Decision Day

Playoff hopefuls: 10 players who will decide Decision Day


Decision Day is nearly here, folks.

On Saturday, 10 teams will vie for the five remaining Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs spots. Five teams are chasing one of the last two Eastern Conference berths, while another five Western Conference teams are fighting for three slots.

There will be plenty of tension when seven Eastern Conference games kick off simultaneously at 6 pm ET, followed by seven Western Conference games at 9 pm ET. But to extend their season into late October (or beyond), these 10 teams will need performances that cut through that tension. They’ll need star players to shine, key players to perform and role players to deliver.

So, which players will help sway the balance towards their teams? Here are 10 players, one from each playoff-hopeful, who will need to impact Decision Day in a major way.

  • Record: 41 points (12W-16L-5D)
  • Standings: 8th in Eastern Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday at Columbus (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

CF Montréal control their own destiny this weekend. With a win against the Columbus Crew, Hernán Losada’s team will make the playoffs. But anything less than a win? Well, that opens up the doors for several teams just below them in the table.

Throughout this season, it’s become very clear there are two major ways to cause problems for the Crew:

  1. Stay compact and focused defensively to stymie their possession play
  2. Knife through them in transition

Montréal’s defending has been suspect this year – they’ve allowed more non-penalty xG than all but six teams. But they do have the speed in transition to burst through the Crew’s rest defense, which is where Kwadwo Opoku comes in to really lean into that second point up above.

Acquired from LAFC midseason, Opoku is at his best when streaking forward on the break. With good speed and the threat of Romell Quioto occupying a chunk of Columbus’ defensive energy, Opoku should have opportunities to lift his team.

  • Record: 40 points (10W-13L-10D)
  • Standings: 10th in Eastern Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday at Nashville (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

If there was ever a time for Luquinhas to deliver a performance worthy of his Designated Player status, it’s on Saturday at Nashville. Because the Red Bulls need a result, we can expect them to have plenty of moments when they’re really pushing in the attacking third.

That’s where Luquinhas is supposed to change games. While he clearly has skill on the ball and impressive close control, the attacking midfielder has rarely been the game-breaker RBNY need him to be: he has just eight goals and five primary assists over the last two regular seasons. But on Decision Day, the Brazilian will have touches and chances to break Nashville down or play the final pass after winning the ball with the Red Bulls’ high press.

Can he deliver?

  • Record: 40 points (10W-13L-10D)
  • Standings: 11th in Eastern Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday at New York City (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

With this being an away game for Chicago, and considering how these two teams play (Chicago mostly reactive and NYCFC mostly proactive), we can expect the Fire to prioritize absorbing pressure before choosing their spots to attack.

When the visitors absorb pressure, Ousmane Doumbia is likely to have a lot of work to do in central midfield. Only four teams in MLS cross the ball less than NYCFC on a per-90-minute basis, according to FBref, which means Nick Cushing’s squad will try to find space in the middle against the Fire.

Enter: Doumbia. With Gastón Giménez suspended, Doumbia will be essential as he operates in front of Chicago’s backline to deal with NYCFC's central overheads.

  • Record: 40 points (9W-11L-13D)
  • Standings: 12th in Eastern Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday vs. Miami (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Charlotte FC also control their own destiny this week. They’re the only playoff contender with two remaining games, rather than just one. Fortunately for Charlotte, both of those games are imminently winnable: they visit a battered and bruised Inter Miami on Wednesday before hosting the same club on Saturday.

Given Miami’s preference for expansive soccer under Tata Martino and the lack of clarity around whether their superstars will take the field, there will be opportunities for Charlotte to drive the ball into the heart of Miami’s defensive shape. When that happens, Karol Swiderski is the man who’s most likely to create danger. With his ability to float underneath the No. 9 or to occupy that space himself, Swiderski can unbalance and overwhelm Inter Miami.

One flag: Swiderski is flying back from international duty after representing Poland in Euro qualifiers. How many minutes does he have in his legs?

  • Record: 38 points (8W-11L-14D)
  • Standings: 13th in Eastern Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday vs. Chicago (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

It’s been a difficult year for Talles Magno. The 21-year-old Brazilian has been used in multiple positions and rarely given consistent minutes to find his form in his most effective spot (the half-spaces).

Still, this Decision Day match with the Fire should give Magno a real chance to play the hero. With Santi Rodriguez likely to play as the No. 10 in NYCFC’s fluid 4-2-3-1 shape, Magno can pinch in from the left wing to overload the middle, combine, and play through Chicago’s midfield.

If Magno is sharp, and we know he can be, NYCFC will have chances to break down the Fire.

  • Record: 43 points (11W-12L-10D)
  • Standings: 7th in Western Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday vs. Houston (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Because Ben Olsen’s Houston Dynamo tend to sit deeper when they play away from home, expect the Timbers to have their fair share of touches in this game. When Portland have plenty of touches, attention shifts to their club-record signing.

Evander has encountered his ups and downs in 2023, but his on-ball ability ball mixed with a suite of clever box-crashing runs makes it difficult to ever fully shut him down defensively.

If Houston sit deeper for spells of this game, Evander will have chances to change the game both on and off the ball as one of the free No. 8s in the Timbers’ relatively newfound 4-3-3 shape. He’ll also have an underrated role to play the defending against the Dynamo’s quick transition attacks or their occasional lengthier possession sequences.

  • Record: 43 points (10W-10L-13D)
  • Standings: 8th in Western Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday at LA (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Sure, the LA Galaxy are out of playoff contention. But don’t mistake them for a toothless team: they’ve scored at least two goals in seven of their last eight games.

So, while FC Dallas will need to find moments to impose themselves on the Galaxy, they’ll also have to be smart and disciplined in their play without the ball. One of the Dallas players best suited to find that balance is midfielder Paxton Pomykal. The 23-year-old has started their last two games and, at his best, is one of the most reliable two-way players in MLS.

With plenty of talent flying at Dallas from the Galaxy’s forward line – and subsequently, opportunities to push up the other way – Pomykal will be essential.

  • Record: 43 points (10W-10L-13D)
  • Standings: 9th in Western Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday vs. Austin FC (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

As is the case for so many of San Jose’s games, Cristian Espinoza will be key for Luchi Gonzalez's team as they push to secure a playoff spot on Decision Day. He currently leads the Quakes in non-penalty xG+xA this year and has been one of the most dynamic wingers in MLS.

Because of their spot in the standings, San Jose can’t just sit on their heels and watch this game against Austin unfold from inside their own half. Daniel should take care of business in goal, but Espinoza will have to produce some danger to help unbalance and ultimately play through their opponent’s defensive structure.

Espinoza can do it, there’s no doubt about that. But now we get to watch and see if ability turns into end product to close out the regular season.

  • Record: 41 points (11W-14L-8D)
  • Standings: 10th in Western Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday vs. Minnesota (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

Both Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United need to collect three points on Saturday if they want a chance at the postseason. That should lead to an entertaining game with end-to-end action.

SKC’s front three should have chances in the open field. But in turn, so should Minnesota United’s attacking group (which, for my money, is the more dangerous one in this matchup). Because of Minnesota’s threat with Emanuel Reynoso, Teemu Pukki and Bongokuhle Hlongwane, Kansas City can’t just cross their fingers and hop into a firefight. No, they’ll have to be sharp in defensive transition and organized in their rest defense structure.

Much of that responsibility will fall on veteran defensive midfielder Nemanja Radoja. Playing as the base of midfield in Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3, Radoja’s defensive timing and his spacing may define SKC’s half of this game.

  • Record: 41 points (10W-12L-11D)
  • Standings: 11th in Western Conference
  • Decision Day: Saturday at Kansas City (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)

To reiterate: Minnesota United need three points on Saturday to give themselves a shot at the playoffs (even then it might not be enough).

And who do the Loons turn to when they need a big play in a big moment? Emanuel Reynoso. We know the Argentine No. 10 breaks games wide open with his on-ball ability. One thing I’m watching for in this game, though, is Reynoso’s off-ball movement.

Because SKC typically play with a single pivot, Reynoso could unbalance their midfield shape by drifting into the half-spaces – just behind the opposing No. 8 and just to the side of the No. 6. If he finds the right cracks off the ball and then pushes the right buttons on it, Minnesota United will be hard to stop.