Here are the ten things we learned from Week 33 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. San Jose Sneaks In, Ignominy for Dallas
There was only one playoff spot up for grabs on the season’s final day: the Western Conference’s sixth and final seed.
San Jose, by virtue of its wins tiebreaker over FC Dallas and point advantage over Real Salt Lake, held the keys going into the day. Beat Minnesota United at home, and they’d make their first postseason trip since the Goonies’ magical 2012.
But on a day when Dallas and Salt Lake – seemingly for the first time in months – both won, the ‘Quakes nearly fumbled their golden ticket away. They entered stoppage time in a 2-2 tie, when Marco Ureña, from a Chris Wondolowski assist, scrambled home the game-winning goal.
San Jose, which finished the season with a -21 goal differential and more losses than wins, doesn’t deserve to be in a playoff game. But FC Dallas, who would have gone had the Loons held on, deserved it less.
Their collapse – starting with a 4-0 home loss to Vancouver at the end of July – will go down as the most extraordinary and most improbable in MLS history.
2. Timbers Top The West
The Western Conference crown – not to mention the Cascadia Cup – was on the line in Portland, where the Timbers faced the Vancouver Whitecaps needing a win to take both titles.
A win – for the sixth straight home game and third time this year over Vancouver – is just what they got, with goals on either side of halftime from Liam Ridgewell and Darren Mattocks overturning Kendall Waston’s opener.
The Timbers are playing the West’s best soccer right now, and they have been since August. Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala have turned one of the league’s worst defenses into a decidedly above-average one, while Mattocks has done more than enough in Fanendo Adi’s absence to keep the attack humming.
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, have to be worried. They were thoroughly outplayed in this game – unable to generate any offense from the run of play – and, considering they were shutout over 180 minutes in their last playoff trip, that can’t feel good.
3. Farewell to RFK
DC United bid RFK Stadium farewell in front of one of its biggest crowds in years – announced at more than 40,000 – and a bevy of its great former coaches and players.
It was a wonderful occasion at the end of an extraordinarily trying season for DC, who – despite taking an early lead through Paul Arriola – lost the finale 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls.
DC should be quite a bit better by the time they open up their new Buzzard Point stadium next fall, and should that process go smoothly, MLS will have seen the safe passage of another of its original clubs to long-term viability.
RFK held plenty of memories, but moving on from it – for the future of DC United – should be one of the best. The likes Dallas, New England, Colorado, and, sadly, Columbus, haven’t yet been quite so lucky.
4. Great Show in Atlanta
The best game of Decision Day was played in front of the largest crowd to ever watch an MLS match: more than 71,000 fans in Atlanta saw their team go blow-for-blow with Toronto in what finished as a thrilling 2-2 draw.
Whether it’s in the Eastern Conference semifinal or final, it feels like we’re heading for an Atlanta-Toronto playoff series. With a nod to New York City, those have been the two best teams all year.
The head-to-head matchups tell the story. Atlanta has scared and drawn TFC twice, while the Reds have pretty well run over every other Eastern Conference team at least once this year.
If they play twice more in the coming weeks, it will be a fantastic showcase for MLS.
5. Is Sporting Out Of Steam?
Sporting fans know the record: Since lifting MLS Cup on that frigid Kansas night in 2013, Sporting KC has lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in three consecutive years – at New York, at Portland, and then at Seattle.
They could be headed for a similar fate this year.
A month ago, Sporting was in position to win the West. Today, they finished fifth – having gone winless in their final five games, two of which were against teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
The team looks exhausted. At the very least, they’re playing exhausted. It’s been the theme with Peter Vermes’ hard-running system over the last three years: Sporting is great out of the gates, when they’re fresh, expends a ton of energy, and fades down the stretch.
Houston away is a tough, tough ask – and if Sporting exits after one playoff game for fourth straight year, Vermes will have to take a hard look in the mirror.
6. Dempsey Strikes Again
Great though he may be, Clint Dempsey has always been a petulant, selfish player – and those unseemly traits were on full display in Seattle’s 3-0 win over Colorado at CenturyLink Field.
In the game’s 24th minute, Dempsey was sent off for an off-the-ball elbow on Mike DaFonte. Dempsey’s reaction to this was to sarcastically clap at the referee – who had just watched the video review – and then try to pick a fight with DaFonte.
Was it the worst thing Dempsey has ever done in his career? Hardly. But there was absolutely no need for it, and now, the longtime U.S. star will be suspended for the Sounders’ playoff opener.
That’s no small matter. Dempsey is a big-game player. Unfortunately, as always, he’s a classless one.
7. A Legend Says Goodbye
Patrice Bernier, the heartbeat of the Montreal Impact, made his final professional appearance on Sunday in Quebec.
Though the Impact lost the game 3-2 to New England, Bernier went out in style. He scored a first half penalty, after which his parents rang the famous Stade Saputo bell, and walked off the field in the second half to a stirring ovation in tears.
Bernier is staying with the Impact next season as an academy coach, but he’ll be missed. MLS has seen few players with as much talent, grace, and commitment.
Bernier will be able to say he lived the dream: captaining his hometown club. But really it was Montreal that was lucky to have him – and the Impact don’t call on Bernier to manage them one day, I’ll be plenty surprised.
8. Wandering Pigeons
Citi Field made its MLS debut this Decision Day, as NYCFC was displaced again from its home in the Bronx with an eye on keeping Yankee Stadium primed for potential World Series games.
The good news, as far as NYCFC is concerned, is that their co-tenant’s season is over – the Yankees falling in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night. That means that NYC won’t have to find alternative arrangements for its first playoff game.
The bad news is that the Yankees figure to be making deep postseason runs for the next five years. NYCFC needs a stadium, and they need it as soon as possible.
9. The Playoff Schedule Is A Mess
The MLS playoff schedule has been in disrepair for years, partially due to circumstances – the November international break, stadium conflicts – out of the league’s direct control.
This year, however, the postseason schedule is on an entirely different level.
The league is currently scheduled to play the majority of its playoff games on weekdays – when MLS crowds and MLS atmospheres are, in most markets, terrible.
Not only that, but all the weekday games have built into the schedule not insignificant differences in rest days. Seattle, for instance, will play a team on short rest in their next game while Portland – the higher seed – will play a team on normal rest.
The March to December calendar is mostly great for MLS. It puts games for much of the year against little sports competition in good weather. But a terrible playoff schedule is a significant price to pay.
10. Save The Crew.
What Anthony Precourt is trying to do with the Columbus Crew is disgusting.
Austin, Texas doesn’t want an MLS team. Columbus does. Not just that, but Columbus is one of the bedrock cities of American soccer. From the league’s earliest days, to all of the national team games, it is one of the few places we have a legitimate history of our own.
Is it a perfect MLS city? No. Support could be stronger. A new stadium would be nice. But this isn’t a moribund market. The Crew had their second best season of attendance ever just last year.
The league’s other owners cannot let this move happen. If Precourt wants out of Columbus, he can sell. Soccer clubs belong to their cities, and MLS best not forget it.