MLS Cup playoff race: What you need to know ahead of Decision Day


Major League Soccer fans are in for a real treat. Decision Day is upon us, with Eastern Conference clubs kicking off Sunday at 3:30 PM ET and Western Conference sides taking the field at 6 PM ET (stream games LIVE on ESPN+), and there are still 12 teams vying for the final six places in the MLS Cup playoffs — on top of the eight who’ve already qualified.

The top seven from each conference make up the 14 postseason participants — the top seed in each conference earns a first-round bye — and, with berths being clinched, we’ll update you on who has qualified and who has been eliminated.

Plus, we’ll take an early look at potential matchups for Round 1, based on current standings, and we’ll break down the hotly contested race for the Golden Boot. The MLS Cup playoffs begin on Nov. 20.

Jump to: Who’s in, who’s out | How teams can clinch | Golden Boot race | Round 1 byes | Eliminated this week | Matchmaking: East | Matchmaking: West

Who’s in, who’s out

Clinched playoff place:

Eastern Conference: New England Revolution, Nashville SC, Philadelphia Union, New York City FC
Western Conference: Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders FC, Colorado Rapids, Portland Timbers

Eliminated from postseason contention:

Eastern Conference: FC Cincinnati, Toronto FC, Chicago Fire FC, Inter Miami CF
Western Conference: Houston Dynamo FC, Austin FC, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes

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How teams can book their playoff places

Atlanta United: Atlanta have it simple enough, right? Beat or tie against the league’s worst team in Cincinnati and they’ll clinch postseason play. But should the Five Stripes lose to the Ohio side, they’ll need some help from either the Red Bulls (vs. Nashville) or Montreal (vs. Orlando) getting results in their respective games. Atlanta can still clinch a top-four berth and a home game if all of the games break in their favor.

Columbus Crew: A whole bunch of games need to fall in the Crew’s favor to sneak into the playoffs. They need to beat Chicago (and pile on some goals) and Nashville to beat the Red Bulls and Orlando to drop points to Montreal and D.C. to drop points to Toronto. That’s a lot to ask for, but at least the MLS Cup from last season is still shining in the Crew’s new stadium.

D.C. United: A win against Toronto and the Red Bulls losing to Nashville and Montreal dropping points to Orlando will see D.C. through to the playoffs.

CF Montreal: Win and they’re in. A victory over fellow postseason-seekers Orlando ensures a playoff berth. Regardless of the result, the Canadian club have been one of the surprising teams this season with Wilfried Nancy having done a remarkable job in his first season as coach.

New York Red Bulls: RBNY have come on strong during the last part of the season and are on the cusp of reaching the playoffs. Beat or draw with Nashville and they’re in. If the Red Bulls lose, then there is still hope. Montreal must drop points vs. Orlando and D.C. drop points Toronto and Columbus lose or tie vs. Chicago. A top-four finish is also achievable, depending on results and goal differential.

Orlando City: This will sting as Orlando seemed to have clinched a playoff spot last weekend, only to have a controversial referee decision see them settle for a draw vs. Nashville. They can take care of business by beating or tying with Montreal, or hope the Red Bulls can beat Nashville. If Cincinnati upsets Atlanta, Orlando could get in based on goal differential. Like some other Eastern Conference sides, a top-four berth is on the radar.

LA Galaxy: The Galaxy have been skating on thin ice lately after hovering around among the West’s top-four all season. Beat Minnesota and and they’re in. If they draw with the Loons, well it’s murky. Seattle will need to beat Vancouver, and either Salt Lake drops points to Kansas City or LAFC drops points to Colorado. The Galaxy could also get in if both Salt Lake and LAFC drop points from their respective games.

LAFC: The California side must beat Colorado first and foremost. If they do that, then they still need help. Vancouver needs to lose to Seattle or Salt Lake must drop points to Kansas City.

Minnesota United: The Loons just need a result against the Galaxy to get in. But they lose, then a couple scenarios need to play out. Vancouver loses to Seattle and either Salt Lake drops points to Kansas City or LAFC drops points to Colorado. If both Salt Lake and LAFC drop points, that will get Minnesota in as well.

Real Salt Lake: The Utah club could have clinched this last week but got dominated by Portland. This week, a win over Kansas City will do the trick. But K.C., licking their own wounds from a loss to Austin, are still vying for the West’s No. 1 seed. Should be a good one.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Another turnaround team that can finish on a high note with postseason play. Get a result against rivals and (at the moment) top-seeded Seattle. If the ‘Caps lose, then they need help. The Galaxy must lose to Minnesota and either Salt Lake drop points to Kansas City or LAFC drops points to Colorado. Vancouver are also in if Salt Lake and LAFC drop points in their matchups.

Gold rush

Heading into Decision Day, the Golden Boot is Valentin Castellanos‘ to lose. He leads all of MLS with 18 goals, is three clear of his next-closest challenger when it comes to xG, is on a roll with five goals in his past three appearances, and has already scored once against Sunday’s opponent, Philadelphia.

He’ll need to keep up his impressive run of form to confirm that piece of silverware, however. Ola Kamara and Raul Ruidiaz are each just a goal behind, Adam Buksa and Daniel Salloi are two behind, and a quintet of Gustavo Bou, Javier Hernandez, Damir Kreilach, Hany Mukhtar and Johnny Russell can draw level with a hat trick.

Of that chasing pack, Kamara, Ruidiaz and Buksa all have scored against their upcoming opponents (Toronto, Vancouver and Miami, respectively) — and in Ruidiaz’s case, he’s done so twice. So if anyone is to stop NYCFC’s talisman from picking up the league’s top-scorer award, look to one of these three to spoil his party.

Round 1 byes

New England Revolution: By the time the Revs take on Miami on Sunday, they’ll have enjoyed an 11-day rest since setting the MLS record for most points in a single season. Facing a Miami team boasting the third-worst goal differential in the league, you wouldn’t bet against Bruce Arena & Co. extending their historic points haul to 76.

Seattle Sounders: Going winless in five heading into Decision Day is hardly the form you’d expect from a team that stands to receive a first-round bye, and yet here the Sounders stand — thanks, in part, to chasing Kansas City losing three of its past five. The good news for Seattle is that its last win came in the form of a 4-1 result over Vancouver, where Brian Schmetzer’s side will travel on Sunday.

Going home

Inter Miami CF: Without the benefit of the expanded postseason field of the 2020 season, Miami found a playoff place a bridge too far in 2021. There was improvement under new manager Phil Neville, though, with the Herons stepping up their points per game from 1.04 last term to 1.15 this one. Incremental gains.

Matchmaking: Eastern Conference

2. Philadelphia Union vs. 7. New York Red Bulls: These sides met twice this year, both times at Red Bull Arena, and on each occasion the contest ended 1-1. Thankfully, there would be a winner in this hypothetical postseason matchup, but whether there would be any more goals is more difficult to say — the Red Bulls and Union have the worst and third-worst goals-for tallies of any Eastern Conference club in a playoff position.

3. Nashville SC vs. 6. Orlando City SC: Another contest between two teams who’ve faced each other this season without anyone earning a victory: in three meetings between them (twice in Tennessee, once in Florida), Nashville and Orlando have played to 1-1, 2-2 and 1-1 scorelines. Unsurprisingly, MVP contender Hany Mukhtar was the catalyst in these contests, registering a pair of goals and an assist

4. New York City FC vs 5. Atlanta United: These teams met on Oct. 20, finishing with a 1-1 draw, but NYCFC were able to pick up a 1-0 win when they played in June — less than a month before Atlanta manager Gabriel Heinze was fired. Since Gonzalo Pineda was hired to take over the Five Stripes, they’ve won nine of 14 games, losing just three times in that span. This is a team no one in the postseason, not least an NYCFC outfit whose six-game winless streak came to an end less than two weeks ago.

Matchmaking: Western Conference

2. Sporting Kansas City vs. 7. LA Galaxy: The Galaxy have just two wins in their past 14 games, so penciling them into the seventh seed makes us glad pencils have erasers. They’ve been beaten by Sporting KC twice this year, too, a pair of 2-0 defeats — with Johnny Russell scoring three of those tallies. Only three teams in the playoff race have conceded more goals than LA, so Russell and Daniel Salloi will surely be salivating at the possibility of welcoming Greg Vanney to Kansas City.

3. Colorado Rapids vs. 6. Vancouver Whitecaps: The Rapids have the second-most effective defense in the Western Conference, but have scored more than two goals in a game on just three occasions this season, and the Whitecaps have been outscored by every playoff-contending team bar Columbus, Minnesota and the Red Bulls. Goalkeepers William Yarbrough and Maxime Creapeau aren’t likely to be called upon too frequently in this one.

4. Portland Timbers vs. 5. Minnesota United: The Loons swept their season series with the Timbers, winning both home and away, but that was in the first half of the campaign — long before Portland won nine of its final 13 matches. It’s something of a surprise that Minnesota has scored the fewest goals of any team in a playoff position, considering the presence of Emanuel Reynoso and a serviceable attacking trio surrounding him, so perhaps a matchup with the most porous defense of any playoff-positioned team will be just what they need to spark another postseason run.

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