A pressure-packed Decision Day presented by AT&T is set to decide the Supporters’ Shield, the final playoff berths in the East and West, the top three seeds in the Western Conference and plenty of other important playoff positioning matters.
Naturally, such days increase the glare on certain individuals expected to lead their clubs to victory when the chips are down. So naturally, we picked out the guys with the pressure to perform on Sunday.
It was not easy ranking these cases, as several teams have loads on the line this weekend. And some of those have more than one guy counted on to make another big "W" happen. Just missing the list were Atlanta United ace Josef Martinez, the Columbus Crew SC duo of head coach Gregg Berhalter and top gun Gyasi Zardes and LAFC drink-stirrer Carlos Vela.
No. 5: Johnny Russell & Daniel Salloi
It is not easy to beat Bob Bradley's LAFC when they come to your town. They've only been shut out away once, which helps explain how the expansion darlings have won seven of 16 while bagging 35 goals (!) on the road. Long story short, it seems reasonable to assume that it will take multiple goals for Sporting Kansas City to ensure they take the West's top seed (and avoid any chance of slipping into the Knockout Round) with a win on Sunday (4:30 pm ET | FS1 – Full TV and streaming info).
That's where the box-raiding SKC wingers come in. When one of them makes the score sheet with at least a goal or an assist, the Children's Mercy Park crew are pretty tough to beat. When Russell and Salloi both pitch in with end product in the same game, it's darned near impossible. Sporting are 8-1 in such contests, and perfect at home.
No. 4: Oscar Pareja
This one starts a run of picks from the head coaching ranks, and it should come as no surprise. My colleague Matt Doyle has been noting for a couple months that FC Dallas just haven't been quite right since Mauro Diaz left. He scored in his last game for the North Texans, a mid-June win over Montreal that had Oscar Pareja and the boys at 7-1-6.
Since then, FC Dallas are 9-7-3, which is not too shabby. The problem is, not quite right and not too shabby won't get it done in the playoffs and Oscar Pareja has exactly one game to figure out a fix. And not only in his team floating into the postseason after leading the West much of the year, they also really need a "file under: should be expected" win at seemingly outclassed Colorado to clinch a Knockout Round bye (4:30 pm ET | Full TV and streaming info). If nothing else, it buys the answer-searching boss a little more time at the drawing board.
No. 3: Dome Torrent
If only it was so easy for the New York City FC coach. His outfit has reached downright free-fall. Patrick Vieira guided the club to an 8-3-4 start that saw them score at least two goals 11 times. Torrent won five of his first six games in charge at Yankee Stadium, but the wheels started coming off in late July.
Torrent's constant tinkering (in part due to injuries, to be fair) has now overseen a 2-6-4 plummet marked by only three multiple-goal games. If NYCFC can't snap out of it against visiting Philadelphia on Decision Day (4:30 pm ET | Full TV and streaming info), they could slip as far as fifth place behind the Union and D.C. United... a scenario that plays out to a Knockout Round trip to Audi Field. Nobody in the Bronx wants that, coach, least of all you.
No. 2: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
I'm not actually asking the LA Galaxy superstar to do it all by himself. Even in the lion king's most ferocious MLS moments, he and the team are succeeding because those around him are also making plays, too. But sure, obviously, if there's one guy you'd assume will make a show of rallying the StubHub Center crew back to the playoffs, it's Zlatan.
The notion is not for good reason, on the face of it. Ibrahimovic has scored in five straight games and has seven winners in just 26 league outings. He talks a big game and then backs it up, often in "Did you see that?!?" manner. The Galaxy need a win to smash 'n' grab the sixth spot in the West, and they're 9-2-4 when the big guy scores.
If — or, most likely, when — that top-selling No. 9 shirt gets his goal roar on against Decision Day visitors Houston (a team that's conceded 13 times in four games since winning the U.S. Open Cup), who could have expected anything less?
It's not pressure, it's Zlatan time.
No. 1: Tata Martino
The degree of difficulty navigating to the Shield and playoff parts beyond has ramped up in recent weeks for the Atlanta United tactician. Weeks of speculation finally led to an announcement that the coach will not be at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium steering wheel next year. Martinez suddenly hit a stop sign at 30 goals. Miguel Almiron went down with an injury and more is currently known about his supposed transfer status than about his return timeline.
Through it all, Martino has overseen nine wins in the last 12 games to keep the Five Stripes one point ahead of the rampaging New York Red Bulls. Even a draw in Sunday's game at Toronto FC (a team they've yet to defeat) could cost Atlanta both the Supporters’ Shield and the right to host the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Championship (4:30 pm ET | TSN4 – Full TV and streaming info).
There's only one quick way for the boss to be certain that his ATL legacy will include the first trophy in club history, and that's to finally solve an injury-riddled Reds side on Sunday. If Martino can do that without his one-man engine room, he'll also put Atlanta in prime position to play for a second piece of silver before he goes.
But, hey, no pressure or anything.