After a spurned chance to move up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings to all but shore up a postseason berth, D.C. United finds itself on the outside looking in at the playoff picture for the first time in months.
Coach Hernán Losada's bid to return to the MLS Cup playoffs in his first year at the helm has taken as big of a hit as his top goalscorer Ola Kamara's form as D.C. United's dip in the standings has coincided with Kamara's seven-match scoreless streak.
The ninth-place Black-and-Reds must now leapfrog CF Montreal and the New York Red Bulls after losing 3-1 to the defending champion Columbus Crew on Saturday night. After Paul Arriola's third-minute lefty volley wonder strike, Lucas Zalarayán tormented United's backline and the Crew constantly got in behind the defense.
The Red Bulls played out to a scoreless draw with sixth-placed Atlanta and Montreal won on Wednesday night to make D.C. United's path to qualifying for the playoffs that much murkier.
Now, D.C. United needs a win and some help from around the league to squeeze into seventh. Fourteen clubs qualify for the playoffs in total and the top seed in both conferences earn a first-round bye. Here are the matchups to keep an eye on to see if Losada's men make it in come Decision Day at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The playoff qualification tiebreakers, found here, take into account the number to total wins as the first separator and goal differential as the second.
New York Red Bulls vs. Nashville SC
- Red Bulls points: 47 (7th place)
- Wins: 13
- Goal Differential: 6
They'll have the Red Bulls quest to stay in that final playoff spot as the primetime ESPN game. Polish forward Patrick Klimala continues to carry the Red Bulls' attacking load on his shoulders and will likely have to again vs. Nashville SC, who after narrowly making the playoffs in their first MLS season is looking to secure the No. 2 seed.
Nashville boasts Hany Mukhtar, a 15-goal and 12-assist playmaker who's had his way with D.C. United this season. Should D.C. United sneak into the playoffs, they'll need Nashville to make way with the Red Bulls to potentially set up a 2-vs-7 matchup against the Black-and-Reds.
Columbus vs. Chicago
- Crew points: 44 (10th)
- Wins: 12
- Goal Differential: -1
The Crew were the more desperate team in the standings and on the pitch last Saturday night at Audi Field, and they came out the victors as United let a pivotal opportunity fall through their finger tips. Now, Columbus looks to avoid becoming just the fifth club in MLS history to miss the playoffs after lifting the MLS Cup the previous season.
U.S. men's national team mainstay Gyasi Zardes and his newfound knack for heading crosses home for goals have helped Columbus with a big chance in recent weeks, but their win over D.C. United was all Lucas Zelarayán. An already eliminated young Chicago Fire squad may not have the fight to prevent three points for Columbus, who are currently level on points with D.C. with 44.
CF Montreal vs. Orlando City
- Montreal points: 46 (8th)
- Wins: 12
- Goal Differential: 4
Montreal's big 2-0 win over the Dynamo set themselves up nicely for Decision Day. If somehow both the Red Bulls and Montreal get off to slow starts in their respective matches during the same drama-filled time slot, D.C.'s bench and traveling fans will be clamoring for the squad to capitalize on the pitch. At the very least, United will hope Orlando can replicate the crushing stoppage time score they were dealt on Oct. 2. D.C. has won just once since that heartbreaking defeat.
D.C. United vs. Toronto
- D.C. United points: 44 (9th)
- Wins: 13
- Goal Differential: 0
This is the big one. The Black-and-Reds travel north of the border with one objective in mind. Losada will hope to get youth product Kevin Paredes (hip flexor) back to full health in time to slide back into the left wing spot that center back Tony Alfaro filled in for against the Crew. Alfaro gave up the opening penalty to put United in a hole early.
Arriola was pulled off in the 61st minute due to a groin issue he's been dealing with this season, but was again called up to the national team side for the upcoming important World Cup qualifiers – so that's a good sign he should be set to go barring any setbacks. Kamara will need to find his shooting boots. Yordy Reyna, who was back off the bench vs. Columbus after a couple weeks out, and Nigel Roberta could be difference-makers off the bench. Bill Hamid will need to play mistake-free. Felipe Martin's midfield will have to be connected with the backline and Losada must get his tactics right. Every tiebreaker counts.