MLS Decision Day: Playoff field set following drama-filled regular season finale

Major League Soccer‘s 2023 MLS Cup playoff field is complete following the conclusion of 14 matches Saturday on the final weekend of the regular season.

Here are five quick takeaways from Decision Day.

Dallas, Kansas City, San Jose grab last available spots out West

FC Dallas took care of business away from home with a 4-1 drubbing of the hapless LA Galaxy. Those three points kept FCD seventh in the West; the Hoops will meet the Seattle Sounders in Round One which, in a notable format switch, will be decided via a best-of-three series for the first time since MLS’s early years. 

Sporting Kansas City topped Minnesota United 3-1 at home Saturday to finish eighth. SKC will host the ninth place San Jose Earthquakes in the one-off wildcard. The Quakes were held 1-1 by Austin FC Saturday but got bailed out by the Houston Dynamo, which won 3-1 at 10th place Portland.

The winner of the wildcard travels to conference champ St. Louis for the start of the postseason proper. Defending MLS Cup champ LAFC opens against Vancouver, while the fourth-seeded Dynamo drew No. 5 Real Salt Lake.

Charlotte tops Messi’s Miami to snare final East berth

The Eastern Conference slate wrapped up earlier Saturday, those seven simultaneously-played games finishing three hours before the seven on the other side of the continent.

After returning from injury, Lionel Messi started for already-eliminated Inter Miami for the first time since Sept. 20. But the GOAT couldn’t prevent his team from losing its finale 1-0 in Charlotte

The Crown’s 1-0 win on a first-half Kerwin Vargas strike was enough for the hosts to sneak into the East’s wildcard game at the expense of CF Montreal, which lost 2-1 in Columbus, and New York City FC, which beat the Chicago Fire at home but still finished two points short of the ninth and last berth in the East. 

Charlotte now hits the road to face the New York Red Bulls. The winner of that single-elimination contest faces Supporters Shield holder FC Cincinnati, with Philadelphia-New England, Columbus-Atlanta and Orlando-Nashville the East’s other three matchups.

Messi finishes his maiden MLS campaign with one goal in six regular season appearances, though his 10 in seven Leagues Cup matches led Miami to that title (and the CONCACAF Champions Cup invite that comes with it) in August.

Late penalty preserves Red Bulls’ playoff participation streak 

The MLS originals were mere seconds away from seeing their run of consecutive playoff appearances end at 13. But the Red Bulls got a gift when Nashville veteran Aníbal Godoy took down Brazilian winger Luquinhas in second half stoppage time. Fullback John Tolkin converted the ensuing penalty to send New York to the postseason for a record 14th year running.

Time will tell whether the Red Bulls — who have never won MLS Cup in 27 seasons — can turn their last-gasp victory into a deep run. Either way, Saturday’s dramatic triumph will be long remembered in club lore.

Bouanga takes Golden Boot with authority 

LAFC striker Denis Bouanga had all but claimed the award given to the league’s top regular-season marksman before Saturday’s finale, his 19 goals going in three more than Cincinnati maestro (and league MVP frontrunner) Luciano Acosta and four clear of four other forwards: Atlanta United‘s Giorgos Giakoumakis, the Columbus Crew’s Cucho Hernández, Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar and Brian White of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Acosta and Hernández both scored on Saturday and Giakoumakis managed two, but that was as close as they got. Not to be outdone, Bouanga added another of his own a few hours later in Vancouver to finish his first full MLS campaign with 20 goals.

Cincinnati still the clear MLS Cup favorite

You know the history. Since MLS’s inception way back in 1996, just eight clubs have captured both the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup the same year. But LAFC accompanied the feat in 2022, and there’s really no reason to think this FC Cincinnati side can’t do the same this fall.

Pat Noonan’s squad was the pace-setter all year. In addition to their talent, they’re also a rugged, battle-tested group that earned valuable postseason experience last October by pulling off an upset at Red Bull Arena. It won’t be easy even making the final in a stacked East, with Columbus, Orlando City and the Philadelphia Union all with legitimate trophy ambitions and the defending champs, perennial contenders the Seattle Sounders and expansion darlings (and No. 1 West seed) St. Louis headlining the other side of the bracket.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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