The 2019 MLS regular season came to a close with a goal-filled Decision Day which saw some teams earn their way into the playoffs, and some others stumble their way in.
FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers halted winless slides that threatened to doom their seasons, while the San Jose Earthquakes saw their late-season collapse reach its completion with a ninth loss in 11 matches.
Atlanta United welcomed back Josef Martinez from the injury scary that surely caused some heart palpitations among the Five Stripes faithful, and his goal in a 3-1 romp over New England had to ease the fears of some Atlanta fans uncertain whether the 2018 Golden Boot winner would be at his best come playoff time.
Carlos Vela made history on Sunday, but his hat-trick was more impressive for the clear message it sent to the rest of MLS that he and his history-making Los Angeles FC side are just getting started, and will be ready to complete the elusive Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double.
Here is a look at some of the key takeaways from Sunday’s MLS Decision Day action:
Champs look ready for another run
When Josef Martinez went down with a knee injury three weeks ago, you could hear the scribbling of lines through Atlanta United’s name on the list of serious MLS Cup contenders. The injury looked bad, and a Josef-less Atlanta United didn’t stand a good chance of repeating.
Fast forward to Sunday, and Martinez racing behind the New England defense on the way to his 27th goal of the season. He may have watched his hold on the MLS single-season goal record disappear in the wake of Carlos Vela’s hat-trick, but Martinez probably didn’t care much considering he had helped reassure Atlanta United fans, and his teammates, that he was back and ready for another title run.
Perhaps just as encouraging as Martinez’s return was the standout performance of Julian Gressel, who tore the Revs defense apart to the tune of a goal and two assists. It was the best Gressel has looked since he ran himself into the ground during Atlanta’s super-busy summer run to a U.S. Open Cup title and stretch of six wins in seven from July through August.
Gressel hit a wall after the U.S. Open Cup, struggling through the early part of September, and it wasn’t a coincidence that Atlanta had its worst performances of the stretch run when Gressel was either struggling or sidelined.
Gressel is vitally important to Atlanta United’s title chances because of what he does for the attack on the right wing, and the pressure he puts on opposing fullbacks, to say nothing of the service he provides for Martinez.
After scoring Atlanta’s lone goal a week earlier in a 1-1 draw with Montreal, Gressel turned it up a few notches against New England, and looked as fresh as he had since the summer.
With a healthy Martinez, and in-form Gressel, Atlanta United can be called the favorite in the East, even with New York City FC having the top seed and the momentum of an 8-1-3 run to finish the regular season.
LAFC caps record season
All it took was a run of one win in six matches to have some question whether Los Angeles FC was really ready to hit the postseason looking like the team that dominated MLS for most of the year. On Sunday, Bob Bradley’s team sent a clear message that halting their run to an MLS Cup title is going to be a tall order.
LAFC comfortably handled the Colorado Rapids, 3-1, which might not seem that impressive given the fact the Rapids didn’t make the playoffs, but Colorado had won five of six matches heading into Sunday, including four wins against playoff teams.
Carlos Vela’s hat-trick helped solidify what was an already ironclad hold on the MLS MVP award, while we also got a good look at what should be the first-choice LAFC lineup for the playoffs.
The only negative for LAFC on Sunday was the loss of Walker Zimmerman to a nasty concussion that knocked him out and forced him to leave the match. Having a bye week in the opening round of the playoffs suddenly comes in very handy for the extra time it will give Zimmerman to recover and return to a defense that would struggle without him.
LAFC is already having its depth tested by the loss of Adame Diomande, and more recently the loss of backup defender Danilo da Silva, but Bradley has talent to work with. That said, if Zimmerman were to be sidelined and forced to miss any part of the playoffs, it could leave LAFC vulnerable heading into the playoffs, though the Supporters’ Shield winners would still be considered the favorite to win MLS Cup.
Terrible defending haunts Galaxy again
It didn’t take Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Houston Dynamo to remind us all how bad the LA Galaxy’s defense is. We have had a full season to take in the diverse ways the Galaxy back-line can implode, and squander the goal production of one of the league’s most dangerous attacks.
What Sunday’s loss did do was serve to make the road to a surprise MLS Cup run that much tougher, with the Galaxy missing out on hosting a first-round playoff game. Falling to the fifth seed also means the Galaxy’s reward if it manages to defeat Minnesota United in the first round of the West playoffs is a trip to Banc of California Stadium to face Los Angeles FC.
For those not keeping track, the Galaxy defense surrendered a combined eight goals in the final two matches of the regular season, suffering defeats against two teams (Vancouver and Houston) that had already been eliminated from the playoffs. By losing those matches, the Galaxy missed out on a chance to grab as high as the second seed in the West playoffs, which would have meant a potential pair of home games and not having to leave the Los Angeles area before the MLS Cup final, and potentially even hosting the final with a deep run.
Now? The Galaxy path to an MLS Cup final will require a road win at Allianz Field, where Minnesota United has lost just once this year, and a road win against LAFC, which hasn’t beaten the Galaxy before, but has a league-best 13-1-3 record this year.
You can’t really count out an attack that features Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Pavon from pulling off a win or two, but expecting the worst defense of any of the league’s 14 playoff teams to suddenly figure things out for a run of road playoff matches is a pipe dream.
Nightmare season over for Sporting KC
Sporting Kansas City finished its nightmare season with a 6-0 shellacking at the hands of FC Dallas. That defeat left SKC with five losses in its final six matches, having surrendered 22 goals in in those final six matches to finish with a paltry 38 points.
It would have been tough imagine this type of season back in February, when Sporting KC dominated Toluca in the Concacaf Champions League, posting a 5-0 aggregate victory. By the time Sporting KC demolished the Montreal Impact a month later by a 7-1 scoreline, the talk was of how Sporting KC could win an MLS Cup.
A seven-match winless slide after CCL was initially written off as being part of a CCL hangover, and a rash of injuries that sidelined several key players. Sporting KC never did quite recover, even though a 4-2 stretch in August offered some sign of hope. That good run quickly vanished though, as the team’s defensive issues grew worse down the stretch.
So what went wrong? Trading away Ike Opara was clearly a mistake, and thinking he would be easily replaced was one of the biggest miscalculations of the 2019 season. Opara went to Minnesota United and helped the Loons allow the fourth-fewest goals in MLS just one year after Minnesota United allowed the fourth-most goals.
As for Sporting KC? The once-stingy defense went from having the third-fewest goals allowed in 2018 to second-most goals allowed in 2019.
It wasn’t just about Opara though. The reality is Sporting KC was an aging team with a nucleus that was kept together for too long, and now Peter Vermes will need to perform a serious overhaul to his defense, while also continuing his search for the elusive striker the team has been chasing for years.
Unfortunately for SKC, the days of being one striker away from another MLS Cup title have been replaced by the days of rebuilding a perennial league power that has hit rock bottom.