By Ridge Mahoney
I have to give some credit to MLS: it has taken a breakthrough element and tweaked it before seeing it implemented for the first time. It's not been used, much less broken, but MLS has decided to change it anyway.
The ballyhooed Decision Day – modeled after the final day of English Premier League play when, perhaps, relegation places as well as the title are in dispute and all games kickoff at the same time – occurs Sunday. Under the original plan, broadcast partners Fox Sports and ESPN would wait until the final week of the season to select the most meaningful games to be shown in their broadcast windows.
Under said original plan, all five Eastern Conference games would kick off at 5 p.m. ET, with the Western Conference season finales to follow at 7 pm. In this way, similar to how FIFA conducts the final group days of its competitions, all teams with something to play for would be locked to the same timeframe, give or take a minute or two in case of in-match delays and other factors.
With its pick of games in the 5-7 p.m. Eastern Conference window, Fox Sports chose Columbus-D.C. United, the outcome of which will have possible bearing on several playoff spots. ESPN chose Sporting Kansas City-Galaxy; SKC can clinch Wednesday by beating Colorado but its season finale will juggle the Western pieces nonetheless.
Of course, teams will be monitoring other games by mobile devices and information relayed to them by staff members. But a team on the bubble won’t have its chances extinguished or prolonged by what happened in another stadium in a game played earlier, and teams already assured of a postseason slot can’t alter their approach based on a score about to go final as they kick off.
At least three playoff spots will be determined on Sunday, and if SKC fails to beat Colorado Wednesday it too will need at least one result to go its way on the last day. In fact, only the conference leaders know in which place they will finish and even they have something at stake on Sunday.
Final placing, not overall record, determines which six of 10 teams in each conference qualify for postseason play, and thus the Eastern and Western games can kick off at different times, since those intraconference results are all that matters. But there is an exception, and by recognizing it MLS has taken its own innovation and improved it.
FC Dallas and the Red Bulls are assured of homefield advantage leading up to MLS Cup, assuming they advance that far. The final day of play will determine which of them can host the championship game if both successfully navigate the conference semifinals and finals.
To add some suspense regarding the Supporters’ Shield, which is awarded to the team finishing with the best regular season record, MLS moved back the kickoff time for the Chicago-Red Bulls game from 5 p.m. ET to 7 p.m. Thus games involving teams tied for the best overall record – Red Bulls and FC Dallas – will kick off at the same time.
“We created Decision Day to ensure that we have the most compelling and competitively driven matches played simultaneously on the final day of our regular season,” said MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott in a statement. “Changing the time of the Fire-Red Bulls match fulfills our vision, and will provide an exciting finish to our Supporters’ Shield race.”
FCD hosts San Jose, which is in contention – barely – for a Western Conference playoff berth. Since Chicago is out of the Eastern race, its kickoff time does not affect the battle between sixth place in that conference between New England and Orlando City. The Revs play at New York City FC and OCSC is at Philadelphia.
Aside from conference top seeds FCD and the Red Bulls, no other team knows what its playoff road looks like. Several teams could finish second and bypass the knockout rounds, or be sent on the road as a fifth- or sixth-place team. That’s a function of league parity, as is a final day of play where there’s something at stake for the vast majority of teams, and the league’s commitment to using television as much as possible to heighten drama and entertainment.
Network coverage of the Fox Sports 1 and ESPN games will include cut-ins to the other games in progress and the league has lined up several programs on Twitter and other social media to build up the buzz as the games are being played out.
This is a league that, frankly, has at times subsumed competitive factors for those of marketing and publicity and contrived events. But by using its broadcast partners and social media in conjunction with elements of competition, MLS has fused together its games and their relevance. Sunday won’t be the most important day in league history on the field but it could be the most intriguing in other ways.