Major League Soccer calls its final date of the regular season Decision Day, with two capital Ds, which seems a bit presumptuous this year given that it falls on a weekend in which the presidential election was being decided.
It’s also a bit of a misnomer since most of the major decisions have already been made. When the league’s 26 teams kick off Sunday, just two of 18 playoff berths, both in the Eastern Conference, will still be undecided.
Both Southern California teams already know their postseason fate: After its final regular-season home game with the Portland Timbers, LAFC will begin preparing to start the playoffs on the road, while the Galaxy, after their road match with the barnstorming Vancouver Whitecaps in Portland, can begin preparing for next year.
The top four teams in each conference will open the playoffs at home in two weeks and after a loss Wednesday at San Jose, LAFC (9-8-4) has no way to get there since the two teams directly ahead of it — Minnesota United (8-5-7) and FC Dallas (9-5-7) — play each other Sunday.
That’s significant for LAFC, which has won six of eight games at Banc of California but is 1-6-1 on the road since MLS restarted the season in home markets in August. Across the league, road teams are 59-108-50 since the MLS reboot even though most games have been played in empty stadiums.
“Hard to believe but here we are, last regular-season game. Everything about this season is complicated, no doubt about that,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said.
It’s been complicated by a four-month pause caused by COVID-19 that limited the schedule to 23 games, fewest in league history. And many teams didn’t play even that many. With more than a half-dozen games canceled by the kind of coronavirus outbreak that currently has three LAFC players in isolation, just four Western Conference teams will finish 23 games, while the Colorado Rapids will have played only 18.
As a result, qualification and seeding for the playoffs will be determined by points-per-game instead of regular-season records. And with the math leaving a home-field advantage out of reach for his team, Bradley will be focusing on other goals Sunday.
“I’d like to finish the season on a really good note,” he said after training Saturday.
“We want to use the game to sharpen our team. We want to use the game to have guys ready for the playoffs. So there’s different factors to weigh. But as always, I’d like to see our team step on the field with the right mentality, play some really good football and get a great result.”
Bradley said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye and goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega, who have been sidelined with injuries, will be available but won’t start against Portland. Reigning most valuable player Carlos Vela, who hasn’t played more than a half in the last 2½ months because of a knee injury, is ready for additional minutes but isn’t fit enough to play a full game.
LAFC, sixth in the 12-team Western Conference, can move up one spot with a win, provided Minnesota does no better than a draw against Dallas. But it could also fall as many as two spots with a loss.
The scenarios facing the Galaxy (6-11-4) are equally as complicated. Although the team won’t make the playoffs, a win over the Whitecaps (8-14-0) would leave it ninth in the standings while a loss could drop it into last place for the second time in four seasons.
In their first 21 seasons, the Galaxy never finished last.
“Obviously the record is the most disappointing thing,” said interim coach Dominic Kinnear, who has a win and a draw since replacing Guillermo Barros Schelotto 10 days ago. “I didn’t think this was a team that would be out of the playoffs coming into the last game of the season.
“Any time there’s a coaching change it’s because the record is in the wrong spot. At times we were sitting in the bottom of the Western Conference. That for me was very surprising. Disappointing and surprising.”
Eight playoff spots have been reserved in the 14-team Eastern Conference, with five teams battling for the final two places in the largest-ever MLS playoff field. Montreal and Chicago could both clinch with wins; anything short of that would leave the door open for Atlanta United, Inter Miami and D.C. United.
What’s at stake
Postseason seeding: All eight Western Conference playoff invitations have been handed out. One went to LAFC, which can go into those playoffs seeded anywhere from fifth to eighth, depending on Sunday’s results. For the Galaxy, a loss to Vancouver in Portland could drop the team into the cellar for the second time in four years. In the Eastern Conference, five teams — Chicago, Montreal, D.C. United, Atlanta United and Inter Miami — are battling for the final two playoff berths.
Scoring race: LAFC’s Diego Rossi goes into the final game leading the league with 14 goals, three better than Columbus’ Gyasi Zardes, Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz and Chicago’s Robert Beric. LAFC’s Carlos Vela was the MLS scoring leader last season and if Rossi wins this year it would be the first time players from the same team led MLS in goals in consecutive seasons.
First-class coach: Dominic Kinnear, the Galaxy’s interim manager, enters Sunday with 170 career wins, tied with LAFC’s Bob Bradley for third place on the career leaderboard. More important, he is 4-2-2 in two stints as the team’s interim manager. Another win Sunday could improve his chances of getting the job permanently.
Top of the class: Toronto and Philadelphia go into their final games with 13-4-5 records and equal shots at both the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If Philadelphia wins the Shield, it would be the franchise’s first MLS trophy.