MLS Talking Points: Plenty still on the line on Decision Day

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Eight of the 11 MLS matches carry some sort of playoff implications on the final day of the 2017 MLS regular season

It all comes down to one day and 11 matches, a total of eight of which are carrying playoff implications in the final weekend of the Major League Soccer regular season.

The Eastern Conference has all six playoff spots secured, but the fight on Sunday will be for the premium positions in the playoffs. Four different teams are alive for the precious second seed, with New York City FC hoping to hold on to it with a win against the red-hot, but potentially distracted, Columbus Crew.

Atlanta United is poised to set another single-game attendance record, and new MLS season attendance record, but Tata Martino's men will be much more focused on trying to beat Toronto FC and ensure a playoff game at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

The Western Conference is much more wide open, with three teams vying for the final playoff spot and four teams pushing for the top two seeds. The Portland Timbers play host to the Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner securing first place in the West, while the San Jose Earthquakes look to lock up the final available playoff spot with a home win against Minnesota United.

Both FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake will be praying the Loons can pull off the upset in San Jose, though RSL's task is much tougher, needing a win against Sporting KC and plenty of help to sneak into the postseason.

The fact that FC Dallas will need help on the final day to reach the playoffs is a testament to the shocking meltdown the team has endured in the second half of what was supposed to be a trophy-filled season. Oscar Pareja's side could still sneak into the playoffs with a win and an Earthquakes stumble, but if Dallas falls short, there will be some serious questions asked about Pareja and the front office this winter.

The weekend isn't just about the playoffs. The end of the 2017 regular season will also mark the farewell of RFK Stadium as D.C. United's home. With a new home — Audi Field — opening in 2018, D.C. United will say goodbye to its long-time stadium and will do so against none other than the arch-rival New York Red Bulls.

Here is a look at some of the key talking points in MLS ahead of Decision Day on Sunday:


IT'S A BIG WEEK FOR ... SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES


San Jose Earthquakes MLS 2 09302017

The San Jose Earthquakes have endured a difficult stretch run in the regular season, having suffered five big losses during a 3-5-2 stretch heading into Sunday's regular season finale, but FC Dallas' improbable collapse has meant the Earthquakes have successfully landed in position to book an unlikely postseason berth with a home win on Sunday.

A pair of huge recent results — a home win against Portland and road draw in Vancouver — has allowed the Earthquakes to go into decision day knowing a win puts them into the playoffs for the first time since their Supporters' Shield-winning season in 2012.

The Earthquakes will be at home at Avaya Stadium, where they have amassed an impressive 9-2-5 record, but while Minnesota United has just three road wins all year all three of those wins have come in the club's past six road matches. Those road wins include a surprising triumph in Atlanta, which makes the Loons a tricky opponent in such a big match.

"It's a place where we feel comfortable in, a place where we like to be on the front foot and take the game to our opposition," Earthquakes coach Chris Leitch said. "That said, we can't do that too much without the balance. If it goes on into even the later moments of the game without a deciding goal, I think at that point we can still stay committed and confident that we will persevere at some point, whether it's early or it's late."

The Earthquakes are currently tied with FC Dallas on points, but hold the total wins tiebreaker, meaning San Jose can qualify for the playoffs as long as its result isn't worse than the FC Dallas result at home against the LA Galaxy, though RSL can leapfrog both teams with a home win against Sporting Kansas City.


DON'T MISS........NEW YORK CITY FC vs. COLUMBUS CREW


Wil Trapp Jack Harrison MLS 04292017

New York City FC is ahead of the Columbus Crew by three points in the Eastern Conference standings, but that's a margin that has evaporated from what was once a 10-point cushion just two months ago. An NYCFC slump has seen the squad win just two of its past eight matches, while the Crew have put together the best late season run in the league, a nine-match unbeaten streak (8-0-3).

"We're not playing as well as we used to, and we're not scoring as many as we used to, and it's something we have to work on because it's heading into the last game before the playoffs and this is something we need to change," NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira told Goal. "Physically, we have players coming back from injuries so we're going to challenge everybody. We have the desire, we want to compete, so we'll be challenging teams."

The match promises to be a wide-open affair between two teams that have put up big numbers in their recent meetings. They have combined for five goals in each of their three games over the past two seasons, with NYCFC posting a 3-2 win in Columbus back in April in their only meeting in 2017.

"It's going to be a really good game of football because I think both teams have the same kind of philosophy," Vieira said. "both teams like to have possession of the ball, and if you look at the quality of the players, they want to have the ball at their feet, so it's going to be really challenging for both teams."

The Crew are a much different team now than the one NYCFC faced in April, having hit their stride in recent months. The midseason arrival of Pedro Santos helped give the attack a boost, while the defense has come together well after a very rough stretch in the first half of the season.

The match is being played at Citi Field in Queens — the home of the New York Mets baseball team — because of the New York Yankees participation in the MLB playoffs, so what is normally a strong home-field advantage at Yankee Stadium won't be in play on Sunday.

One thing that could be working against the Crew is the recent distraction posed by the revelation that Crew owner Anthony Precourt is considering moving the team to Austin, Texas. It is a development that has enraged Crew fans, but Crew coach Gregg Berhalter doesn't see it affecting the team's performance heading into Sunday's pivotal match.

“You guys are reading into this a little too much in terms of how you’re thinking it will affect the group,” Berhalter told local reporters on Friday. “The group is extremely focused right now. They’ve been working really hard.

"Any announcement isn’t going to throw us off track.”

A loss would put either team in jeopardy of falling as far as down to the fifth seed in the East playoffs, but NYCFC knows a draw just might be enough to hold onto the second seed, while anything short of a win would very likely put the Crew in the fifth seed, which would mean a much tougher road to a potential return to the MLS Cup final after reaching the final in 2015.


ALSO DON'T MISS ... TIMBERS vs. WHITECAPS


Carl Robinson Caleb Porter MLS 07232017

Perhaps it is fitting that the Vancouver Whitecaps must go through the Portland Timbers to cap off a regular season few outside of British Columbia could have envisioned.

The Whitecaps head to Providence Park knowing a win or draw gives them the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, while the Timbers know that a victory would lock up the top seed in the West, as well as the Cascadia Cup.

"The way I see it, the playoffs start this Sunday," Caleb Porter said. "That's the way we're going to approach it. Obviously if we win the game, we shave off a game in the playoffs. We're at home, playing a very good team in Vancouver, a team at the top of the (West standings), obviously that's where we want to be."

Few would have picked the Whitecaps to be contending for first place in the West this late in the season, but the Whitecaps have put together a strong and deep squad that has exceeded all expectations in 2017.

"We're 33 games in, and the league table does not lie," Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson said. "We are top of the table. We're going to a difficult place, we know we have good games against Portland. They're a good team obviously. I know Caleb very well. he's a super manager, but who knows what's going to happen? We really don't.

"Form goes out the window on derby days," Robinson said. "I'm sure they're confident. We'll certainly be confident, and we'll see."

The Whitecaps are putting the finishing touches on the best season in the team's MLS history, and while the current Whitecaps do have plenty of similarities to past editions of the team, Porter sees a more balanced squad than the Whitecaps have fielded in the past.

"They've always been an organized team defensively, with a good goalkeeper and very good center backs in (Kendall) Waston and (Tim) Parker," Porter said of the Whitecaps. "As a team they're organized and tough to break down. I think the difference this year is they're more dynamic and I would say creative in the attack. That's been the difference for them this year. They score more goals, they've been a bit better going forward. Still don't look to carry games too much, but I think they're more effective with the ball, in creating chances, whether that's in transition or when they do have a bit of the ball."

The offseason addition of Fredy Montero, coupled with the midseason arrival of Peruvian playmaker Yordy Reyna, has helped the Whitecaps attack kick into a new gear. Some smart additions, both in the transfer market, and via the draft, have also helped give Robinson the deepest team he has ever had, which has given him the luxury of making personnel changes all over the field.

"There's no sentiment involved," Robinson said about his lineup decisions. "Players have different tactical attributes and I'll pick the best players suited for the game I believe it will be.

"I know Portland inside and out so we'll have to pick a team that we're able to combat their strengths, but also exploit their weaknesses, and they certainly do have some."

The Timbers enter Sunday's match supremely confident, having beaten the Whitecaps in both previous meetings, and having posted a 10-2-4 record at Providence Park this season. Their form at home has been even stronger in recent months, as they ride a five-match winning streak into Sunday's match, having outscored opponents 14-2 in those games.

The Timbers also have good memories of their last meeting with the Whitecaps, a July 23 trip to Vancouver that saw a patchwork Portland squad snap a six-match winless streak with an improbable 2-1 victory.

"I thought that was a turning point for us," Porter said. "We went there with only 16 players, and two T2 guys we called up. We had, I think maybe four or five starters in the lineup and we pulled off a very good result. I thought that did turn our season a little bit, and brought a spirit to our team and we've been on a good run ever since."

Counting that win, the Timbers are 7-3-2 since last beating the Whitecaps, and a win on Sunday would give the Timbers a Cascadia Cup and top seed in the West playoffs as they look to win their second MLS Cup in three seasons.

QUICK KICKS


Toronto FC Supporters' Shield

Toronto FC needs a win or draw on Sunday to set a new MLS record for most points in a season. TFC is currently tied with the 1998 LA Galaxy at 68 points. Toronto can also set a new league record for wins in a season, and is currently tied with the 2014 Seattle Sounders with 20 victories.

Nemanja Nikolic heads into the final weekend leading the Golden Boot race with 24 goals, with Portland's Diego Valeri trailing by three goals. Sacha Kljestan holds a slimmer edge in the league's assist race, with his 17 assists one ahead of Toronto FC's Victor Vasquez.

Bastian Schweinsteiger will miss the Chicago Fire's regular season finale, marking his sixth missed match in seven since suffering a calf strain in September. The German star is hoping to be back for the Fire's first playoff match, which could come as early as Wednesday.

Atlanta United playmaker Miguel Almiron could make his return in Sunday's match against Toronto FC after having missed four matches with a hamstring injury. Gerardo Martino wouldn't confirm whether he planned on starting Almiron, saying "Maybe" when asked if Almiron would make his first start in a month.


MATCHUPS TO WATCH


Ilie Sanchez Albert Rusnak MLS 04292017

Albert Rusnak vs. Ilie Sanchez. Rusnak has keyed RSL's turnaround in the second half of the season, and Sanchez must do his best to contain the RSL playmaker if Sporting KC is going to grab road points.

Yordy Reyna vs. Diego Chara. The Timbers will look to go after the Whitecaps offensively, but keeping Reyna under wraps will be key as well, and Chara (along with David Guzman) must contain the Peruvian playmaker.

Josef Martinez vs. Drew Moor. There may be no forward more dangerous in MLS than Martinez, and Moor's veteran savvy and good positioning will be needed to try and slow him down.

Maxi Moralez vs. Wil Trapp. The NYCFC attack hasn't clicked like it did earlier in the season, and it will be up to Trapp to ensure Moralez doesn't change that.

Hector Villalba vs. Justin Morrow. Whether as a right wingback or right back, Morrow should see plenty of Villalba while trying to force the Argentine forward/winger to do some defending as well.

Romell Quioto vs. Matt Polster. A rested Quioto will be a handful to deal with because of his speed, but Polster has been one of the league's best right backs this season.

Federico Higuain vs. Alexander Ring. If the Crew are going to pull off the big road win, Higuain must have a good showing, which won't come easy with the imposing Finnish midfielder trying to stop him.

Kellyn Acosta vs. Jonathan dos Santos. These two box-to-box midfielder should cross paths plenty of times, and renew acquaintances for the first time since the June USA-Mexico qualifier.

Julian Gressel vs. Michael Bradley. The front runner for MLS rookie of the year will need to have a big game for Atlanta, but Bradley will be locked in and eyeing the MLS team points record.

Michael Barrios vs. Ashley Cole. Is Cole thinking about his vacation, or will he come to play against Barrios, who knows he must step up if FC Dallas has any hopes of making the playoffs?


DECISION DAY PREDICTIONS


Leandro Gonzalez Pirez Sebastian Giovinco MLS 04082017

Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1.  We know the Five Stripes want a strong finish, but TFC will be gunning for the MLS record for points in a season, making this one a tightly-contested encounter.

D.C. United 3, New York Red Bulls 1. With the Red Bulls expected to rest starters, look for D.C. to finish its last season at RFK Stadium with a big win.

Montreal Impact 1, New England Revolution 2. The Impact are a dead team walking, and the Revs have looked much more interested in a strong finish down the stretch than Montreal.

New York City FC 1, Crew 2. The unfamiliar confines at Citi Field aren't likely to give NYCFC much of a home-field edge, as the Crew shake off the relocation distraction for a big win.

Philadelphia Union 1, Orlando City 2. The Lions close out a disappointing season with a win, as Dom Dwyer provides evidence that he's the striker to build around going forward.

FC Dallas 2, LA Galaxy 0. We finally see FC Dallas flash the form expected at the beginning of the season, but it is too little, too late. 

Real Salt Lake 1, Sporting Kansas City 2. The SKC attack puts together a complete performance, with Diego Rubio and Gerso Fernandes the stars against an RSL side that falls flat late.

Portland Timbers 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 0. Diego Valeri closes out an MVP-caliber season with two more goals to help the Timbers secure first place in the West.

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San Jose Earthquakes 2, Minnesota United 1. Chris Wondolowski does it one more time, helping San Jose break its playoff drought with a huge home win.

Seattle Sounders 2, Colorado Rapids 0. The defending champions build some momentum heading into the playoffs, as Will Bruin and Clint Dempsey lead the way.

Houston Dynamo 2, Chicago Fire 0. The Dynamo do the job at home once again, with Erick Torres and Alberth Ellis netting the goals to keep the Fire from securing a top two seed in the East.

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