Midweek madness!

The last Wednesday of the 2021 regular season didn’t quite hit peak #MLSAfterDark insanity levels, but the tension and pathos were real as more than one playoff chaser took some painful punches to the gut. Conversely, that meant good news for several of their competitors watching closely at home.

Let’s hit the big points as we enter the final countdown to Decision Day.

1
Montréal hang tough, others play it safe in the East

Not too much got definitively decided in the Eastern Conference, thanks mostly to the frenetic but ultimately unfulfilling scoreless draw between the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United in Harrison, NJ. ATL’s winless history at Red Bull Arena persists, as does their lengthy scoring drought at the venue, but it sounds like they got just what they wanted from the trip:

So the high-flying, death-defying, greatest-show-on-turf Five Stripes really decided to park the bus?!?! Sort of! Aesthetics aside, coach Gonzalo Pineda probably could’ve done worse with his tactics here, and optimistic ATLiens might even draw parallels to Tata Martino’s timely embrace of pragmatism around this time in the club’s march to the 2018 MLS Cup trophy.

While ATLUTD still haven’t clinched a playoff spot, Pineda pretty clearly likes his side’s prospects of jetting up to Cincinnati and taking all three points on Sunday. Wouldn’t you, too? This tack increases the likelihood of no home playoff games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this month, though.

Such caution wasn’t an option for CF Montréal as Houston stopped through chilly Stade Saputo. Needing victory to stay in the race, the Quebecois outfit overcame the jitters and saw off their guests with two corner-kick goals, the first a nifty bit of backheeled improvisation from center back Rudy Camacho and the second a trademark dime from Djordje Mihailovic, who continues to impress in his breakout 2021:

CFM remain below the playoff line and will need to beat Orlando at home on Sunday if they are to sneak into the second season for a second year running. That said, they’re still in the picture. And considering the sudden departure of Thierry Henry last winter, their lengthy COVID-19-imposed exile in Florida and the degree to which they’ve relied on young and overlooked talent, Henry’s successor Wilfried Nancy has truly earned some Coach of the Year consideration.

2
Anyone want to win the West?

Few protagonists across Wednesday’s four matches cut a more frustrated figure than Sporting Kansas City boss Peter Vermes, whose team let slip their grip on the top spot in the Western Conference standings with a stunning 3-1 loss at basement dwellers Austin FC.

SKC hunted the Seattle Sounders for months, reeling in the Rave Green’s once-enormous lead atop the table like a swordfish on a drift line. When the Midwesterners finally got their noses ahead with a head-to-head win at Lumen Field last month, it put postseason home-field advantage within their reach – even more so when Seattle dropped points in their next two matches, most recently Monday’s home draw with the LA Galaxy.

Yet Sporting managed to fumble away that pole position, outplayed in Sunday’s loss at Minnesota United and then faceplanting in central Texas. Sebastián Driussi opened the scoring for ATX before 30 seconds had even elapsed from the opening kickoff, an early hole that SKC could not climb out of. Were tired legs a factor in the upset? Vermes wasn’t having it:

“Obviously a disappointing night, like it was the other day,” said Sporting captain Johnny Russell. “But we've still got a game left, we need to go and win that. We knew we'd have to win it anyway, and we need Vancouver to give us a bit of a hand when it should've been in our hands. Now we're looking for other teams to help us out, which is pretty disappointing from the position that we were in.”

So if SKC and the Sounders aren’t surging to the finish line, could that mean…? Surely not a late pip to the tape by the unfancied Colorado Rapids Soccer Club??? Well, it’s possible:

3
RSL’s pain, Vancouver’s pleasure

With their playoff hopes in the balance, Real Salt Lake needed a “Rocky”-type performance in their home finale on Wednesday – one encompassing both a gutsy, intelligent exclamation point to a tumultuous year, and mature management of the Portland Timbers’ attacking threat. They even honored club legend Kyle Beckerman, seemingly a positive dose of mojo.

Alas, for those who’ve admired the Utahns' resilience over the past year-plus, they got neither.

That’s a textbook Timbers transition, marshaled by the poetically pugnacious Sebastian Blanco, and with his corner-kick opener – a ghastly failure of defensive attentiveness by RSL – it made for a Blanco brace. These are exactly the kind of slipshod mistakes that Salt Lake knew would be costly in this game, and they made them anyway, a less-than-ideal final home chapter to Pablo Mastroeni’s interim stint in charge and a sad way for this imperfect but nevertheless impressive group to shuffle toward the winter.

I don’t have enough time or space to get into all the myriad permutations here. But RSL now have to win at Kansas City – an obviously angry and annoyed SKC in need of points themselves, no less – on Decision Day to have a chance at qualification. And meanwhile the Vancouver Whitecaps, the hard-luck outfit so many of us thought were worm food a few months ago, now need only a draw at home to Seattle in order to get into the playoff dance. (The two Los Angeles teams and Minnesota remain in the mix as well.)

The problem for the ‘Caps is that the Sounders, like SKC, need a positive result in their drive for the top seed and, considering the hefty international break looming next week, can probably go all-out to get it. Sunday, Sunday, Sunday...