It's almost unfair to lay the brunt of Decision Day pressure for a club's Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs chances on one man's shoulders. But nobody said life was fair, so that's precisely what we're here to do today.
There will be three playoff spots still up for grabs in each conference, with six teams playing that brand of musical chairs in the Eastern Conference and five left in the running out West.
Which player on your favorite team (or most-despised rival) will be most on the spot come Sunday? So glad you asked because we have some firm answers to that question in standings order – starting with the East’s teams (3:30 pm ET kickoffs) and then heading West (6 pm ET kickoffs).
After watching from home for the first time in 2020, Atlanta United sit in fifth place and travel to FC Cincinnati. The surest way to beat them is to shut them out – and the man most responsible for pointing their attack in the right direction is Marcelino Moreno, who has blossomed in his second MLS go-around.
Moreno tops the team in passed completed into the final third and passes completed into the opponent's box, and stands second to Brooks Lennon in key passes. If they score a goal, it probably went through him at some point. And that's all I have to say about that.
Orlando City need a result at CF Montréal this weekend to get 'er done. Here's a fun fact about the Lions: they are undefeated (9-0-10) when allowing one goal or less this season.
When things are going right for this club, they play excellent defense as a team. But I can't pick everyone, so I'll go with their backline ringleader. Antonio Carlos can make every kind of stop you'd want a defender to make, and he will spend a good amount of time coming face-to-face with main Montréal chance creator Djordje Mihailovic.
Cristian Casseres Jr. and Sean Davis
One 7W-1L-3D run later, the New York Red Bulls are on the precipice of their 12th straight postseason berth. Grabbing a point at Nashville SC is far easier said than done, and much of that difficulty lies in dealing with a midfield that ticks every box.
That's why I'm pulling out the cheat pick card to tab the ground-covering duo Cristian Casseres Jr. and Sean Davis. They dip their toes in just about everything the Red Bulls do and try to stop the other team from doing. To avoid losing in Music City, the Venezuelan international and club captain are going to need to exercise control in central areas.
I probably already spoiled this one, but it really is exceedingly simple. CF Montréal either defeat Sunday guests Orlando City or it's "there's always next year" time again at Stade Saputo. And seeing how this club managed but two victories in the 20 games that saw them score one goal or less, the onus falls on Djordje Mihailovic.
The 22-year-old bloomed in 2021, arriving from Chicago via trade and supplying 15 assists thus far. When he logs two or more key passes, they're 10-4-5 (a 65.8% win percentage). When he's failed to hit that quota, the team has stumbled to a 2-7-5 record (32.1% win percentage). It's a very important benchmark is what I'm getting at.
D.C. United don't control their own destiny this weekend, but one thing's for sure: they either win at Toronto FC or miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in a decade. It can be tough to pin down the success formula for this edge-living, roller-coaster side, but one thing's for sure: If they conceded two or more goals to one of the weakest attacks in MLS this season, their goose is almost certainly cooked. (Against clubs not named FC Cincinnati, D.C. United have won just one of the 14 games in which they leaked multiple goals).
Complicating matters is the fact that Frederic Brilliant is out for Decision Day, and that absence compounds the pressure on Steve Birnbaum to put in a spotless effort.
The defending champs are still in the race, but they need a win over Chicago, a lot of help elsewhere and quite possibly a good goal differential swing. Chances are, that means they'll need to score some goals on Sunday. The Columbus Crew have netted at least three times on five occasions in 2021, and three of those productive outings have come in their last five matches.
As one might expect, each of those five games featured playmaker Lucas Zelarayan going off. He scored in four of those five games, racking up five tallies and two helpers from 19 key passes. In other words, look out above if he shows up in MLS Cup MVP form this weekend.
The Loons can ensure a third straight playoff appearance with a draw. And like Atlanta United, they don't need a ton of offense to be successful. After all, this is a club with five 1-0 wins and four 1-all draws on the season. Chances are, even a lone goal away to the LA Galaxy on Sunday will be sufficient to confirm a postseason invite.
As Minnesota United have very much been a goals-by committee side this year, you probably know where this is going. Emanuel Reynoso has twice as many shot-creating actions per game as his nearest teammate and stands second in MLS in key passes. As long as he isn't completely stifled, this team has a very good chance of notching a happy result this weekend.
Let's start by noting that Vancouver Whitecaps FC haven't beaten Decision Day foe Seattle since the spring of 2017. During this 0-9-5 "run" Vancouver have been shut out eight times and have scored multiple goals just once (1 2-2 draw back in June). You're probably thinking I'll talk about a key attack cog, but nope.
The BC Place bunch can secure a postseason berth with a draw, so it's best that they give the offense as little work to do as possible. That means the spotlight is on Maxime Crepeau, who trails only Philadelphia's Andre Blake in xGA-GA this term. When he holds opponents to one goal or less, the 'Caps have gone 9-3-6 in 2021.
Yes, I know, it's a Captain Obvious pick. Regardless, it's the right one. When Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez finds the net, the LA Galaxy — who'll need all three points on Sunday to clinch if either Real Salt Lake or LAFC win — are 7-1-3 this season. And when they don't get at least two shot attempts from Chicharito (a good sign that their attack plan is running smoothly and the striker is moving defenders around, which in turn opens space for others), they are 5-10-4.
It's not easy picking one guy to tote the burden for Real Salt Lake. Win, lose or draw, they tend to do it as a team. That said, there's no denying their struggles when the opponent rings up multiple goals. The thing is, regardless of who has been in goal this season, foes haven't necessarily needed to create a lot of great chances to make RSL spring leaks, plural.
That's a long way of saying that their goalkeeping has run hot and cold in 2021. And with a Sunday win required to even give them a shot at the playoffs, that means they need one of David Ochoa's good days (if not one of his very best) when they visit Sporting KC on Decision Day.
Let's keep it simple. When LAFC score multiple goals, they're undefeated on the season (11-0-3). From the 19 games where they did not reach that mark, they've procured all of one victory. Bob Bradley's group needs a closing day victory to have any chance at continuing their perfect postseason attendance record. While LAFC have ridden summer recruit Cristian Arango down the stretch, they are still winless (0-5-2) when he's held off the board. You do the math.