Decision Day 2017 - Chicago Fire - Matt Polster - Brandon Vincent

As we approach Decision Day presented by AT&T, it's time to take a look at exactly how far the Houston Dynamo and the Chicago Fire -- facing each other Sunday (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE) -- have risen from the ashes of their tandem cellar-dwelling in 2016.


Chicago, first-half darlings and (for a time) second-half disappointments who seem to have (re-)found their way, are back in the postseason for the first time since 2012. Houston return after a three-year hiatus, thanks to a dominating home side with an explosive attack that finally figured out how to piece together road results.

It's not to say this was entirely unanticipated. Active off-seasons wildly refashioned both squads, and much credit should go to Veljko Paunovic and Wilmer Cabrera for not only figuring out how to integrate unfamiliar parts into a cohesive unit, but also remaining true to their roots as talent groomers. On both squads, both young players and mid-career ones alike have stepped up and stepped forward into playing time, new positions and next levels.


Chicago worked in top-tier talent like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, and Dax McCarty. But meanwhile, players like Matt Polster adjusted to right back, 18-year-old Homegrown Djordje Mihailovic found a role in central midfield, and Brandon Vincent rediscovered the form that had him on the US men's national team fringe. Support striker Luis Solignac and pre-ACL-tear, volley-assist-master Michael de Leeuw also showed us sneaky-good support in roles that brought out their best. Also: David Accam.


In Houston, Cabrera earned plaudits as "the Cubo Whisperer" after positioning Erick Torres to remind everyone he was one of the league's most dangerous scoring threats after two lean years, post-Chivas USA. He also led the charge to acquire -- and successfully deploy -- the El Honduras Dynamo forward tandem of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto.


Mauro Manotas has made everything up front more complicated in a fun way, and Tomas Martinez is showing why Houston chased him to be their third Designated Player. On top of all of this, Cabrera complemented the youth with savvy adds like A.J. DeLaGarza, Philippe Senderos, and ageless Vincente Sanchez to find a winning mix.


Also, it doesn't hurt when your Homegrown goalkeeper is doing this:

Sunday's matchup, which is the lone inter-conference contest on the simultaneous slate, provides Chicago a chance to not only lock home-field for a potential Knockout Round match, but skip one altogether with a bye. It'll take a win to guarantee the former, and help for the latter, but it's all in play, and enticing for a team holding a 12-2-3 advantage at Toyota Park.


Houston will be similarly motivated to chase a full result, as three points -- and some help from either Colorado (vs. Seattle) or Real Salt Lake (vs. Sporting KC) -- will pit them at home for the quick-turn KO. Houston is one of four teams carrying a single loss at friendly confines, and have conversely won but once on the road. Asking for a second to come in playoff conditions, in either American Cascadia venue or Children's Mercy Park, is ... bold.


But the most significant element of these implications might well be that they exist at all. Credit Nelson Rodriguez and Matt Jordan for setting the table before Paunovic and Cabrera, who served up portion after portion of rebuilding success. This feels foundational for both clubs, and though it's almost time to dig in on postseason desserts, we've got one more tasty course on deck. Bon appetit!