2018 MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Let the drama commence

during the Delta and Atlanta United Wallscape Unveiling in Decatur, Georgia, Monday, August 21, 2017 ©Rank Studios
Wikimedia/Creative Commons
during the Delta and Atlanta United Wallscape Unveiling in Decatur, Georgia, Monday, August 21, 2017 ©Rank Studios

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In one of the premier matchups on Major League Soccer’s Decision Day 2018, marking the final game of the regular season, soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimović and the LA Galaxy knew they needed a win against the Houston Dynamo to be guaranteed a spot in the knockout playoff round.

The Galaxy had won three of its previous four matches and was playing a Houston team that had the fourth-most losses in the league and was already eliminated from playoff contention with nothing to play for.

None of the 11 games Sunday kicked off quite like this one in sunny Los Angeles, as Galaxy striker Ola Kamara scored two goals in the first half to put his side in the driver’s seat for a Knockout Round clash with city rival Los Angeles FC, which was losing 1-0 at the time in the battle for first place in the Western Conference against Sporting Kansas City.

Cue the second half from hell, when the Galaxy surrendered three unanswered goals to eventually lose to the Dynamo, 3-2. LAFC would also go on to lose to Sporting KC, forcing itself into third place behind the rampant Seattle Sounders, who remarkably rose from last place early in the season to second after a 91st-minute winner from new signing Raúl Rudíaz.

The New York Red Bulls won their third Supporters’ Shield trophy in six years — an award given to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season — after a 1-0 win over Orlando City SC. The #SaveTheCrew party is only getting started, as the Columbus Crew also secured the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference with a 3-2 win.

So many teams, too many possibilities. It would be hard to find a more anticipated and volatile playoff race than the one that is about to commence, with four winner-take-all Knockout Round matchups slated for the coming days.

Eastern Conference

The Crew travels to Washington, D.C. to take on English legend Wayne Rooney and D.C. United, who are currently on a 10-match unbeaten run. New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union headline the other Eastern Conference matchup. Both clubs got a taste of one another on Decision Day in a 3-1 impressive victory for NYCFC.

Striker David Villa got on the score sheet, but it was only the club’s second win in a month. Both New York and Philly — and Columbus and D.C., for that matter — need to find their eye for goals quickly, as the ever-talented NY Red Bulls and the scoring machine that is Atlanta United wait in the wings.

Western Conference

LAFC will host the luckiest team in Major League Soccer this season, Real Salt Lake, which earned a playoff bid after the Galaxy tragically lost to Houston. Mexican international Carlos Vela is seeking to guide LAFC to its first playoff victory after the organization earned the most regular-season points by any club in its inaugural season.

In the most unpredictable matchup in this first round, FC Dallas will host the Portland Timbers at Toyota Stadium, a place where Portland has struggled mightily in the past. Both teams fell by the wayside late in the regular season with puzzling losses after spending most of the season near the top of the standings.

Sporting KC and Seattle, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, deservedly earned first-round byes. Once the Knockout Round victors are determined, both teams will kick off in Conference Championships, which will begin Nov. 4, with the Conference Finals kicking off Nov. 25 and the MLS Cup set to take place Dec. 8.

Spencer Golanka writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].