MLS analysis

Breaking down decision day: Crew and Timbers collapse, Philly, Cincy & Montreal impress, and more

The final round of games of the 2022 MLS Regular season brought drama and intrigue for its Decision Day. ASN's Brian Sciaretta chimes in with his thoughts on who impressed, who didn't, and who is in good shape heading into the playoffs. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 10, 2022
1:30 AM

WHEN MLS adopted its Decision Day format for the final round of games in a season, the aim was to create gripping drama for various races – who is in the playoffs? Who is eliminated? Who gets to host games? Who wins the conferences to get a buy? Who wins the Supporters Shield? When looking back at Decision Day 2022, it delivered.

Coming into the weekend, we knew LAFC won the west. We also knew who was likely to host playoff games in the east and most of the west. But this Decision Day delivered drama on the playoff line in each conference, and it also provided answers as to hosting games.

Here are my thoughts on the games.


The stunning Columbus collapse


The top story of Decision Day was the complete collapse of the Columbus Crew. Needing only a draw in Orlando, Columbus had a 1-0 lead at the half thanks to a goal from Derek Etienne Jr.

The story of the season for Columbus has been its second half struggles where it has blown points from games where it has held a lead or has been in position to get a draw. It’s only fitting that it squandered five points in the final week of the season.

“Today was a microcosm of the season,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said afterward. “Obviously when you look at the first half, very good execution. We deserve to be up in the game. We're playing well. We're up 1-0, looks like we might score a second goal. This has been a story of many, many games this year… “It's just another game where you go how do we lose? Like, how do we lose? When you look at the play, and you look at everything, we really should not lose that game. But that's happened too much this year.”

That statement pretty much says what everyone who has been paying attention already knows. But the big question is why? Part of it can be tactical (the Crew’s defense has been prone to giving up way too much space late in games) but this is a mental issue. It is the sign of a team that starts to believe that it will squander goals. The players lose focus and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The team needs more leaders on the field who can focus either on finding that goal that puts the game out or reach, can maintain possession to make the opponents chase, or can just defend effectively.

If the Crew held just a nominal amount of the points they squandered, they wouldn’t just be in the playoffs, they would be hosting games.

The Crew need to make a lot of changes. They need to find more ways to support Lucas Zelarayan and Cucho Hernandez. They have a very solid designated player base. Etienne is also a fighter and Eloy Room is a good goalkeeper. After that, they need to make a lot of changes.

This brings us to Caleb Porter. The team won MLS Cup in 2020 but has now failed to make the playoffs twice in a row despite having all the talent to do so. I don’t see a way in which he survives this. While he delivered silverware when he arrived, there are just so many factors that point to Columbus making a change.

For one, the team’s mentality was weak and that is on him. Second, the team needs to make a lot of player changes and that points to doing so under a new coach. Third, Porter only has one more year left on his contract, so it is not a massive buyout.

Finally, Porter’s reputation towards working with young players isn’t as strong as many other MLS coaches who are finding success these days. That is the direction of the league and most importantly, the Crew won the inaugural MLS Next Pro championship this weekend. The organization is going to want to make use of that and that doesn’t play into Porter’s strengths.

Porter will land on his feet. He’s won MLS Cup with two organizations and that is worth a lot. It just seems like the writing is on the wall.

On the flip side, Orlando is now in the postseason and it reversed its own collapse which began when it won the US Open Cup and never recovered. It’s unlikely that they’ll win in Montreal but having an in-form designated player like Facundo Torres will keep them dangerous.

EDIT: After this article was published, the Crew announced that it had fired Caleb Porter


Philadelphia & Montreal roll


Decision Day on Sunday confirmed what we already know in the Eastern Conference: The Philadelphia Union and CF Montreal are much, much better than everyone else. The gap between these two teams and the next group of teams – NYCFC, the Red Bulls, FC Cincinnati is very wide. On Decision Day, both teams made statements ahead of the playoffs.

Montreal had a chance to finish atop the Eastern table, but it needed to both win its game against Inter Miami while also needed Philadelphia to lose its finale in Toronto.

Montreal coasted to a 3-1 win in Florida and finished the season having lost just once in its last 14 games (dating back to July 14). They are going to be a very tough out in the playoffs. Miami clinched a playoff spot midweek and was not interested in this game.

One thing to follow is how well Djordje Mihailovic is playing. He scored and assisted on the game’s first stwo goals and has been gaining steam in recent weeks. His injury in May kept him off the U.S. national team roster in June and he didn’t return until July. When he first got back on the field, it took some time to return to his level. But now he’s on the top of his game.

The win was not good enough for Montreal as Philadelphia made absolutely no mistake in its final game, a 4-0 rout over a Toronto team that is very happy the season is over. The Union erased all doubt that the 4-0 loss to Charlotte last weekend would linger. That was the worst performance of the season but on Sunday, the Union looked like the Union.

Its best players carried the day. Daniel Gazdag scored a hat trick to finish the season with 22 goals and 10 assists. Mikael Uhre added another as the Union’s superior quality was on full display. From an American perspective, U.S. U-20 star midfielder Jack McGlynn played 73 minutes in the win and Leon Flach, likely on the coming U.S. U-23 team, went the distance. Matthew Real played the full game at left back. Captain Alejandro Bedoya returned from injury to play the final 17 minutes.

Jim Curtin, meanwhile, should be in a good position to win MLS coach of the year again. His team was the most dominant team in the East and continues to punch above its weight.

The Union will host all of their Eastern Conference playoffs and should be a very tough out in the playoffs. It would be very surprising to see anything else than Philadelphia and Montreal hosting the Eastern final.

Meanwhile, Toronto head coach Bob Bradley was frustrated afterward. Despite getting rid of a lot of players last offseason, he wasn't thrilled about his current group either. It was a quote that likely to not placate the TFC fanbase. 

“I think we need to look hard everything,” said Bradley. “Our ability to make certain moves this year were hampered by pre-existing contracts, pre-existing things that didn’t allow us to do certain things that we would have liked to do. I think we’ve gotta now step back, look at everything, figure out what’s possible in terms of how we continue to [improve] and [bring in] the right kind of guys — guys that love football, guys that are excited about what we’re trying to do in Toronto. Guys who love to compete, guys that come in every day excited, good teammates … We tried to raise the bar this year but I look hard at everything and say that we have a long ways to go."



Both New York teams to host


Both the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC won their finals games of the season to earn hosting rights in the first round of the playoffs. Neither team played particularly well, but both will enter the playoffs on the heels of a positive result.

The New York Red Bulls defeated a Charlotte FC team that was eliminated midweek. The Red Bulls scored a goal in each half – both coming from Brazilian Elias Manoel, his first two goals for the club.

That is actually very important to the Red Bulls as the team had been struggling all season to score from the forward position. Patryk Klimala has had a disappointing season and Tom Barlow has been limited. Manoel meanwhile could seize on some momentum heading into the playoffs to make the Red Bulls a tougher out.

There is a lot to like about the Red Bulls. The team works hard in the midfield and it has some tough players who an help grind out results. Lewis Morgan has been that guy all season while Frankie Amaya, Cristian Casseres, Dru Yearwood, and Daniel Edelman have been there at times during the season.

The first goal from Manoel was the result of a rebound from a Morgan shot. The second was after Amaya worked hard to win the ball in the attacking third.

Still, it is tough to see the Red Bulls going far in the playoffs. Their first game is a tough draw against a Cincinnati team that has a great front line. In this game against Charlotte, the Red Bulls had possession less than 25% of the time and were bailed out by Carlos Coronel. Cincinnati is going to be much more lethal in the attack.

Meanwhile, NYCFC got past Atlanta 2-1 in Atlanta to secure third place. Atlanta played like the unhappy misfit unit they have become. NYCFC did just enough to get the result to secure hosting the first round game – at Red Bull Arena!

More important than hosting, NYCFC drew a much more favorable opponent in Inter Miami compared with the FC Cincy team that the Red Bulls will face.  NYCFC has never really required from the loss of Taty Castellanos or Ronny Deila, but they have a good chance to advance to the second round for a likely match against Montreal.


Cincinnati demolishes DC United


FC Cincinnati needed to win on the road in DC to secure its first postseason berth. Any sense of nerves for Cincy were quickly erased after a confident start where they scored two goals in the first 10 minutes and rolled to a 5-2 win.

The front line of Cincinnati is one of the league’s best. Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez, and Brenner each scored double digits this season. In the win over DC, Brenner had three goals and an assist. Vazquez had three assists and a goal. Head coach Pat Noonan has done a great job with this team in terms of righting the ship and bringing stability.

The addition of Matt Miazga has been huge for Cincy in giving a steady presence in the backline and this has also helped the offense.

Cincy will now head to New Jersey for a favorable first-round matchup with the Red Bulls.

Regardless of how far Cincinnati goes in the playoffs, the strides they made this year have been important and the team looks to be building a very good foundation. And as they leave DC, they can finally hand the Wooden Spoon off to DC United. Cincinnati has had the Spoon for its first three seasons and now it belongs to DC.

As for DC United, the goal is to get rid of as many players as possible while keeping a few of the talented youngsters – such as Kristian Fletch, 17, who scored his first DC United goal in the loss. Wayne Rooney has a ton of work to do.


RSL qualifies to eliminate Portland


The most drama in the Western Conference took place in Utah as Real Salt Lake convincingly defeated the Portland Timbers 3-1. The result moved RSL into the playoffs and eliminated Portland – and all of Cascadia – from the playoffs.

It has been a tough struggle for RSL all season. There was uncertain ownership at the start of the season. There were a lot of injuries and not a lot of talent at the start of the year. Pablo Mastroeni and the coaching staff got a lot from their group against all expectations to make the postseason.

This game was a good example of that. Rubio Rubin did not have a single goal or assist all season but his 48th minute goal for a 2-0 lead made an RSL victory seem automatic. Early in the season, RSL punched above its weight beyond expectation or explanation. The struggles in the second half of the season were able to be overcome as a result.

As for Portland, it seems like big changes are on the way. With the fallout from Sally Yates investigation, Gavin Wilkinson is no longer employed by the club. The core is also aging and the use of homegrowns is still behind many other teams in the league. It seemed like eventually the wheels would come off this team, and that is what happened.


Minnesota ends skid

After watching teams like Columbus and Portland collapse, Minnesota seemed heading in that direction after just one point from its last five games. At one point, they looked like an MLS contender but they needed a result against Vancouver on Decision Day to secure their fourth straight berth. That happened as Adrian Heath and Co. won 2-0 to book a postseason spot.

It’s still tough to like Minnesota’s postseason chances. The team is over-reliant on Emanuel Reynoso. As he goes, the team goes. Some days, that is good enough. But in the postseason, he’s going to need more help and FC Dallas away will be tough.


FC Dallas clinches third


Speaking of FC Dallas, the team returns to the playoffs on the heels of a big turnaround from last season – when it missed out of the playoffs by a wide margin. Now it will host an opening round game as the third seed and, even better, Frisco is a lively stadium these days.

They concluded their season with a 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. The game was tricky for Dallas as it only had 42% possession but Dallas had the better of opportunities and found the back of the net thanks to Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola.

I like Dallas’ chances to make a run in the postseason. The key is for Alan Velasco to be at the top of his game. If he is, Dallas should be able to hang with anyone. Arriola and Jesus Ferreira are motivated to try and make the World Cup team. Paxton Pomykal has reminded people why he was once a top prospect. All these players were in good form in the win over Sporting Kansas City.

Dallas should be the favorite against Minnesota United and a potential second round game in Austin is also winnable. I like where Dallas stands to start the season.


LA Galaxy in strong form


The LA Galaxy are in good form heading into the playoffs after a 3-1 away win over Houston on Sunday. Chicharito scored his 18th goal of the season, and the Galaxy finished the regular season with three wins and a draw to clinch the fourth seed and a home game in the playoffs.

The Galaxy are surprisingly in good shape. Riqui Puig has been a dynamite addition after so many other additions have not worked out.

A home game against Nashville in the first round is very winnable for the Galaxy (who I think are the clear favorites). Nashville is two dimensional with Hany Mukhtar (my MVP choice) and Walker Zimmerman in defense. LA has more to it than Nashville.

A Galaxy win would give the League what it wants right now – an El Traffico playoff game. With all the attention on LAFC this year, the Galaxy will have more momentum should they advance past Nashville. Don’t count out the Galaxy in making a long run this postseason.

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