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MLS Watch Grid for DECISION DAY 2023 (10/21/2023)
Introducing the TrIPODD Schematic
Hello again! I apologize for the delay between Watch Grids, I have had a lot of stuff going on in my life, almost all of it good, but it’s taken me away from being able to deliver this stuff every weekend. To make up for it, I’m covering every match this Decision Day in this post!
We have only two windows this evening: At 5:00pm Central, the East kicks off, and then at 8:00pm Central, the West follows.
This is one of the instances in which I think the ESPN+ Multiview Boxes of yore (or the MLS Live Multiview Boxes if that’s yore to you, or a DirecTV Picture-in-Picture with MLS Freekick is yore to you) could come in handy. Maybe you can use the Two-TV method, maybe you bring out a laptop or a phone for multi-screen fun, maybe you could just watch the MLS 360 coverage, or maybe you’ll be in my situation: At the stadium, relying on scoring updates from the jumbotron.
With so much going on at once, I needed to put together a system for determining which matches will be the most interesting to follow. What I’ve come up with is the Tricategorical Interpretive Protocol for Observation on Decision Day, or TrIPODD. I’ve separated each match into three categories:
Fun – Which is simultaneously self-explanatory and impossible to truly explain, but it’s really about the amount of combined fun that both teams seem to be capable of having and producing. If both teams look like they’re ready for the season to end, the fun score will be lower, and if both teams look excited for the next step, the fun score will be higher.
Stakes – This is about what the two teams stand to achieve or lose in this match. I find that there remain four major thresholds to play for in the playoff picture as it stands, now that the #1 seeds in both conferences are locked up: 4th Place in conference ensures two home playoff matches (if necessary) in the first round series, 7th Place in conference ensures that one avoids the play-in round, 9th Place in conference ensures that the season remains alive, and, as it stands because of to the way that a few things shook out in Leagues Cup – 5th Place in the Supporter’s Shield standings will secure somebody a Concacaf Champions Cup spot. (8th Place in Conference, thus the right to host the play-in match, is also somewhat significant, and 6th place in the Supporter’s Shield standings will leave you a team in the catbird seat for a Concacaf spot if someone who’s already qualified for a Concacaf spot1 wins the MLS Cup. If both teams can stand to gain, the stakes are higher, if neither team can get much from it, the stakes are lower.
Quality – This is partially about the shared placement in the standings between the two teams, and partially about the shared form of the two teams. Even if it’s a higher seed and a lower seed, if both have been playing well, the quality score will be higher.
All component scores are marked out of five, then added together for the total TrIPODD score!
5:00pm - The Eastern Conference:
Inter Miami CF (14, eliminated) at Charlotte FC (12)
TrIPODD Score: 9 (3/4/2)
Charlotte had a chance on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale to make this a far less interesting match, but they gave up a late equalizing goal to Inter’s Robbie Robinson and find themselves on 40 points and three spots beneath the cut-line entering into the match. It’s not quite simply a win-and-in scenario for the Sons of Sir Minty – If Montreal, Red Bull, and Chicago all win, Charlotte will still finish beneath the playoff line on the first tiebreaker of matches won – but Charlotte absolutely has to win this match to have any hope for the playoffs (even in a situation in which Montreal loses to Columbus and NYC wins against Chicago, Charlotte would still be behind on wins to Montreal and goal differential to NYC). This has a chance to be the first truly triumphant moment in Charlotte FC history: a must-win match in front of a raucous Bank of America Stadium for the opportunity to do what they fell just short of accomplishing in 2022 (sneaking into the postseason). Both of these teams are flawed, especially Miami sans their main guy, but they played a chaotic, fun match on Wednesday and hopefully we get something entertaining in North Carolina.
Atlanta United (6) at FC Cincinnati (1)
TrIPODD Score: 11 (4/2/5)
This might be the highest combined quality matchup this evening, certainly in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta’s been playing at a very high level post-Leagues Cup, Cincinnati won the Supporter’s Shield but has even started to look better down the stretch of the year. If both teams had something really riding on this, I’d call this the best match of the evening, but Cincinnati’s locked into first place, Luciano Acosta probably has the MVP sealed, and Atlanta’s locked between 5th and 7th place, unable to break into neither the two-home-matches-in-the-first-round tier that a fourth place finish nets you nor a Concacaf Champions Cup spot. I still think this has the potential to be a fun match, but both teams are relatively sealed into their positions.
CF Montreal (8) at Columbus Crew (4)
TrIPODD Score: 14 (5/5/4)
This, however, is a perfect storm for entertainment this evening. Both teams are playing for something significant here – Montreal is only a point safe in the playoffs. They can maintain their standing and ensure that they host the play-in round with a win in Columbus tonight. The Crew, because a lot of stuff broke MLS’s way in Leagues Cup, thus leaving the fifth-place finisher in the MLS table a Concacaf Champions Cup slot, are in the driver’s seat to qualify for international competition with a win or a draw in this match. These two teams also complement one another: Montreal loves to get dramatic late-match equalizers and winners, and Columbus loves to give up dramatic late-match equalizers and winners. Add in the intrigue of the still-lingering scar tissue of CF Montreal playing against Wilfried Nancy and I think we have the makeup of the most watchable match of Decision Day at Lower.com Field.
Chicago Fire (11) at New York City FC (13)
TrIPODD Score: 10 (3/5/2)
New York City is not technically out of it yet, though they’ll need a win and a lot of help in order to sneak into ninth place. Most of the intrigue here for this match lays with the Chicago Fire, currently in 11th on 40 points. Chicago hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2017, currently the longest drought in MLS. They can break that streak (though I suppose there could be a discrepancy between Play-In round and Playoffs if we want to nitpick) by getting a win at Citi Field tonight and some help from Nashville. It’ll be impressive for this Fire team, which we must remember saw their coach sacked amid a miserable start back in the Spring, to qualify for the postseason at all given how bad this season seemed to be for them from the outset. I suppose that you could say that for basically everyone from 8-13, save perhaps for Charlotte, but a qualification here might keep Frank Klopas at the helm and might provide Fire fans with a tangible artifact of progression under the ownership tenure of Joe Mansueto. Certainly not enough for a fanbase searching for a return to their glory days, but it’d be something. Neither team has had me speaking in tongues with excitement about their play-style this season, so I don’t know that we’ll get a truly fun match on the small pitch, but there is a significant potential result here. NYCFC actually currently sits on the second-longest playoff qualification streak in Major League Soccer right now at six seasons, stretching back to 2016, a mark that they hold in tandem with their cross-I95 rival in Philadelphia, trailing only their cross-river rival in the Red Bulls, and they’ll lose that unless a lot of things break their way to finish off a season in which very little has broken their way.
New York Red Bulls (10) at Nashville SC (7)
TrIPODD Score: 10 (2/5/3)
The Red Bull. has not missed the playoffs since 2009! The last time that they finished up a Decision Day without a playoff match to look forward to, they did it from the artificial turf of Giants Stadium following a 5-0 win over a Toronto FC team captained by Jim Brennan, with goals scored by Macoumba Kandji, Juan Pablo Angel, and Matthew Mbuta. The last time that the Red Bulls missed the playoffs, they finished 15th in the league and 7th in the East. 7th in the East in 2023 leaves you not even breaking a sweat about your playoff chances, which is the case for the Red Bulls’ host in Nashville SC. The Yotes can get all the way up to fifth place in the East with a win, a Revolution loss, and an Atlanta loss or draw, which I suppose makes this meaningful, though I’ll say this: If any MLS team is content with qualifying for the playoffs in any position and choking their opponents out in ugly 1-0 slugfests and 0-0 draws settled in penalties, it’s Pablo Mastroeni’s Real Salt Lake. However, very close behind them is Gary Smith’s Nashville SC. The Red Bulls have history on the line here. I don’t know if their fans will be sated by keeping the playoff streak alive, but it’d surely be better to make them than to miss them. Neither team has played particularly fun soccer, both teams are pragmatic and defensively-minded, but with a playoff spot on the line, I expect for this to be somewhat enjoyable.
Philadelphia Union (3) at New England Revolution (5)
TrIPODD Score: 12 (2/5/5)
We have two teams, both of high quality far above the playoff line, and at least New England has a fair amount to fight for here, as they’ll maintain their hopes for a Concacaf spot with a win. They can jump all the way up to third in the standings over Philadelphia if they can manage to win by three goals, too. It’s hard to see it happening, as the Revolution have been in a sordid, ever shifting headspace since the departure of Bruce Arena. They’ve lost their last three and haven’t beaten a team currently in the playoff picture since prior to the Leagues Cup, but they have a chance to salvage something for both 2023 and 2024 at home against the Union. Philadelphia is in a place similar to Nashville, where I don’t think it matters that much how or where they enter the postseason – I suppose it would be better to finish higher, but as long as they’re in the bracket, they’ll have a fighting chance to make it out of the East. They almost remind me of the late-2010s Sounders in that regard, as long as they were somewhere in the bracket, you had to consider them capable of breaking through.
Orlando City SC (2) at Toronto FC (15, eliminated)
TrIPODD Score: 4 (1/1/2)
You can probably miss this one, neither team stands to gain much other than pride with a win or loss. This will be the final match at the end of a great, long career for TFC’s Michael Bradley, so I hope that we see him get a nice send-off.
8:00pm: The Western Conference
Real Salt Lake (5) at Colorado Rapids (14, eliminated)
TrIPODD Score: 8 (2/4/2)
The barrier between the top and bottom half of the bracket in the West is more permeable than in the East. I’m basing this mostly off of a hunch, but the potential to host two matches in the first round, and in particular not to have to travel to the first match in the first round, will be significant here, so that fourth place spot has a lot of value. Salt Lake’s done something akin to righting the ship after their post-Leagues Cup and post-Pablo Ruiz injury, and jumping up into the fourth spot will help secure them a bit more. There’s a little rivalry intrigue, but it’s less fun when one of the two teams has struggled so much. I want to see Colorado infuse some of the young talent that helped Rapids 2 to such a successful season this year, otherwise the Rapids have little to really play for outside of giving their fans something better than they’ve otherwise received to finish the year.
Minnesota United FC (11) at Sporting Kansas City (10)
TrIPODD Score: 12 (4/5/3)
Here we are! Who would’ve even thought it possible, amid two disappointing seasons put together by two clubs from whom we’ve come to expect otherwise consistent quality, that they’d both be matched up at year’s end for the chance to sneak in, with a little help required from elsewhere in the conference, to the playoffs? It’s real, it’s possible! It might just happen! It also might not happen, but whatever! I think the most important thing here, among all else, is that we finally might see potential passion turn kinetic from the “Nicest Rivalry In Sports”, a conflict which has, in its seven years of existence to this point, only seen both teams competing on relatively equal standing a few times. It peaked at exactly the worst moment for a rivalry to peak: the 2020 season, which featured a stoppage time comeback from Minnesota in front of no fans in Orlando at the MLS is Back Tournament and an instance of the Loons absolutely pantsing Sporting KC in front of a very limited crowd in the Western Conference Semifinals. My acting theory states that, if that playoff match had happened in a capacity stadium with a full traveling section of Minnesota fans at Children’s Mercy Park (which has no upper deck in which one can stow away the traveling support) gloating for the entire second half, this would be a much more intensive rivalry than it has been between the fans. This one, while it’s only for the right to qualify into a play-in round that allows one access into the full playoff field, rather than the obvious high-stakes of the Western Conference Semis, will bring drama, high-stakes soccer from two teams that have been fighting for their lives over the past weeks, and hopefully a genuine intensity between the two clubs that justifies its prominence in Heineken Rivalry Week scheduling for years to follow.
FC Dallas (8) at Los Angeles Galaxy (13, eliminated) -
TrIPODD Score: 7 (1/4/2)
This one will have an impact on the playoff standings, but, boy howdy, has Dallas been a weird team to watch down the stretch. They haven’t won a match since mid-September, but they haven’t lost a match since late August. They’re unbeaten in their last eight matches, but seven of them have been draws, and only one of those has seen them score more than a single goal! This is exactly the opposite of what I thought we’d see from FC Dallas this season – With Alan Velasco, Jesus Ferreira, and Paul Arriola in tow, I figured that we’d get a goal-scoring juggernaut, but it’s really been the defensive development of Nkosi Tafari, Sebastian Ibeagha, and Ema Twumasi that has defined FC Dallas this year. This squad should be one of the best teams in MLS, but they’ve struggled down the stretch and just from my eye-test, they look kind of miserable out there. One of the strangest aspects to their recent form is their tendency to drop an early goal, immediately wake up and equalize, but then never capitalize well enough to actually come through with three points. They did just this at home against the Rapids on Wednesday, but they couldn’t follow up Velasco’s 37th-minute equalizer with a match-winner over the next fifty minutes.
Dallas will face a beatable team without much to play for in the LA Galaxy, but I see this as an ominous matchup for the Hoops: We have a highly tense team watching a good season slip away traveling to Carson to play a team in a state of soccer jouissance, unaffected by the concepts of winning, losing, qualifying, or whatever. Their match against RSL last weekend is perfectly indicative of this: They went up 2-0 with a gorgeous goal, in which their two strikers, Billy Sharp and Dejan Jovelic, hit two perfectly weighted passes to set up their central midfielder, Douglas Costa, for a far-post goal. They then proceeded to give up the two-goal lead and finish with a 2-2 draw. They’re playing footloose and fancy-free in all manners good and bad.
This is the quintessential artisan’s choice matchup of the week, it’s only fun for the wrong reasons, and it’ll be a colossal disappointment if the Hoops can’t pull through.
Houston Dynamo (4) at Portland Timbers (7) -
TrIPODD Score: 13 (4/5/4)
Portland has turned their season around so thoroughly since the departure of Giovanni Savarese, but their last two matches have been so strange. They had to scrap back a point from the Galaxy on the road on September 30th, and they dropped an ugly one 4-1 on the road in Montreal. I thought that they’d be knocking on the door of that 4th-place spot in the West by now, but they’re still not quite safely in the playoff picture, and they’ll need a win to guarantee themselves a spot, as a draw would put them beneath a theoretical winner of the SKC/Minnesota match on tiebreakers. They’ll play a Houston team that needs a win to stay above that fourth place line, which is significant given the discrepancy between the Dynamo’s home form (11 wins, 2 losses, 4 draws) and their away form (2 wins, 9 losses, 5 draws). Those two home matches may be the difference between the Dynamo winning and losing in the first round series. Both teams should approach this match with the belief that they’ll need a win, we’ll have a raucous atmosphere at Providence Park as always, brought on just as strongly by the Timbers Army in the loping Northern end as it is by the wealthy patrons of the Multnomah Athletic Club watching the match from their exercise bikes on the southern end. The Dynamo have come into Portland and ruined a season before.
Austin FC (12, eliminated) at San Jose Earthquakes (9) -
TrIPODD Score: 9 (2/4/3)
The Quakes, quietly, have struggled to make the postseason about as badly as their 2003 MLS Cup final counterparts in the Chicago Fire. They have only two postseason appearances since their 2012 Supporters Shield-winning campaign (2017 and 2020), both times as the last team in the Western bracket, and they’ve gone out in the first round both times. They haven’t won a playoff match since the first leg of the Western Conference semis in 2012 in Los Angeles, and haven’t won a round in the playoffs since beating the Red Bulls in the 2010 Eastern Semis (it was a weird era). All that they have to do to make the 2023 postseason is defeat a miserably inept Austin FC side at home. They’ve been this close and faltered before – lest we forget how the Quakes dropped the final six matches of their 2019 campaign to finish four points out of the final spot, or how they came up just short in 2013 despite a seven-match unbeaten run to finish the year out, losing the final Wild Card spot to Colorado on tiebreakers. Just win at home and you’re in, Quakes! This will probably not be a fun one, as Austin’s had a slow, monotonous descent into their current place beneath the cut-line to this point and the Quakes truly should win handily.
Seattle Sounders (3) at St. Louis CITY SC (1)
TrIPODD Score: 12 (4/3/5)
There’s a good chance that these two teams see one another again in the postseason, but this game will decide if that would need to be in the conference semis or the conference final. Seattle can get all the way up to the second seed in the conference with a win, but a loss could, theoretically, drop them as far down as sixth place. St. Louis has been positively dominant at home this year, they’re currently tied with Houston for the most home wins of anyone in the Western Conference in 2023, and they’re locked into first in the West regardless of what happens this evening. I think the importance of this match really rests in the mentality that the winner will carry away from it: The Sounders know that they’ll likely need to win in St. Louis in order to progress to the MLS Cup final, as they typically have (for their four MLS Cup final appearances under Brian Schmetzer, they never entered the postseason as the top seed in the West) and this could be a significant confidence play for them.
Los Angeles FC (2) at Vancouver Whitecaps FC (6)
TrIPODD Score: 14 (5/4/5)
I think this is our match of the evening! Both of these teams have something big to play for: Vancouver could theoretically get all the way up to third with a win and getting the two home matches at BC Place would be huge for them: In big matches, BC Place has become a tough place for road teams to play in, as shown by the two straight Canadian Championship finals they’ve won there. LAFC can get a Concacaf spot with a win and some help from Philadelphia and Montreal (this is why I have this at a 4 for stakes, we will know if LAFC has Concacaf hopes by kickoff). We have Best XI-caliber talent in the attack from both sides: Denis Bouanga basically has the golden boot locked up and can seal it in this match, while Ryan Gauld and Brian White have both been phenomenally prolific this season. This may even be a preview of a first-round playoff matchup depending on how things shake out.
There’s been a certain ritual that I’ve appreciated with the new Season Pass landscape, in that BC Place matches tend, even if they’re in a crowded window with other 7:30 Pacific Time kickoffs, to serve as a sort of nightcap for the MLS matchday. There always seem to be points taken and dropped on that neon-green turf as Vancouver closes the night out for us viewers. Here’s hoping that we get a final entertaining Vancouver Nightcap to close out Decision Day and the 2023 MLS Regular Season.
Before we finish, I want to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who has read Score Secondary over the course of this season! It’s been a lot of fun, there’s been some great soccer played, some poor soccer played, some weird soccer played, the Revs had to delay a match due to bee problems, but it’s been such a great experience to write these over the course of the year. I have some plans for the playoffs incoming, so look out for those, and of course, as always — Enjoy the Soccer!
That’s Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Orlando through MLS Regular Season play, Houston through US Open Cup, Vancouver through Canadian Championship, and Philadelphia, Nashville, and Miami (though they’re eliminated from MLS Cup Contention) through Leagues Cup, plus whomever finishes in fifth after tonight