Any fan of prestige TV knows it’s usually the penultimate episode of a season when stuff really hits the fan. Just a few of many examples: “Chiantishire” (Succession), “What’s for Dinner” (Severance), “Long Term Parking” (The Sopranos), “Middle Ground” (The Wire), “Mom City” (Ted Lasso), and, perhaps most infamously, “The Rains of Castamere” (Game of Thrones).
Season finales may get the headlines, but it’s often the episodes prior that reveal the most about the main characters, setting the stage for their inescapable fate.
That’s pretty much where we’re at in the 2023 MLS season. Save a few makeup games, Matchdays 35 & 36 – which comprise the final double-game week of the season – are the last chance most teams have before Decision Day (aka the regular-season finale on Oct. 21) to show what they’re made of.
Let’s take a look at which clubs with “main character energy” (winning histories, major expectations, star players, big-name coaches, etc.) have the most to prove.
It’s fair to wonder if the clock is ticking towards midnight on Inter Miami’s rags-to-riches season. We all know Lionel Messi and friends are under contract for more years to come, so, ultimately, their place among MLS royalty for the foreseeable future is locked down. But Tata Martino’s side might be hitting that awkward phase in the Cinderella arc where the hero only has one glass slipper and her sick whip has turned back into a literal pumpkin.
That’s because Messi remains “game-to-game” as he deals with a muscle injury, and the Herons have been far less dominant without him, going 1W-1L-2D in all post-Leagues Cup matches the star No. 10 didn’t suit up for.
Currently 13th in the Eastern Conference and four points back of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line (albeit with a game in hand), Miami need to be near-perfect to make the leap into the postseason. If they don’t get results away at Chicago Fire FC and home against FC Cincinnati this week, their story (for this season anyway) may be a wrap.
Like Inter Miami, the LA Galaxy have been flirting with “will they, won’t they” energy in terms of making a late-season push towards the playoffs for at least 10-plus games now.
In fact, since the start of June, the Galaxy have only lost two regular-season games. That's right: The same LA team who've been in 13th place in the Western Conference pretty much all year have also been one of the hardest teams to beat for a majority of the season. That’s what starting things off with a 2W-9L-3D record will do for you.
A game in hand, plus two matches against teams directly in their way for a playoff spot, means it's possible for Greg Vanney’s team to pull off the miraculous. But first, they’ll need to stop giving up three goals a game (their literal average over the last five matches) – especially because star playmaker Riqui Puig is dealing with an ankle injury that may derail his own personal redemption arc that’s so far included:
- Declaring MLS Cup and Landon Donovan MLS MVP as reachable goals for the year.
- After a slow start, catching fire at the start of July to the tune of 7g/5a in 13 matches across all competitions.
This one is all about Wayne Rooney, D.C. United’s megastar coach. Before Messi, he was one of the most decorated players to ever wear an MLS uniform.
From 2018-19, Rooney played a season-and-a-half for the Black-and-Red, amounting to two straight Round One playoff exits. Midway through 2022, Rooney returned to the nation’s capital as the team's head coach – but if he doesn't remain for 2024 (and potentially beyond), Decision Day could mark the end of yet another year-and-a-half long stay in D.C.
If – and that’s a big if – 2023 is the English legend’s last year in charge, he still has a chance to go out on a high by returning the club to the postseason for the first time since he was a player. Mind you: they were also Wooden Spoon "winners" last year.
But with D.C. being the only team without a Decision Day fixture, these next two matches will be Rooney's last shot to lift his side from 10th place to a Wild Card spot (eighth or ninth place).
Dallas have two of the brightest young stars in the league:
- Jesús Ferreira, last year’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR winner with 30g/10a over the last two seasons.
- Alan Velasco, an Argentine youth international who maybe hasn't quite reached expectations this season, but has still shown moments of brilliance.
Despite their young attacking talent, FCD are still hovering in the Western Conference’s ninth-and-final playoff spot. And perhaps more disappointing is the fact they’ve scored the second-fewest goals in their conference (35).
Prospects like Ferreira and Velasco tend not to stick around forever, nor do they grow on trees (even if Dallas' ultra-successful youth academy does its best to prove otherwise). At some point, the fans in Frisco deserve to see all that youth development turn into meaningful postseason success, and if FCD don't get positive results this week, they could still miss out on this year’s playoffs altogether.
These two clubs get lumped together because it’s more or less the same story for both. Last year’s MLS Cup finalists entered 2023 with heavy expectations to repeat their success.
This season, both were picked to finish first or second in their conference by a majority of pundits. Both went on deep runs in continental competitions (Concacaf Champions Cup and Leagues Cup). And both appear to be running out of gas at the tail end of the season.
Neither are going to miss the playoffs (though LAFC have not formally clinched yet), but the duo sits in fourth place in their respective conferences. One or two more losses could easily see them lose home-field advantage in Round One and beyond.
That may not sound like a big deal, but the current MLS playoff format means any lower-seeded team must win a road match in order to advance to the next round. Considering away games are notoriously difficult in this league – and that these two teams have one win to share in their last 10 combined matches – it's clear their conference-title repeat odds look iffy without a top-four finish.