In a glimpse of Decision Day drama that arrives Sunday, two rescheduled Eastern Conference games with massive Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs implications will be played Wednesday night.
1. Charlotte FC vs. Columbus Crew (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
This matchup originally began July 30, though was postponed due to inclement weather near Bank of America Stadium. Tied at 0-0, the game was suspended in the 16th minute and now will recommence with the same players on the field and substitutes available (2022 MLS Match Delay, Postponement, Cancellation and Forfeiture Policy).
2. Inter Miami CF vs. Orlando City SC (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
One playoff spot can be clinched and one team can be eliminated from contention. There's a ton on the line, changing the East's complexion before Decision Day games begin Sunday at 2:30 pm ET.
Here's what to know about each team:
- Game details: Wednesday, 7 pm ET vs. Columbus (MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
- Standings: 9th in East
- Record: 13W-17L-2D (41 points, -6 goal differential)
- Playoff scenarios: Can't clinch; eliminated with loss or draw vs. Columbus
- Decision Day game: Oct. 9 at New York Red Bulls
Charlotte long seemed destined for an early offseason, losing nine of 13 games from late June through early September. But they’ve rebounded into a three-game winning streak and are coming off a 4-0 thumping of Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia Union last weekend.
That all has the expansion club believing the once-unthinkable may come true.
“The way we're playing right now, I think there are not many clubs who are hoping for us to get into playoffs and play them,” said sporting director Zoran Krneta. “It's been hard work the last two, three months, especially since coach [Christian] Lattanzio took over. I think everyone is now falling into the place and the boys are ready physically, mentally, tactically. This is the Charlotte FC that I hope, not only this year in the last two games and potentially more, that the fans will see next year as well.”
But the wrinkle for Charlotte is they’re locked into the lineup from when this game was postponed on July 30. Three key summertime additions – center back Adilson Malanda, fullback Nathan Byrne and midfielder Nuno Santos – can’t play because they weren't yet signed, and two starters from that game (likely goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and certainly center back Guzman Corujo) are facing injuries.
Lattanzio and his staff must pull from the pre-existing bench, which includes striker Daniel Rios, the reigning MLS Player of the Week. Karol Swiderski, who earned the same honor one week before Rios, was in the starting lineup.
“I've said many times in the past and I'll keep saying it: I trust anybody, all the players that we have here,” Lattanzio said. “It's an opportunity for the ones that have been playing a little less but they still train really well. And obviously life evolves and football is no different. So we are not the same team that we used to be when we played them, probably to [Columbus] it's the same.”
The stress point for Charlotte? A loss or draw eliminates them from playoff contention.
- Game details: Wednesday, 7 pm ET at Charlotte (MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
- Standings: 8th in East
- Record: 10W-7L-15D (45 points, +6 goal differential)
- Playoff scenarios: Can't clinch or be eliminated
- Decision Day game: Oct. 9 at Orlando City SC
Of the four East clubs competing Wednesday, Columbus are the only one whose playoff fate will 100% come down to Decision Day.
But they’re hoping to position things well for Sunday, building off the confidence of last weekend’s 2-1 comeback win over the New York Red Bulls, which saw winger Derrick Etienne Jr. score twice from the 89th minute onwards.
“It would have been very easy for our group in the 89th minute, down a goal, to call it a season,” head coach Caleb Porter said. “You didn't see that out of our group, which says a lot. I'm watching games around the league as teams are being eliminated and I'm seeing teams call their season, you can just see it. Our group, you didn't see that. It would have been very, very easy. That was a window into our hunger, that we want to have a chance to win a trophy, we want to be in the playoffs."
Columbus, facing Charlotte in a game that’ll resume in the 16th minute while tied at 0-0, will have a largely first-choice lineup from when the initial fixture was postponed.
Center back and captain Jonathan Mensah is out injured (thigh) and likely to be replaced by Milos Degenek from the pre-existing bench. Otherwise, star forward Cucho Hernandez is set to return after serving a one-game suspension against RBNY. The club-record signing is second on the team in scoring (9g/2a) since debuting in July, trailing only midfielder Lucas Zelarayan (9a/11a).
Get a positive result and Columbus position themselves well for another road trip on Decision Day, that one to Orlando’s Exploria Stadium.
"In a lot of ways, I think it's fitting that we're going to punch our ticket into the playoffs, hopefully, on the road,” Porter said. "We've actually been very strong on the road this year in terms of consistency, getting results. Obviously quite a few of those are draws, but we've taken a lot of results on the road this year. So I think our confidence now to go on the road and to hopefully take care of business and get into the playoffs is very high."
- Game details: Wednesday, 8 pm ET vs. Orlando (MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
- Standings: 7th in East
- Record: 13W-13L-6D (45 points, -10 goal differential)
- Playoff scenarios: Clinch berth with win vs. Orlando
- Decision Day game: Oct. 9 vs. CF Montréal
Should Inter Miami secure a fourth straight win, playoff soccer awaits.
That scenario simplifies the mandate before head coach Phil Neville’s group, which has found new life after a recent three-game losing streak. But they’ll likely need to get by without midfield maestro Alejandro Pozuelo, who’s got 2g/6a in 12 games since his midseason trade arrival from Toronto FC.
“I would say he's a major, major, major doubt,” Neville said Monday. “I know I've played games with you this season in terms of that, but he's a major doubt and we've got to hope that he wakes up tomorrow morning in better shape than what he woke up today. We pushed him to play against Toronto; I thought he was outstanding against Toronto. But like I said, I think we've got faith in every single player on this team.”
Perhaps striker Gonzalo Higuain will continue his dangerous goal-scoring pace, netting 12g/2a in the Herons’ last 15 games. Despite a resurgence, the Argentine legend has announced he’ll retire at the end of the 2022 MLS season.
Set-up aside, Neville thinks emotions might win out.
“We're excited for Wednesday night against a team that's coming off the back of a defeat, a team that's got loads of quality, an outstanding manager,” he said. “It's our biggest rivals, it's a derby. And it seems as if it sets up for one of those special nights down at DRV [PNK] Stadium.”
- Game details: Wednesday, 8 pm ET at Miami (MLS LIVE on ESPN+)
- Standings: 6th in East
- Record: 13W-13L-6D (45 points, -7 goal differential)
- Playoff scenarios: Clinch berth with win at Miami AND Columbus loss at Charlotte
- Decision Day game: Oct. 9 vs. Columbus Crew
Orlando need a win and some help to secure a third straight postseason trip. And they’ll need to rebound after last Sunday’s 2-1 loss at New York City FC marked the third defeat in their last four games.
It’s a quick turnaround for head coach Oscar Pareja’s group, heading due south to face their Florida rival.
“We have been in this mode of must-wins and having games that are important in the last two months and a half, so it’s not strange for us to be in this mode of needing to win and get the points to qualify,” Pareja said over the weekend. “So we hope that these two days is enough to recover the group, especially mentally, and face the next game on Wednesday in Miami.”
The Lions can still ascend into a home playoff game, and they’ll be hoping winger Facundo Torres – one of two new Designated Players this season – maintains his red-hot form. The Uruguayan World Cup hopeful has 4g/3a in his last eight league games.
Orlando captain Mauricio Pereyra fully recognizes the pressure that awaits this time of year.
“The most important thing is to keep concentration for 90 minutes, knowing that we are in playoff mode already and knowing there is no time for regrets after, there is no tomorrow,” Pereyra said.
“The most important thing in this kind of game is keep calm and play as we know how to do, we've been doing the whole season. We've showed really good moments and when we've played against Miami we did well, so we believe in ourselves and we trust in our work.”