That was pretty fun, yeah?
Decision Day presented by AT&T served up some drama, some joy, some pathos, a bit of bad blood, and to cap it all off we got treated to some positively biblical rainfall from Tropical Storm Eta in south Florida and an orange-ball-inducing snowstorm in Utah.
Not a bad way to cap a deeply weird season. Here’s some takeaways from the 2020 regular season’s curtain call.
5. Philly won the Shield, and that makes them Cup favorites, too
When the Philadelphia Union missed a chance to clinch the Supporters’ Shield with time to spare last weekend, losing 2-1 to Columbus Crew SC in Ohio, questions crept in. Would Jim Curtin’s squad fall short at the final hurdle like their predecessors had in three U.S. Open Cup finals, and like too many of their Philly sports peers over the years?
Those doubts now look pretty silly! The Union were their usual relentless, resilient selves against New England, asphyxiating the Revs with their pace and intensity and leaving no doubts – of the day’s result or their title credentials. Clinching home-field advantage for the entirety of the postseason is big, considering they’re a perfect 9-0-0 at Subaru Park.
And yet... the history of Shield winners in the playoffs is a checkered one: Only seven MLS regular-season champs have gone on to lift the Cup as well. Philly will be lighting candles and crossing fingers in hopes of their international players making it through this month’s FIFA window safe and sound, beyond the frustrating reality of international quarantine procedures sidelining them.
“Unfortunately, we will lose some guys to international duty. We'll get into the specifics of that with some phone calls that will happen probably right now,” said Curtin postgame. “We might be missing guys for that first round of the playoffs, which is crazy. But this has been a crazy year, the league's had to do the best they can. I wish we could have maybe come to a better agreement on a shorter quarantine to get guys, the most important players, back with their teams. But that doesn't look like it's going to happen. So others will have to step up. But again, I love our team. I love our chances.”
4. Sporting KC grind it out
With the Union making history and the Portland-Seattle Cascadian duo continuing to excel, I sense that Sporting Kansas City’s impressive campaign has flown under the national radar. So hopefully the head-turning visuals of their 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake in the teeth of a Wasatch blizzard draw some attention to what they’ve achieved this year.
Peter Vermes’ side have followed through on their commitment to prove their woeful 2019 was a blip, storming back up the standings to finish tops in the Western Conference, an 11th-to-first rebirth that ranks among the most impressive turnarounds in MLS history and ensures that the Western route to MLS Cup runs through Children’s Mercy Park.
And they did it as comprehensively as this asterisk-ridden season could possibly allow, finishing joint-first on points with the Sounders and Timbers, both of whom played more games then they did, first in points per game and wins. While Alan Pulido has brought a new dimension of quality to their attack, they’ve also regained the old Sporting trait of being unpleasant to play against, and their grit and resolve was on display on Sunday as they got the job done in spite of the daunting conditions.
3. There’s something about Nashville
Even now, I suspect they’d prefer that people like me don’t talk about it too, too loudly. But they’re brewing up something intriguing in the Music City, and Sunday’s gutsy comeback win over Orlando City at Exploria Stadium epitomized it.
What an unreal result out of #everyoneN. First defeat at home for Orlando all season. Absolutely VITAL performance from Mukhtar. 3 goals and 2 assists in his last two matches. Boys in electric yellow right the ship headed into the playoffs. #ORLvNSH https://t.co/DuysH3uQl1— Davey Shepherd (@daveytshep) November 8, 2020
Nashville SC’s brain trust has built their team from the back forward, constructing a sturdy foundation with a stingy back six that’s conceded just 22 goals in 23 matches, third-fewest in MLS. They’re not the type of group that likes to get into run-and-gun shootouts; Sunday marked just the fourth time all year that they’ve scored three or more goals.
Correspondingly, they aren’t keen on playing from behind, either. But when circumstances called for it, that’s exactly what they did, storming back from a 2-1 deficit in the game’s final half-hour and snatching victory with Jhonder Cadiz’s injury-time winner. Flashing that glimpse of another way to win will only make them an even more difficult proposition in the postseason.
Don’t sleep on NSC.
2. Late goals are oh so costly
Sounds obvious, right? But the teams who lost track of this truism paid dearly for it on Decision Day.
Chicago Fire FC’s capitulation was probably the afternoon’s most painful example. Needing a win to book their place in the MLS Cup Playoffs, the Windy City side worked so hard to dig themselves out of a 3-1 first-half hole vs. NYCFC, and surely felt the wind at their backs as they entered the locker room tied at 3-3. Then a jaw-dropping mistake by defender Miguel Angel Navarro in the 77th minute gifted Taty Castellanos the winner and killed their postseason hopes.
D.C. United also required victory in their home finale vs. Montreal and had it in their grasp for nearly half the match, only for a 2-1 lead to morph into a 3-2 Impact win that broke Black-and-Red hearts. It’s the second week in a row that D.C. have fumbled away a positive result thanks to late leakiness and it caps an ultimately miserable year for the capital club.
Out in Los Angeles, LAFC went up 1-0 on Portland early as Carlos Vela logged his first full-90 performance since March, and looked sure to pad that cushion, dominating play for long stretches and peppering Steve Clark with seven total shots on goal. But their slipshod finishing left the door open and Timbers left back Jorge Villafana took advantage with an injury-time leveler that railroads LAFC into a Round One rematch with Seattle, the team that upset them in last year’s playoffs.
1. On tasty playoff pairings...
As we discussed earlier this week, home-field advantage is traditionally outsized in MLS and has remained so this season even in the absence of imposing home crowds. So most or all of the hosts in Round One of the playoffs will be favored. That said, I see some low-key treacherous matchups for the home sides.
Seattle-LAFC will be the pick of the litter for most observers, a clash of talent-laden West powers who played out an epic clash in last year’s conference final. Hosting rights are huge for the Sounders here, but I doubt they’ll be happy to meet the Black & Gold half of LA at this early juncture and thoughts of revenge will be simmering in Bob Bradley’s head for the duration of the international break.
Elsewhere, the San Jose Earthquakes are about as unappealing a guest as Sporting KC could have asked for and with their high-octane rhythm and penchant for chaos, I envision them posing more problems than your average bottom seed.
No. 4 Minnesota United have plenty to fear from a Colorado Rapids bunch who shook off a COVID-19 outbreak to finish the season on a three-game win streak. And NYCFC have every bit of the talent and fluidity required to seize the initiative in Orlando and force the Lions into a reactive posture in that 4 vs. 5 faceoff.