On Sunday, 225 days after it began, the 2022 Major League Soccer regular season will come to a close. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.
Seven teams enter decision day with a chance to qualify for the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. All 14 Eastern Conference teams will play at 1:30 pm CT, while the Western Conference’s slate of games will kick off at 4 pm CT. Playoff spots, playoff seeding, and more are on the line.
Here are the stories to keep an eye on.
1. Will Philadelphia Union or CF Montréal win the East?
The Philadelphia Union have been nothing short of dominant. 45 goals scored, 13 goals conceded since July dominant. So dominant that they were virtually anointed Eastern Conference champions in September.
CF Montréal have other ideas. Heading into Decision Day, Montréal are on 62 points, just two points behind the Union. Lead by second-year head coach Wilfried Nancy, their improvement has been nothing short of remarkable. They’ve gone from a 10th-place finish in 2021 to a top-two finish in 2022, potentially taking first place and improving their points total by a whopping 19 points. They’ve done this all with just a single Designated Player on the roster.
Montréal and Philadelphia are the two most cohesive units in MLS. Philadelphia has been the standard for youth development and long-term vision for five years, and Montréal look like they’re heading down a similar path. It’s fitting that the Eastern Conference race comes down to the wire between these two.
The Union have the easier path. A win at home against 13th-placed Toronto FC would ensure they win the East, with a draw or loss from Montréal ensuring it. The Canadians have a more difficult match, traveling to Inter Miami (more on them in a minute). They can take first place in the East with a win and a Philadelphia loss or draw.
2. Are Inter Miami seriously fighting for a home playoff match?
Expectations for Inter Miami CF were through the floor heading into 2022. They finished 11th in the East in 2021 with an ultra-expensive roster. Too expensive, it turned out. Miami had violated MLS roster rules in their first two year, and were heavily dinged for it.
Despite the sanctions and a hamstrung roster build process, head coach Phil Neville has drastically overperformed with his squad. The Herons enter Decision Day just two points behind fourth-placed New York Red Bulls. If the Red Bulls drop points at home against Charlotte FC, Miami can move into third with a win at home over Montréal.
It’s truly astonishing for a side that were virtually (and not unfairly) written off at the start of the season. Neville has put himself firmly in the conversation for coach of the year, while 16 goals and three assists from a resurgent Gonzalo Higuaín has this side punching well above their weight.
The former Argentina international will retire after the season. What better way to cap off a storied career than by lifting Miami to the postseason in his final act?
3. The Golden Boot race
The Golden Boot race is going to come down to the wire, and with it the race for league MVP.
Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar leads with 23 goals. Austin FC’s Sebastián Driussi is right behind him with 21.
Nashville have a difficult road trip to LAFC, who clinched the Supporters’ Shield last weekend, confirming their place as the best team of the regular season. Nashville’s attack doesn’t just run through Mukhtar; it begins and ends with Mukhtar. They’ll need him to be at his best to have a shot at winning and earning the right to host a playoff match.
Driussi has a easier matchup at home against 10th-placed Colorado Rapids, who are already eliminated from playoff contention. Can he make up a the goal difference to take home the league’s most prestigious attacking award? Mukhtar has four more assists on the season, giving him the edge on tiebreakers.
4. Can FC Cincinnati complete the turnaround?
It’s hard, impossible even, to overstate just how bad FC Cincinnati were in their first three seasons. The Wooden Spoon winners (that phrasing feels generous) for three consecutive years entered 2022 with an all-time goal difference of -105. General manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan were astute hires, but no one expected them to turn things around in a single year.
They did. Luciano Acosta returned to 2018 form. Brenner justified the $13 million transfer fee after looking like a bust in his first season, scoring 15 goals. And Brandon Vázquez, a squad player in Atlanta who was traded by Nashville for a cup of coffee, scored 17 goals, looking like one of the most dynamic American attackers in recent memory (making his lack of involvement with the national team puzzling – that’s another story).
Cincinnati somehow dug themselves out of a three-year hold of irresponsible and ill-advised roster building, performed above expectations for five months, and then tailed off a bit down the stretch. Now, on Decision Day, they head to 2022 Wooden Spoon winners… losers? (I have no idea how to phrase this) DC United, needing anything other than a loss to make the playoffs for the first time in their history.
They’ve been really fun this season, and deserve to be in the postseason. They have to take care of business against a really bad DC team, or many people will remember them as just another Cincinnati team that couldn’t get the job done.
5. Who rounds out the playoff bracket?
Portland Timbers and Minnesota United currently occupy the final two playoff spots in the West with 46 and 45 points, respectively. Real Salt Lake (44) and Vancouver Whitecaps (43) are right on their heels. And to make it even more fun, they go head to head.
Minnesota hosts an upstart Vancouver, needing a win at home. They haven’t done that recently, going winless in their last six matches, and last winning at home on August 27. They had a stretch over the summer where they were arguably the best team in the league, but a season-ending injury to center back Bakaye Dibassy coincided with an awful run of form.
Similarly, Real Salt Lake were quite the story to start the year, but fell off hard since the summer. They haven’t won in five matches, but need a win at home over the 2021 MLS Cup runners up to earn a shock playoff berth.
And in the East, seventh-placed Columbus Crew and eight-placed Orlando City go head-to-head in a winner take all battle for the final playoff berth. Columbus would qualify with a draw, but they’ve been comically bad at holding onto leads late in matches.
Both teams have done everything they can down the stretch to avoid making the playoffs. Which one will make less mistakes and squeak through?