Decision Day

Decision Day: Which teams face the most pressure on Sunday?

ORL - CLB Decision Day

Ten teams are in. Four spots are up for grabs.

That’s the simplified version heading into a 14-game Decision Day, after which the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs get underway Oct. 15 with Round One matches.

Before then, let’s spotlight six clubs facing pressure as the regular season’s final chapter is written on Sunday. Eastern Conference teams play at 2:30 pm ET, while Western Conference ones play at 5 pm ET.

Playoff clinch scenarios are found here and the bracket is found here. Onwards.

  • Game details: Sunday, 2:30 pm ET vs. Toronto (MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, TSN 1/4 in Canada)
  • Standings: 1st in East
  • Record: 18W-5L-10D (64 points, +42 goal differential)

Wait, the East’s first-place team is under pressure?

Yes, having allowed LAFC to walk through the Supporters’ Shield door after taking a 4-0 shellacking at Charlotte FC last weekend, which came on the heels of a 0-0 draw at Atlanta United before the international break. And with CF Montréal red-hot, Philadelphia can now drop to second place in the East and lose home-field advantage throughout their portion of the playoff bracket.

To maintain their perch atop the East, the Union must beat Toronto FC – and maintain their perfect Subaru Park record (11W-0L-5D so far). Or they can get help, with Montréal losing or tying at Inter Miami CF.

Either way, things are a bit more complicated than Philadelphia originally hoped for.

"I expect a good response from the group,” said head coach Jim Curtin. "Again, it’s been a very special season where a lot of new records have been met by this team and this great group of players and staff. And we want to send our fans home happy on the last day of the regular season and obviously clinch first place in our conference and know that the road to MLS Cup will go through Subaru Park, where we’ve been a really dangerous, strong team all season."

Philadelphia will be heavy favorites against Toronto, especially with reports the Reds may be without Italian forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. But the Union have a question mark of their own in captain Alejandro Bedoya, whose two-game injury absence coincides with the club’s slight dip in form.

Looking big-picture, Curtin feels Philly aren’t far from their buzzsaw-like form that grabbed headlines left and right all summer.

"I do think in every loss you can learn from a loss, and it’s good to get a wake-up call like that and maybe take one on the chin and get soundly beaten as you go into now elimination games," Curtin said. "Because we recognize now and respect the game in a way that if we start with that kind of not being us, you can get punished quickly. And in the playoffs, it’s one bad game and you’re done. So I think to get that wake-up call can be a positive thing."

  • Game details: Sunday, 2:30 pm ET at D.C. (MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
  • Standings: 6th in East
  • Record: 11W-9L-13D (46 points, +5 goal differential)

FC Cincinnati could have secured a first-ever playoff bid last weekend, but they were blitzed by Chicago Fire FC in a 3-2 home loss. It was a huge missed opportunity by the Orange & Blue, who spent the first three years of their MLS existence (2019-21) finishing bottom of the overall MLS table each time.

Now, head coach Pat Noonan is clear-eyed on the importance of Sunday's trip to D.C. United.

"This will be the toughest match of the season because it's the most on the line," said the first-year manager.

The simple version: Cincinnati can book their playoff ticket with a win or tie against the league’s cellar dwellers. Either Orlando City SC or Columbus Crew winning also suits them just fine, but the results could shake out where Cincy's behind on the wins and/or goal differential tiebreaker, so the danger of an early offseason lingers as well.

Despite past struggles, the fourth-year club is amid a new era and expects to follow through. They'll be at full-strength aside from striker Sergio Santos (red card), a suspension the Independent Review Panel upheld.

"I think that the year has not ended for us," said midfielder Luciano Acosta. "I cannot say that it was a great year, because we still have very high expectations.

"I always view it as a team. I see a team that is going to reach the playoffs. I have a lot of confidence and I believe a lot in this team. The year is not over yet for me, or for the club. So we are going to continue fighting and we will go looking for the result that we need."

  • Game details: Sunday, 2:30 pm ET vs. Columbus (FS1, FOX Deportes)
  • Standings: 8th in East
  • Record: 13W-14L-6D (45 points, -10 goal differential)

In the first of two nationally-televised games Sunday, both Orlando and Columbus face a win-and-you’re-in scenario. But there’s more pressure on the Lions as hosts at Exploria Stadium, where they’re just 8W-8L-0D in league games this year.

"The responsibility is on our shoulders, our destiny is on our shoulders in front of a rival that’s in the same situation,” said head coach Oscar Pareja. “We could have done this job before, a result before, but it’s very tight competition with a lot of compromises during the season, the commitment.”

Orlando’s chasing a third straight playoff trip under Pareja, and could have secured a playoff trip Wednesday with a win over Inter Miami and another midweek result going their way.

But they suffered a 4-1 loss at the Herons, marking their fourth defeat in five games since winning the US Open Cup Final on Sept. 7. The Lions have quality, but they’re slumping amid a busy calendar at an inopportune time.

“My answer would be that it’s natural that after that high moment, a reaction could happen,” Pareja said about a possible post-Open Cup hangover. “It’s difficult for me to analyze it that way.

“But we’re trying just to focus and trying to concentrate because we need to win. This group needs and deserves to be in the playoffs for what they have achieved during the year. But we have to value that by winning against a good rival. If we don’t do it, then we don’t deserve to be in it.”

Should Orlando draw Columbus, they’d also need FC Cincinnati to lose at D.C. United, whereas a draw alone sends the Crew through. Currently one point behind Columbus in the standings, a three-point result would simplify matters greatly for the Lions.

“We know the importance of the game,” said striker Ercan Kara. “We need to give more than 100 percent and we have only one decision. That’s to win it.”

  • Game details: Sunday, 5 pm ET vs. Nashville (MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
  • Standings: 1st in West
  • Record: 21W-8L-4D (67 points, +29 goal differential)

This one’s more forward-looking after LAFC secured the Supporters’ Shield last weekend, with midfielder Kellyn Acosta calling their ensuing Round One bye “​​a blessing and a curse.”

Perhaps the 2021 playoffs were on Acosta’s mind, after both No. 1 seeds – his former Colorado Rapids in the West and the Shield-winning New England Revolution in the East – fell in the Conference Semifinals following longer layoffs between Decision Day and their playoff campaigns beginning.

The Black & Gold are due to begin their second season Oct. 20 in the Western Conference Semifinals, and Acosta feels it’s paramount they enter on a positive note against Nashville.

“I think it starts on Sunday, just to build momentum, especially when you’re going through a break,” Acosta said. “Your last one wants to be a positive one, a game where we get the fitness going, we run up the numbers, we’re attacking-minded, sound defensively.”

LAFC, with 70 points in their sights, can earn a third straight win to end their 2022 regular season. And head coach Steve Cherundolo stressed the importance of “a victory and a good performance” to set the stage after last Sunday's 2-1 win at the Portland Timbers.

“What it did drastically change is maybe the atmosphere in training this week, [it’s] naturally maybe a little more relaxed than it would have been if [the Shield] wasn’t won in Portland,” Cherundolo said. “But it won’t change our mindset during the game and it will not have very much effect on our lineup.”

LAFC’s first-choice lineup – and even their collection of reserves – is arguably one of the best in MLS history, and both offseason moves and summertime additions were done with silverware pursuits in mind.

Now, it’s about following through and dealing with the pressure that comes with being the team everyone’s gunning for. As long as LAFC are in contention, MLS Cup will run through Banc of California Stadium.

“MLS Cup, it’s going to be important, special, a great achievement, the first one for the club if we are able to get it,” said midfielder Ilie Sanchez. “And it’s what we have in our minds today and until the 5th of November.”

  • Game details: Sunday, 5 pm ET vs. Vancouver (MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, TSN 1/4 in Canada)
  • Standings: 7th in West
  • Record: 13W-14L-6D (45 points, -5 goal differential)

Through late August, Minnesota were a prime candidate to finish top three in the Western Conference standings.

But stuck in a 0W-5L-1D stretch, the Loons are in danger of falling out of the playoff places altogether in Sunday’s home game vs. Vancouver. A win or tie against the Whitecaps, who have won three straight matches, would avoid that possibility.

Minnesota are in a rut, head coach Adrian Heath freely acknowledges, and it all comes down to their Week 34 performance.

"We’ve taken one point in [18], so that’s not been good enough,” Heath said. "And we’ve dug ourselves into a hole now. Now we’ve still got an opportunity, which of course, you would have thought with the run that we had, we wouldn’t be in this position.

"But we’ve dug ourselves in this position where 10 or 11 other clubs would like to be in. But we still have an opportunity. We’re playing at home, it’s in our own hands. So it’s up to us to get and get a victory that would make sure. And let’s make sure we don’t get beat."

Minnesota’s struggles coincide with center back Bakaye Dibassy suffering a season-ending leg injury, while center-mid Kervin Arriaga is out with a yellow-card suspension. And they’ll certainly need a dynamic performance from midfielder Emanuel Reynoso, who’s on a team-leading 10g/10a this year as he's battled ankle troubles.

Amid it all, the stakes are crystal clear.

"You want to play in big games," said defender Michael Boxall. "And we’ve kind of let ourselves down in terms of turning this into a big game. But at this time of the year, there’s nothing better to get you ready for the playoffs than playing in these types of games. It’s kind of all or nothing, and we need to play like that and give everything."

  • Game details: Sunday, 5 pm ET vs. Portland (ESPN2)
  • Standings: 8th in West
  • Record: 11W-11L-11D (44 points, -4 goal differential)

Real Salt Lake have room to make up in the standings, sitting two points behind Portland before the West’s marquee nationally-televised game on Decision Day. That means it’s a win-and-you’re-in scenario for the Claret & Cobalt, while the Timbers get through with a win or a draw.

Comparatively, more pressure is squarely on the hosts at America First Field.

“We’ve played some big games,” said goalkeeper Zac MacMath. “We’ve beaten some of the better teams in the league. We’ve shown that really almost every game this year, besides maybe one or two, that we were competitive in. So we deserve to go to the playoffs if we win on Sunday. And when hopefully we get to the playoffs, we know we can beat any team.”

RSL have won just three games since mid-June, creating a 3W-7L-7D stretch, and they’re winless in five games heading into Sunday. However, head coach Pablo Mastroeni feels that’s not quite indicative of what performances have been.

“I think overall, the way we’ve been playing has been everything that we’ve set out to achieve at the beginning of the season,” Mastroeni said. “To be fair, I think in the last whatever it’s been – seven or eight games – we’ve been the team that’s had the better opportunities and given up the least chances and still found ways to not get anything out of the game. So from that perspective, I think we’ve been better than our record shows.”

All that matters now is getting a win, as anything less ensures postseason dreams fizzle out. That’d come a year after RSL went on a run to the Western Conference Final as the No. 7 seed, needing a late stoppage-time goal at Sporting Kansas City to book a playoff trip.

“You live for these games,” said forward Justin Meram. “You work all season for these games, and everything is on the line.”