Decision Day! We sure do like to have a good time around here, don’t we?
Well, it wasn’t fun for everyone. Quite a few around MLS tasted the bitter tang of defeat on the regular season’s last night, and in one case – that of New York City FC at Citi Field – did so in the bigger picture of Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs qualification despite winning on the evening.
But it was oh-so-sweet for those who did get the job done, and/or had overall results break in their favor, to book their place in the postseason. Let’s take a quick spin across the continent to review the head-turning proceedings and big talking points from DD ‘23.
For most of the 66,101 souls at Bank of America Stadium, it was the best of both worlds. They got to catch a glimpse of the GOAT – yep, Leo Messi did indeed play for Inter Miami, and played the full 90 (on turf) just a couple of days after returning from Argentina national team duty – while also witnessing the home team win, and thereby book their first-ever playoffs berth.
But my oh my, how very, very different it all would have been if not for Kristijan Kahlina.
The Croatian goalkeeper made three saves on the night, one of them at the last possible instant on a deflected Messi free kick, all of them exemplary, all of them made in the second half as The Crown defended, at times desperately, the slender advantage provided by Kerwin Vargas’ early strike.
If you prefer a data-oriented perspective, take note of Kahlina’s expected goals against number of 1.2, which in essence means that his shot-stopping wiped a goal off the board in a 1-0 game. Pretty clutch!
Look, there’s no point in avoiding the fundamental reality that the New York Red Bulls are not one of the league’s most beloved or romantic clubs.
Some people don’t like how they’re operated by and named after an energy drink company. Others, how they turn the “PRESSING” dial up to 11 every single weekend in their efforts to make every game look like a human demolition derby. We imagine for some, the simple fact they’re from northern New Jersey (Dirty Jerz to the initiated) is enough to flash them the gas face.
John Tolkin knows all that, and more or less loves it, and that alone is probably enough to make him a club legend at age 21. Earlier in the week, the proud homegrown made sure to point out how many of his colleagues at the US Under-23 national team camp had expressed to him their distaste for RBNY’s tactical identity. He responded by pointing to the club’s 13-year streak of postseason qualification, which only one team in MLS history, the Seattle Sounders, can match.
And now the Red Bulls are headed to the playoffs for a record 14th consecutive season thanks to Tolkin’s ice-cold, injury-time, game-winning penalty kick in Nashville. Lots of players and teams try to play the “no one believed in us” card, but Tolkin and his RBNY teammates can truly claim it.
Among the audience watching Tolkin step up to that spot kick were the coaches and players of CF Montréal. As they have all season, Hernán Losada & Co. fought valiantly in their visit to the Columbus Crew, led by former CFM head coach Wilfried Nancy, but despite scoring first, couldn’t dig out the win they needed to keep hold of their own destiny in the playoff race.
So after the final whistle of their 2-1 loss, les Quebecois flocked to whatever screen they could find at Lower.com Field and watched on in fervent hope that Nashville SC would see out their sixth 0-0 draw of the regular season...
If Tolkin doesn’t convert that PK, then Montréal stay above the playoff line, tied with RBNY and NYCFC on points but through on the first tiebreaker: wins. Instead, another long, cold winter of reflection, and perhaps some rebuilding, awaits in the City of Saints.
Any away day, even to a bottom dweller, can turn into a banana peel situation with breathtaking speed in MLS. The margins are just too tight in this parity-driven competition.
So when FC Dallas flubbed their lines last weekend and dropped two points at home in a rescheduled match vs. the cellar-dwelling Colorado Rapids, thus setting up a de facto must-win situation in their Decision Day visit to the LA Galaxy in order to reach the postseason, this columnist got a strong suspicion the North Texans had tempted fate just a bit too carelessly.
Home-field advantage is enduringly, statistically powerful in MLS, even for teams in the nothing-to-play-for position of the Galaxy. And yet there was Bernard Kamungo, age 21, already a hero in life for rising from a Tanzanian refugee camp to dusty Abilene to a professional soccer contract with FCD after catching the club’s eye in an open tryout, and this weekend arriving straight from a camp with the US Under-23 national team… just in time to play the hero:
Here I’ll just pass the mic to Buzz Carrick of 3rdDegree.net, who’s been covering FCD and its past avatar the Burn for longer than Kamungo’s been alive:
“Yes, two goals, that of course is awesome, it makes it easy to pick him. But it's more about the mentality – like, [Kamungo] got off of a plane the day before, after not being with the club for two weeks, flies out there and starts, and he brings it from the first minute. His intensity was infectious, his runs were infectious. And he just shows up in big moments again and again and again, and he did it with a brace. What more could you want from a kid? What a bright future he's got.”
OK, now keep in mind that home-field advantage stuff I just wrote as we pivot to the highly impressive Ws the Sounders and Dynamo bagged on trips to two very difficult places to play, in the process underlining just why they’re both looking like fearsome propositions in the race for MLS Cup.
Seattle entered the noisy, magenta-splashed environs of CITYPARK, home of St. Louis CITY SC, and stunned the Western Conference regular-season champs 2-0, limiting STL to 0.7 expected goals as they nipped ahead of LAFC to capture second place – and they did all this with attacking icons Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro starting on the bench.
Watch out for the Rave Green, they know how to win tournaments… whereas CITY SC, as magical as their debut season has been, can’t help but lack that sort of collective pedigree.
Meanwhile, back in Cascadia, after an admirable late-summer rally in the wake of longtime head coach Gio Savarese’s dismissal, Seattle’s ancient rivals the Portland Timbers really just needed a draw against Houston at noisy Providence Park in order to make the playoffs.
History shows the MLS playoffs are all about momentum, and the Sounders and Dynamo have tons of that as the business end of the season arrives. Conversely, Saturday’s loss was a stinging setback for the Timbers, who seemed to have everything falling into place for them but may now see 2023 in a different light as they decide whether interim boss Miles Joseph has earned the job on a permanent basis.
Portland has for more than a decade been one of MLS’s most special, deeply atmospheric venues. Even for the neutral, it was sobering to see PTFC faceplant in a big moment on that hallowed turf.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have already had a good season, winning the Canadian Championship and reaching the playoffs for just the second time since 2017, earning head coach Vanni Sartini a contract extension as the strike partnership of Ryan Gauld and Brian White thrived.
Yet they may carry a seed of doubt into the playoffs, where they will meet LAFC for the fifth, sixth and perhaps seventh times in 2023 after drawing 1-1 with the Black & Gold at BC Place on Saturday. That’s because Gauld, who has been utterly clutch for VWFC all season, failed to convert not one but two penalty kicks on the night.
His former teammate Maxime Crépeau saved the first, going full stretch to parry the spot kick away from the bottom corner, then indulged in a spot of mind games that may or may not have influenced Gauld as he cracked his pen off the woodwork to deny the 'Caps a notable home win against the defending league champs.
The onus now falls on Gauld to prove these are minor blips on the radar screen.
That would be the “Nicest Rivalry In Sports” we’re alluding to. The relationship between Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United FC crystallizes the very essence of Upper Midwest hospitality, two proud clubs who love beating each other, even if the polite thing to do is not rub the other side’s face in it when it happens.
As fate would have it, the Loons’ Decision Day visit to SKC’s Children’s Mercy Park was a zero-sum game, a must-win for both sides if they were to snatch one of the West’s playoff spots. Various qualification scenarios provided no incentive for either side to play for what would’ve ultimately been a useless draw.
So they both went for it, and Sporting won 3-1, driven onwards by the attacking excellence and willpower of Scottish winger Johnny Russell, while his teammates limited MNUFC to just 0.3 xG. And so a Kansas City squad who went winless in their first 10 league games nevertheless charted a path into the playoffs, vindicating the persistence of manager and sporting director Peter Vermes, who a substantial sector of the SKC fanbase had demanded be ousted after the woeful start to this campaign.
So SKC fly on, and the Loons fly home, missing out on the postseason and facing what could be a raft of major changes, with a permanent successor to recently-dimissed coach Adrian Heath expected this winter. That momentum thing we mentioned earlier? It’s a potent force for Vermes & Co. to ride.