On Sunday, Major League Soccer’s (MLS) final day of the regular season, also known as “Decision Day,” brought all the action a soccer fan could ask for: red cards, beautiful goals, and plenty of late drama as teams fought for playoff spots and positioning.
In the Eastern Conference, the playoff teams had already been decided, with New York City FC (NYCFC), Chicago Fire, Atlanta United FC, and Columbus Crew SC each clinching a spot. The four teams still battled for seeding, including the right for a first round bye.
The Crew faced NYCFC in the most impactful match of the conference. The scoring started in the 11th minute when Crew star Federico Higuaín played a beautiful chip ball over an NYCFC center back for goal scorer Ola Kamara, who shot it into the back of the goal. However, NYCFC captain and reigning league MVP David Villa carried his team back into the lead, quickly responded with a header goal off a corner kick in the 18th minute. Villa then added to his heroics, scoring again just before halftime with a near post shot that squeezed by Crew goalie Zack Steffen.
Columbus tied the game back up in the 58th minute when center back Josh Williams beat NYCFC goalie Sean Johnson to a corner kick and headed the ball in. Villa was looking for a hat-trick, the lead, and a first place tie in the Golden Boot Race (MLS’ leading goalscorer). He had one final chance after NYCFC drew a penalty in the 90th minute. However, the penalty kick, a low driven shot to the bottom left corner, was saved by Steffen and the game ended in a 2-2 draw.
Meanwhile in the rest of the conference, first place Toronto FC looked to finish up a historically dominant season with a win against the successful expansion team Atlanta FC. Atlanta scored first on a penalty kick, after a video review revealed that a Toronto FC defender hand-balled midfielder Yamil Asad’s header attempt. Asad converted the penalty and Atlanta took the lead.
In the second half, Atlanta goalie Brad Guzan hesitated on coming out for a through ball and forward Jozy Altidore poked it past his former USMNT teammate to tie the game. In the 73rd minute, Atlanta responded when forward Josef Martinez stunningly back-heel flicked a well driven low cross into the back of the net. Toronto FC star Sebastian Giovinco one upped Martinez in the 83rd minute when he curled a beautiful free kick from about 30 yards out into the upper left corner, for what will surely be a goal of the year candidate, and the game ended in a 2-2 tie. Toronto finished the season with an MLS record 69 points.
With these two ties, the Eastern Conference shook out so that NYCFC secured second place and a first round bye, while the Chicago Fire will be facing the New York Red Bulls, and Atlanta United will host Columbus Crew in the knockout round.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, DC United played its final game at the historic RFK Stadium. While the stadium does have its problems, it has played host to some of the most historic games in US Soccer history and some of soccer’s greatest legends.
In the Western Conference all eyes were on FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and the San Jose Earthquakes as they fought for the last spot in the playoffs. FC Dallas, facing LA Galaxy, took care of business and crushed the Galaxy 5-1, but still needed help from San Jose and RSL to secure the sixth seed. However, RSL took care of their business, beating Sporting Kansas City 2-1 with goals from Luis Silva and Brooks Lennon, eliminating Dallas. RSL then had to watch and see San Jose’s result, as an Earthquake win would give themselves an automatic bid to the playoffs, regardless of the other results.
All San Jose needed to do was beat expansion team Minnesota United, a team that had no chance of making the playoffs with arguably nothing to play for. San Jose forward Danny Hoesen quickly got the ball rolling, poking a bouncing ball past stumbling Minnesota defender Francisco Calvo to get a one-on-one opportunity with Minnesota goalie Bobby Shuttleworth and buried it. However, Minnesota did not back down. Jeremy Thiesson curled a beautiful shot from the right hand side of the 18 yard box into the upper left corner in the 36th minute to tie the game.
The second half proved to be even more entertaining after Hoesen curled a low pass in between two Minnesota defenders and veteran poacher Chris Wondolowski tapped the ball in to regain the lead in the 55th minute.
This is where things got interesting. Despite the Earthquakes’ knowledge that a win would secure a playoff spot, they did not play careful defense after taking the lead, and in the 81st minute they were punished when Calvo rose up on a corner kick and sent a looping header over the goalie to tie the game. San Jose’s season looked all but done, and with time ticking down they got desperate, looping unsuccessful crosses from barely inside Minnesota’s half.
The team's frustration and panic was clear, but 12 year MLS veteran Chris Wondolowski had one final say. In the 93rd minute, Victor Bernardez tapped a ball forward into the box for forward Quincy Amarikwa. Amarikwa fired a low driven shot across the box but Shuttleworth was able to quickly react and save. However, the rebound was loose and it fell to none other than Wondolowski.
Although Shuttleworth was out of position still from saving the shot, Wondolowski had a tight angle with defenders covering much of the goal. Without blinking, Wondolowski played the ball back across the box for Marco Ureña, who was standing at the corner of the six yard box. Ureña fired the ball into the goal and the Earthquakes and the San Jose crowd lost their minds. Two minutes later, the final whistle blew, the Earthquakes came out victorious, and they received their first playoff appearance since 2012.
In the rest of the Western Conference, the Portland Timbers beat the Vancouver Whitecaps to earn first place in the Western Conference, win the coveted Cascadia Cup, and send the Whitecaps down to third place.
With the playoffs starting this week, fans across the country are thrilled with some exciting matchups to look forward to. In the end, I personally would be surprised to see any Western Conference team top either the three headed monster of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco that runs Toronto FC, or the high powered offense of Atlanta United, lead by Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez, but I look forward to seeing them try.