Decision Day arrives this Saturday, and MLSsoccer.com’s esteemed National Writer, Charles Boehm, has already primed us with the five biggest storylines to track.
But with 14 games kicking off across two start times (6 pm ET for the Eastern Conference, 9 pm ET for the Western Conference) there’s no way all that drama – Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs tickets punched, seedings solidified and seasons ended – could be fully outlined in just five storylines. So, consider this the “overflow parking” of Decision Day content.
Here are five key under-the-radar storylines heading into the final day of the MLS regular season.
The New York Red Bulls hold the longest active MLS playoff streak with 13 consecutive postseasons reached.
As it turns out, that’s tied for the longest playoff streak in MLS history with the mark Seattle Sounders FC set from 2009-21. For good measure, 13 straight playoff appearances is also the longest active streak in any major American men’s sports league. (Including the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL; the Los Angeles Dodgers hold the next-best streak at 11.)
All that’s to say, there’s a lot more than just a potential Eastern Conference Wild Card spot on the line when 10th-place Red Bulls travel to GEODIS Park to face Nashville SC – there’s history. If Troy Lesesne’s side can eek over the playoff line, they’ll stand alone atop MLS’ all-time list. For players like John Tolkin, who are sick of hearing about how the Red Bulls' frenetic-pressing, quick-attacking style of play lacks a certain stylistic quality, achieving that distinction would be an achievement that no aesthetic purist could take away.
In fact, if RBNY make the playoffs and 13th-place NYCFC (seven-straight postseasons reached) don’t, then the next-longest streak after Red Bulls will belong to the Philadelphia Union, who earned their sixth-straight bid this season. That means New York could set a record on Saturday that would take the better part of a decade, at the very shortest, to break.
Expect an already-fiery RBNY side to play with more fight than ever as they aim to protect their well-earned run on Saturday.
All St. Louis CITY SC need is a tie against the Sounders on Saturday to equal LAFC’s record for most points earned by an MLS club in their expansion season (57). With a win, they’ll hold the distinction all to themselves.
Possibly more remarkable than that, though, is the way CITY SC have gotten to this point.
When LAFC entered the league in 2018, they spent big to bring in Mexico national team star Carlos Vela (while he was still in his prime) as well as rising Uruguay sensation Diego Rossi. And yes, 57 points and a third-place finish in the Western Conference exceeded expectations, but it’s not like LAFC, with their superstar ownership group (Magic Johnson and Will Ferrell to name a few) and their impressive roster, came out of nowhere.
St. Louis, more or less, did. In MLSsoccer.com’s preseason preview, all 13 experts picked the expansion club to finish in the bottom two of the Western Conference. In fairness, according to the MLS Players Association salary data, STL entered the season with the second-lowest payroll in the league. By that same reporting, they also weren't spending huge on Designated Players.
Big spending doesn’t always guarantee success in MLS, but, as with any pro sports league, there’s usually some level of correlation. But thanks to a mix of sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel’s deep scouting network, head coach Bradley Carnell’s tried-and-true (and Red Bulls-inspired) style of play, and a long preparation runway (St. Louis signed several of their players in 2022 and had them play in MLS NEXT Pro last season), the Midwest club seem to have cracked the ultimate “money ball” code.
Breaking the expansion club points record on Saturday would only further cement the merits of their unique approach.
Once upon a time in MLS (from 1996-2022 to be exact), Sporting Kansas City arguably didn’t have a natural neighboring club in MLS to beef with. Then St. Louis entered the league, started talking a lot of trash about how they were the true “Soccer Capital of America” (despite Kansas City’s longtime use of the moniker), and doing other generally combative things like beating SKC by an aggregate score of 8-1 in two matches at CITYPARK this year.
Before all that, a different sort of rivalry brewed in the Midwest – one defined by a regional tendency towards politeness and social decorum. “The Nicest Rivalry in Sports” – so named by supporters’ groups from Minnesota United FC and SKC – used to be a marquee event for both clubs, especially Minnesota, who, back in their NASL days, would circle US Open Cup matches against SKC as a chance to upset a team in the league above them. SKC didn’t take kindly to Minnesota’s rough-and-tumble approach to those early matchups, and, contrary to the rivalry's name, fists were sometimes thrown.
Historically, SKC have dominated the rivalry, both before and after MNUFC joined MLS. But in 2020, the Loons turned the tables, knocking SKC out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Now, 2023’s Decision Day provides the perfect recipe for this “nice” rivalry to turn sour again. With SKC in 10th and MNUFC in 11th in the Western Conference, both teams need a win (and some help) at Children's Mercy Park to have any hope of jumping above the playoff line. A draw means mutually assured destruction, so expect both clubs to throw the kitchen sink at each other as they fight to keep their seasons alive.
This time last year, Wilfried Nancy was leading CF Montréal into the playoffs with their best-ever points total. A longtime fixture at the Canadian club, Nancy cut his teeth in the first half of the 2010s coaching their youth academy sides. Then he spent several more years as a first-team assistant, before taking over the head-coaching reigns from Thierry Henry in 2021.
Following 2022’s success, the French-born head coach looked set to break the churn that’s defined MTL’s head coaching position over the club’s MLS tenure (nine coaches in 12 seasons). A clearly talented tactician with a deep connection to both the city and the club’s culture, everything was lined up for Nancy to become a club-legend type manager.
But Columbus Crew president/GM Tim Bezbatchenko had other ideas. After Columbus parted ways with Caleb Porter immediately following the 2022 season, Bezbatchenko had a coaching vacancy to fill, and the Ohioans were willing to compensate Montréal to get Nancy out of his contract and over to Columbus. For his part, Nancy, an avid traveler with a thirst for new cultures and ideas, was ready for something new.
Fast forward to present day and Nancy is excelling in Columbus, having quickly installed his free-flowing, attack-minded soccer philosophy onto the Crew. His side sit fourth in the Eastern Conference with the most goals scored in the league. Montréal, meanwhile, hold a Wild Card spot but need a win on Saturday to guarantee their place in the playoffs (other permutations require help).
In fairness to new MTL head coach Hernán Losada, Nancy was not the club’s only major departure of the offseason. They also transferred out/traded many of their top players, so guiding a new-look roster (one of the youngest in the league) to the postseason would be no small feat.
Still, missing out on the playoffs at the hands of Nancy would likely sting for the Montréal fans. And with Columbus needing points themselves to secure home-field advantage in Round One, the Crew should present a stiff challenge.
Nearly half of the players from this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR (a list of the top 22 players in the league under the age of 22 as selected by an expert panel of MLS staff and MLS Season Pass talent) are on clubs on the playoff bubble heading into Decision Day:
- Alan Velasco (FC Dallas)
- Brian Gutiérrez (Chicago Fire FC)
- John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)
- Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Talles Magno (NYCFC)
- Juan Mosquera (Portland Timbers)
- Chris Brady (Chicago Fire FC)
- Bernard Kamungo (FC Dallas)
- Daniel Edelman (New York Red Bulls)
Most of these players are written-in-ink starters for their clubs, and those who aren’t are more than capable of taking games over from the bench. For the budding stars, Decision Day represents a chance to etch their names into history with moments that could define their club’s 2023 campaign. In turn, they’ll have the opportunity to earn the type of “clutch performer” reputation that looks good to national team coaches and sporting directors (both at home and abroad).
With so many simultaneous games happening, box-score watching is already a must, so it’s worth paying extra close attention to the names above. There’s a solid chance you’ll be tracking the global talents (like Alphonso Davies, Miguel Almiron and Tyler Adams, to a name few) of tomorrow.