Match day 34 is finally upon us. Today will certainly be bittersweet for many, especially the Orlando faithful, as we say goodnight to another season of promise, questions, frustration, and longing. As is typical with Decision Day, all matches are played at the same time, to increase the excitement, but to also help assure every match is played with intent.
The only team not playing today is Real Salt Lake, which finished its season last weekend, due to an odd number of teams in the league this year. RSL will be watching the LA Galaxy versus Houston match very closely from home today, entering today holding the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. So what does today hold for us as we bid farewell to the 2018 MLS season?
If you haven’t been keeping up, the Supporters’ Shield race is still just a two-team sprint to the finish between our Eastern Conference rivals New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United. That second name still stings to type. The current standings have Atlanta, on 69 points, just one point above the Red Bulls, who are on 68 points. I think you can already tell where this is going. Atlanta traveled to Toronto FC for its final match. The two teams drew 2-2 earlier in the season. Atlanta will not have 70ish thousand fans in the seats helping today. The Red Bulls have an entirely different match today.
Orlando City visits Red Bull Arena for the first time this season in a match that the Red Bulls must win to keep their hopes of winning the Supporters’ Shield alive. Is it some weird form of cosmic irony that an Orlando City win against the Red Bulls will hand Atlanta the Shield for 2018? The Red Bulls need to win and hope that Atlanta loses. A draw against Orlando would bring them even with Atlanta on points, and then the Red Bulls need Toronto to beat Atlanta by at least 2 goals, because when you start to look down the list of tie breakers, Atlanta currently has the edge in goal differential. The Lions need to finish 2018 strong, so I am sure there are going to be many split feelings from fans watching this match, especially if the score ticker shows Atlanta trailing Toronto.
Bottom of the East
Yup, that is where Orlando currently sits, with a paltry 28 points, the lowest the team has garnered since joining MLS. Chicago sits just above the Lions in the East with 31 points, and hosts D.C. United today. United will certainly be aiming for three points to better its chances as the playoffs loom, but Chicago, like Orlando, is playing for nothing more than pride. With an Orlando win and a Chicago loss, the teams would be tied on points, but because the first tiebreaker is wins, Orlando would move ahead of Chicago in the standings. Although it doesn’t seem like much, not finishing bottom of the East should be paramount for the Lions.
This season, the two teams played each other in week 12 in Orlando, with Chicago leaving with three points, and the match in Chicago where the Fire embarrassed Orlando, 4-0.
The Last Two Spots
Orlando did a solid job last week in making the race for the last spot in the Eastern conference more interesting by beating the Columbus Crew, as the final weekend now sees Columbus two points above the Montreal Impact for the final spot in the East. The Crew find themselves at home against Minnesota, and Montreal is at New England. Montreal has to win and hope that Columbus loses to make it above the red line. Everyone else in the East — New England, Toronto, Chicago, and Orlando — are all out of contention.
The West sees a similar, but different scenario for the last spot in the playoffs. As mentioned earlier, the only team not playing this weekend, Real Salt Lake, is currently in the final payoff spot out West. The only team with a shot at knocking RSL out is the LA Galaxy. LA and Zlatan need a win, as a draw would bring them even on points, but the Galaxy would lose the first tiebreaker. While RSL watches from home, LA will host Houston, a team out of the playoff race.
The 2018 season is all but gone, but there are 90 minutes left. The season has been over for some time for the Lions, but irony brings them right back to being a key cog in the deterministic wheel of fate. Good luck today, Orlando, and may fortune favor the bold. Hopefully it is not lost on anyone just how much lies in the paws of your hand as we bid 2018 goodnight.