The MLS Wrap: Earthquakes deliver Decision Day drama, East powers lead way and more

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San Jose's last-minute victory provided the perfect cap to a wild final day to end the MLS regular season

Of course it had to be the San Jose Earthquakes.

Who better to deliver the perfect heart-stopping ending to the wildest final day of the regular season in MLS history?

Who better than Chris Wondolowski to lay off the stoppage-time assist to help the Earthquakes return to the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2012?

San Jose's triumph ended a drought, but also ended FC Dallas' season much sooner than anybody could have imagined just a few months ago. FCD's 5-1 thrashing of the LA Galaxy wasn't enough to salvage a campaign that had spiraled out of control in recent months. If anything, the display felt like a cruel reminder of a wasted season by a team that was supposed to challenge for a title, not end up out of the postseason entirely.

While Dallas saw its season end with a whimper, Portland's regular season ended with the day's most triumphant result. The Timbers' win over the Vancouver Whitecaps not only secured first place in the Western Conference, but it also helped Caleb Porter lift the Cascadia Cup for the first time as Timbers coach. Now Portland heads into the playoffs looking every bit the favorite to reach a second MLS Cup final in three seasons.

In the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC earned a draw in Atlanta on a day when Mercedes-Benz Stadium played host to the largest crowd to witness a standalone MLS match, and the 71,824 in attendance watched TFC make history, setting a league record for points in a season. It will now be up to those same fans to deliver similar support when Atlanta United plays host to the red-hot Columbus Crew in Wednesday's knockout round opener.

David Villa helped New York City FC hold on to the second seed in the East, with his two-goal effort serving as a reminder why he's very much still a leading candidate for a repeat as MLS MVP. His last-second penalty kick miss ultimately didn't cost NYCFC anything, but it did help keep the Columbus Crew riding the league's longest unbeaten streak heading into the playoffs. The team now being haunted by rumors of a move to Austin, Texas, didn't look at all distracted Sunday, and Gregg Berhalter's men just might have the quality to make another run to a final.

Sunday also marked the end of RFK Stadium's days as D.C. United's home, and an impressive crowd came out to see the old building off. Though the New York Red Bulls spoiled the party as their reserves put on an impressive display, the scenes at RFK on Sunday provided a reminder of just how special a soccer market the nation's capital is.

Here is a look back at the key storylines from a wild MLS decision day:


EARTHQUAKES GRAB LATE PLAYOFF TICKET


Earthquakes Celebrate 10232017

As the clock ticked into stoppage time at Avaya Stadium on Sunday, you couldn't have blamed Earthquakes fans for starting to lose hope. The playoffs looked to be fading away for yet another year, but at least a few of the fans in attendance had to be holding out hope that their team could work some late-game magic like they had delivered so many times before.

The late heroics returned to San Jose in the third minute of stoppage time, with Victor Bernardez chesting down a long Andrew Tarbell kick, then springing Danny Hoesen with a headed pass that culminated in Marco Urena's thrilling game-winner in a 3-2 triumph over Minnesota United. Urena's goal meant the Earthquakes edged out Dallas for the final available spot in the 2017 MLS playoffs.

That goal not only snapped the Earthquakes' playoff drought, it also harkened back to the San Jose of old, with so many memorable Earthquakes teams having made a habit of late-game heroics. Perhaps it was fitting that Wondolowski served up the assist on the winning goal, sealing another big performance for the Earthquakes, who suddenly head into the playoffs with some momentum and belief.

"I think today was the epitome of our season," Wondolowski said. "A roller coaster, ups and downs, some complete highs, some complete lows, but in the end we're still alive."

"I don't think there could have been any more emotion than what went into the last 10 minutes," Earthquakes coach Chris Leitch said. "I'm just really proud and excited and happy for the guys to put everything, literally everything, into it. Especially in these last weeks, and especially in this game, and the last 5-10 minutes of this game, to prove to everyone that nothing was going to stand in this team's way from reaching one of its goals, which was reaching the postseason, which they rightly earned."

The Earthquakes earned their playoff spot with an improbable three-week stretch that saw them first beat Portland at home, then earn an impressive road point in Vancouver. That was supposed to be the hard part of San Jose's playoff push, but Minnesota United relished the spoiler role, and continued the impressive late-season form that Adrian Heath's men had put forth in the final month of the season. Twice the Loons erased deficits against San Jose, and when Francisco Calvo's header tied the match at 2-2 in the 81st minute, it pushed the Earthquakes out of playoff position.

Leitch turned to Urena in the 88th minute, and admitted he probably could have put him in sooner, but the Costa Rican striker made Leitch's patience pay off when he slid into a spot in front of goal and sent home Wondolowski's pass to spark celebrations at Avaya Stadium.

The victory provided some sweet redemption for Leitch, who was widely regarded as a questionable hire when he was named as Dom Kinnear's replacement during the summer. The former MLS defender took the job without having been a head coach before, but he helped the Earthquakes navigate some brutal stretches, and a plethora of international call-ups. 

"We've had some trying years in the past, and it's great to get it done right now, but it's just the beginning," Wondolowski said. "It's a new season starting tomorrow.

"It's a quick turnaround, Wednesday, but we're ready," Wondolowski said. "I like this team in 90 minutes against any team, so I'm looking forward to it."


FC DALLAS GOES FROM TREBLE TO TROUBLE


Maxi Urruti MLS FC Dallas 10222017

Remember when FC Dallas looked like a team that just might take home every major trophy an MLS team could win? It was the start of the year, and FCD impressed in its CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Pachuca. Fresh off a Supporters' Shield triumph in 2017, FCD looked the class of the league and a bona fide MLS Cup favorite.

Instead of challenging for a treble, Dallas instead wound up finding major trouble, with a second-half collapse so surprising and so thorough that it evolved into one of the league's bigger mysteries. How did a team with so much talent go on a 1-7-6 slide that doomed it to an early vacation?

One factor could be Oscar Pareja's shift away from the team's philosophy of playing younger players. He seemed to show little faith in his deep collection of homegrown players, choosing instead to consistently lean on an aging crop of fringe players. That lack of trust in young players ultimately led to Dallas' bench not being developed as quickly as it needed, so as the team's older options faded, Pareja found himself with few reliable options to turn to.

Sources tell Goal that trend led to not only discontent in the locker room, but also in the upper levels of FCD, where ownership wasn't happy about seeing young talents receive so little playing time. That ultimately has led to a strained relationship between Pareja and Dallas general manager Fernando Clavijo, who has been left to deal with unhappy ownership that only grew more upset as the team's slump turned into a downright debacle that kept it out of the playoffs.

Could FCD make a coaching change? It seems unlikely, but it could come down to how much Pareja is willing to relent to ownership demands, and how much player personnel input he ultimately loses after this season. It still seems like a long shot that Pareja leaves FCD, but the reality is the problems in Dallas aren't about just a poorly timed slump, but rather strained relationships and a seriously unsettled team that has gone from cup contender to club in crisis.


EAST FINISHES ON TOP


Josef Martinez Michael Bradley Atlanta United Toronto FC MLS

Not too long ago, the Western Conference was seen as the obvious class of the league, with the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers leading a group that was unquestionably superior to the East.

Times have changed.

By the end of Sunday's Decision Day matches, the five teams with the best records in MLS were all Eastern Conference teams, marking the first time a conference swept the top five spots in the Supporters' Shield race. (The West finished with the top four records twice before, in 2002 and 2011.)

As much as the league's unbalanced schedule can throw some uncertainty into the equation when trying to draw comparisons, the East's superior results in 2017 extend far beyond even any reasonable variation the unbalanced schedule could be blamed for.

In head-to-head matchups, the East posted a 51-39-32 record against the West, with the margin being swung largely by the ability of East teams to earn road draws against West opponents far more often than West opponents could take points on the road against the East. The East finished with a 39-10-11 record at home against the West, while posting a 12-29-21 mark on the road.

Toronto FC led the way, with a 7-1-3 record against the West, while Atlanta United posted a 7-2-3 record against the West. Among West teams, Seattle had a surprisingly poor 2-4-5 record which was partly due to an abysmal 0-4-1 road mark against the East.

The East advantage wasn't built just on good teams beating up bad teams either. When you factor in just teams that made the playoffs, East teams posted a 17-11-8 record against their West playoff counterparts.

And the Eastern Conference's reward for such a dominant season? Every East playoff team but the New York Red Bulls is guaranteed to host the MLS Cup final if they get there, and the Red Bulls could host the final if the West finalist isn't one of the three Cascadia clubs (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver).


QUICK KICKS


Sean Franklin Bill Hamid Kofi Opare D.C. United

Bill Hamid was in a D.C. United uniform Sunday, but was only a spectator for the final match at RFK Stadium. As he prepares to make his move to Danish side Mitdtjylland it should be noted that Hamid is eligible for free agency in a year. Contrary to reports suggesting D.C. United will hold Hamid's rights if he ever returns to MLS, sources within the league have confirmed to Goal that Hamid will effectively become a free agent at the start of 2019. He turns 28 in November 2018, which helps him reach the lone remaining criteria he needs to become a free agent.

Clint Dempsey's red card against the Colorado Rapids looks set to keep him out of the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, but don't be surprised if the red card is rescinded. He was punished for what VAR ultimately determined was an intentional arm swing at the head of Rapids defender Mike da Fonte, but Dempsey didn't appear to aim his elbow at da Fonte's head, and looked more like a player trying to break free from being grabbed. The final decision by the league's independent review panel on Dempsey's red card could have significant implications on the West playoff picture.

With Chris Pontius a good bet to head elsewhere via free agency this winter, the Philadelphia Union had to love what they saw from speedster Fafa Picault on the final day. He notched two goals and an assist in the 6-1 thrashing of Orlando City.

Sunday's loss to New England could very well have been Montreal Impact coach Mauro Biello's final match in charge. The loss left the Impact with nine losses in their final 10 matches, a disastrous collapse that won't go over well with owner Joey Saputo. Look for the Impact to try and lure Italian former Impact star Alessandro Nesta as their new coach. Nesta has done well in charge of NASL side Miami FC and was previously linked to the Impact coaching job.


BEST OF MLS DECISION DAY


Danny Hoesen MLS 07092017

Player of the Week: Danny Hoesen. On a day when the playoffs were on the line, Hoesen had a hand in all three Earthquakes goals in the team's biggest win of the season.

Team of the Week: Portland Timbers. With first place in the West on the line along with the Cascadia Cup, the Timbers delivered a big home win against a tough Vancouver side.

Rookie of the Week: Jack Elliott. The Philadelphia center back turned in another strong performance in one of the better rookie seasons in the league.

Goal of the Week: Sebastian Giovinco has started to make free kick goals look easy, but that shouldn't keep us from appreciating the incredible skill shown in his vital equalizer against Atlanta United.

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