LA Galaxy playoff quest among biggest Decision Day storylines
All 11 Major League Soccer regular-season finales will kick off at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, fates rising and falling simultaneously in stadiums throughout the country. Much is at stake, from playoff seeding to qualification itself. Which scorelines should you be most cognizant of? Read on and find out.
Supporters' Shield scuffle comes down to the final day
When MLS scheduled Atlanta United to play Toronto FC on Week 34, it clearly had visions of the regular-season title coming down to 90 tense minutes at BMO Field. That's still technically true, just not in the way the league probably intended.
Toronto, the first MLS franchise to win three major trophies in one year in 2017, has been eliminated for weeks. Even with a victory on Sunday, the Reds cannot finish within single digits of the postseason places. They still can, however, play the role of spoiler.
Atlanta enters the weekend in the top spot but must win in order to secure the first silverware in club history. Anything less, and the New York Red Bulls can leapfrog them and claim their third Shield in six seasons.
A pair of goal-scoring records can be set
Atlanta forward Josef Martinez broke the single-season goals record with his 28th of the year back in August. He's cooled off since and is still sitting on 30, but don't bet against him further raising the bar for future forwards against TFC.
San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, meanwhile, is one shy of Landon Donovan's career scoring record of 145 MLS goals heading into Sunday's visit to Seattle. (This scenario would be more dramatic if it weren't already reported that the 35-year-old is planning to return in 2019.)
Given how Wondolowski has tortured the Sounders throughout the years, don't be surprised if everybody's favorite former U.S. national team forward throws a wrench into the Western Conference seeding scenarios.
Salt Lake must watch from the sidelines
Due to MLS' unbalanced 23-team setup -- Cincinnati will make it an even 24 next year -- one squad was forced to finish their season early and sit out the final weekend. Turns out that it's one of the few teams whose playoff life is still on the line. Oops!
After losing at Portland last Sunday, Real Salt Lake can only watch from afar and hope its sixth-place standing holds up. That is unlikely: The LA Galaxy, having charged up the backstretch, need a win at home against playing-only-for-pride Houston to bounce RSL out of the bracket.
Why is anything short of a win unlikely? The Dynamo have won away from home just once all season.
The other do-or-die scenario is in the East. Having imperiled itself with a very bad loss to Orlando last weekend, Columbus must defeat Minnesota to ensure qualification. Anything less, and Montreal can vault its way in with a victory at New England.
The West is wide open
Five teams could still technically earn first-round byes straight into the Western Conference semifinals.
Sporting Kansas City and LAFC currently occupy those two slots, but they'll face each other at Children's Mercy Park. FC Dallas is in third and controls its own destiny but has struggled lately. Seattle, seemingly peaking at the right time for a third consecutive season, is lurking should FCD slip up in Colorado, and Portland will cross its fingers for a whole lot of help.
Handicapping playoff favorites is almost as complicated as running through all of these scenarios. Sporting KC has been the most complete team all year, but given their recent postseason success, this is probably the Sounders' MLS Cup final berth to lose.
Who can build, or maintain, positive momentum?
There is very little turnaround for the eight teams that will face off in the one-game knockout round this coming Wednesday and Thursday. That tight turnaround might seem harsh -- especially with the conference semifinals kicking off a week from Sunday -- but that's by design, in order to increase the value of the first-round byes and the regular season as a whole.
As such, for the 3-through-6 seeds, Sunday is something of a first act, in which any positive or lingering vibes can carry over into the middle of the week. All-important home-field advantage can also be won and lost.
Fate is fickle this time of year. One blunder, and eight months of good work can be undone in an instant. That's part of what makes the postseason so fun, and in many ways, that dynamic begins on Decision Day.