This isn’t the mindset MLS and its broadcast partners want heading into the final day of regular-season play Sunday, but for me, whatever happens, happens.
Decision Day will finalize the final four playoff spots and present at least one fan base a healthy serving of bitter disappointment, but it merely sets the table for the most appetizing postseason in league history. Without knowing the participants or the matchups, here’s what I’m looking forward to -- and hoping for -- starting with the knockout round next week:
BEDLAM AT BMO. The first MLS season for Toronto FC, 2007, was a painful one. Remember frustrated fans singing, “All we are saying, is give us a goal,” as they and their team endured one shutout after another? After three road losses to open the season (combined scores, 0-9) Toronto FC hosted Sporting Kansas City and lost, 1-0. Finally, in the second home game, Danny Dichio ended the drought in the 24th minute and TFC rolled to its first MLS victory, 3-1, over Chicago.
Just getting the stadium off the ground involved extensive negotiations, since Toronto’s MLS bid was tied into Canada’s hosting of the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. At least two other projects were considered and discarded before city and provincial officials hammered out agreements with the Canadian Soccer Association, FIFA, MLS and the team’s ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
The site chosen at Exhibition Place had been cleared by the demolition of Exhibition Stadium in 1999. Unfortunately, TFC has gone through its own upheavals and shakeups and renovations since its first MLS season, and left its own wreckage for fans and journalists to pick through. The coaching casualties include Mo Johnston, Aron Winter, Ryan Nelsen, Preki and Paul Mariner. A short consulting stint by Jurgen Klinsmann ended badly. Disastrous signings included Julian de Guzman, Mista, Laurent Robert, Nick Garcia, Alen Stevanovic and Jermaine Defoe.
So much change and so many false starts led to zero playoff appearances, until this year when so much has gone right. TFC clinched its first playoff berth two weeks ago. Michael Bradley has been a midfield fulcrum TFC has often lacked, and Sebastian Giovinco is destined to do a double of MVP and Goal of the Year.
An expansion to 30,000 capacity at BMO Field forced TFC to start the season with seven road games, and it rode out that rough start as well as few bumps along the way. So tight is the Eastern Conference that TFC could fall into fifth or sixth place on Sunday and be forced to play the first MLS playoff game in team history on the road, but it can also secure an historic milestone at BMO by finishing no lower than fourth, which is where it sits heading into the final weekend. The top four teams are assured of at least one playoff home game.
Since nothing comes easy for TFC, it is winding up the season at archrival Montreal, whose fans have endured their own agonies since launching as an MLS operation in 2012. But nothing compares to nearly nine years in the wilderness.
There’s no guarantee TFC could pack BMO Field on short notice if it has to host a knockout game Wednesday or Thursday, or next weekend. It might have to play twice in a few days’ time. Yet whatever transpires, the 2015 season has been one of perseverance for the team and its fans, and all concerned deserve a showcase in their renovated home.
CASCADIA COUNTDOWN. MLS tripled down on its Pacific Northwest investment by adding Portland and Vancouver as expansion teams in 2011, and by doing so took the elements of intensity and passion to new levels. The Timbers and Sounders are antagonistic, edgy rivals, and the Whitecaps have their own issues with both teams.
For the first time in 2015, all three Cascadia Cup rivals could play in the same postseason. Vancouver has clinched, though a recent drop in form has dragged it into a third-place tie with Portland, which despite having the same number of points, 50, has not yet clinched. Neither has Seattle, which is a point further back in fifth place. Heading into Sunday, no team knows where it will wind up and as many as two could be dumped out of the postseason entirely.
Regardless of whether or not the bitter rivals go head-to-head in the playoffs -- as occurred when Seattle and Portland engaged in a pair of street fights two postseasons ago that the Timbers won, 5-3, on aggregate -- playoff games in the Cascadia cities are great sporting events. The revised format might force all three teams into the knockout round, which is especially tough on the third-place finisher that in past seasons would avoid the possibility of one-and-done, but in a fiercely tough conference filling one-half of the playoff field would be a testament to a group of teams and fan groups utterly committed.
TOP SEEDS TO MEET? The Red Bulls and FC Dallas have already nailed down the Eastern and Western Conference championships, respectively, and thus hold homefield advantage through the playoffs as well as a chance to host the MLS Cup final. Both won the titles by relatively comfortable margins and by surviving the playoffs they would set up a memorable championship match regardless of venue but there’s one more dramatic twist that needs to be staged.
The kickoff time for the Red Bulls-Fire match has been changed to coincide with that of the FC Dallas-San Jose game so the two teams vying for the best overall record will play their decisive matches simultaneously. How much emphasis head coaches Jesse Marsch and Oscar Pareja place on that accomplishment is an interesting subplot, as resting certain players for the postseason might take priority over getting the best result on Sunday. Many of their colleagues are not so fortunate.
The closeness of the conference races puts many coaches in the same predicament but since teams like Portland and Seattle and Sporting Kansas City probably need points just to get into the playoffs, they can’t be looking forward to postseason games that may not happen. They will also have to juggle the risks and rewards of myriad scenarios: finishing second and avoiding the knockout round, or winding up third or fourth and hosting a knockout game, or heading out on the road as a fifth or sixth seed in the conference.
Decision Day decides the playoff field, but the impact of coaching decisions made Sunday will alter significantly how the postseason plays out.