Decision Day is nearly upon us, and with it, the final field for the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs.
It's often said that "getting hot at the right time" can carry a squad right on through the bracket, all the way to a crowded huddle surrounding Commissioner Don Garber as he declares the year's champion, trophy in hand. Just ask Portland.
But what of the squads who enter the postseason sleepwalking? Let's take a look at the teams backing into the playoffs in 2016:
The Slump: 0-4-2
Last Win: Aug. 27 vs. SKC (2-0)
Surprise leaders for the early part of the Eastern Conference schedule, mostly thanks to an eight-game unbeaten run through April and May, the Union looked right as recently as August, when they picked up three wins in four games. But it's been fallow since, with nary a W on the ledger. And a seemingly certain playoff return — only the second in club history — needed an unexpected assist from the last-place Chicago Fire to stop the New England Revolution from storming into the sixth spot.
Now, with the potent Red Bulls visiting Philadelphia to close out the season slate on Decision Day, the Union will be hard-pressed to take away a positive result. But Chris Pontius has long tortured the New York side, midseason pickup Alejandro Bedoya will continue integrating his implacable efficiency, and they'll be motivated to ensure Tranquillo Barnetta has the proper send-off from the Talen Energy Stadium crowd in what could be his home finale.
Real Salt Lake
The Slump: 0-3-3
Last Win: Aug. 26 vs. COL (2-1)
It's been more than a month since RSL ripped three goals against the LA Galaxy, marking the fifth time this season the Claret-and-Cobalt had put up as many in a single match. They've scored once in six games since.
Two weeks ago, head coach Jeff Cassar was lamenting a team-wide lack of ... everything. This weekend, it was Yura Movsisyan playing spokesman, insisting the goals will come, since they need to. Heads up against the league's second-half overlords in Seattle, a loss could combine with achievable victories for Portland (in Vancouver) and Sporting Kansas City (vs. San Jose) to leave RSL on the outside for a second straight season.
They've got one chance. Yura better be right, or else the Knockout could come a few days early. Maybe they sneak in without a score, but they're not long to stay if they can't manage to push one across.
The Slump: 0-1-4
Last Win: Sept. 10 at CHI (2-1)
This is, by a country mile (as the crow flies?) the weakest link in our four-team chain of stumblers. Toronto hasn't been winning, sure, but they'vebeen steady; their only loss in the last five is against D.C. United, who are busy beating everyone and anyone right now.
Sebastian Giovinco just made his return from injury, and joins in-form Jozy Altidore and the ever-reliable Michael Bradley for Sunday's playoff tuneup against Chicago, a match that likely sets the stage for a home Knockout Round showing against reeling Philadelphia (... uh, see above). Trailing New York City FC by a point, there's a chance the Reds can surge into the Eastern Conference Semifinals via a Knockout Round bye, but they'll need help from Columbus Crew SC — and good luck figuring out which side of the bed that squad will roll out of on matchday.
So look for TFC to post that month-missing "W" and cruise into this second straight postseason appearance. Hopefully it lasts longer than last year's trip.
Sporting Kansas City
The Slump: 1-2-3
Last Win: Sept. 24 at SJ (2-1)
SKC isn't slumping so much as ... not coming together. They haven't strung together more than two of the same results (wins, losses or draws) since three straight April losses (and three wins to open the season slate back in March). Yet they've held steady at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff field, fending off most every charge by Portland until this week's draw at Real Salt Lake left the door open on Decision Day. Their slim margin — ahead of the Timbers by one on the goal differential tiebreaker — leaves them chasing a result in their finale against the San Jose Earthquakes (4 pm ET on MLS LIVE).
Yet Sporting's lone victory during the current stretch was a 2-1 away victory against those very Quakes. Look for Dom Dwyer to play bellwether in this one: If Dwyer puts one past rising USMNT candidate David Bingham, SKC is likely to have locked up an appearance in the Knockout Round; a clean sheet for Bingham, and the locals will be scoreboard watching with a particular eye on Vancouver-Portland.