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Six key takeaways from MLS Decision Day

A lot happened on the final day of the MLS regular season. Here’s what you need to know.

MLS: FC Dallas at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

FC Dallas win the Supporters’ Shield

It didn’t turn out to be a particularly difficult task today in clinching the Shield for FC Dallas, as Colorado failed to beat Houston at home and the Galaxy — with nothing to play for — relented to a 0-0 draw. But it’s a deserved trophy for a team that has shown the rest of the league how to win.

How many other MLS teams use their young talent as well as FC Dallas does? Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls do a pretty good job of it, but if you look at the ages of their top performers (Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips are 31, while Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley are 29), it shows just how impressive FC Dallas’s run is.

FCD are led by players who are 26 and under and give starting minutes to players like Kellyn Acosta, 21, and Carlos Gruezo, also 21. This chart shows it more than anything else:

Of the top ten teams on that list, only four are playoff teams, and just two of those clubs are top-three. FC Dallas won this trophy the right way, and hopefully more clubs will take something from what they have been able to do.

NYCFC clinch playoff bye

As you see in the chart above, NYCFC are the oldest team in MLS. Because that chart is weighted by playing time, the presence of David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo plays a large role in their high number. It’s still a troubling mark for a team that will expect to contend for MLS Cup this November, though.

It gets better when you realize that David Villa’s the absolute best.

He’s a 34-year old DP who has won the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League, and he cares what happens with NYCFC. If you have to sign an old European, sign someone like David Villa.

Portland get humiliated

The defending champions will not be playing in the MLS Cup postseason this year after they were creamed in Vancouver by an embarrassing score of 4-1. They sleepwalked into BC Place and they sleepwalked out, rightfully humiliated by the dispiriting nature of their loss against the rival Whitecaps, who, lest we forget, have had their share of frustrating moments this season.

What went wrong for the Timbers? They’ve mostly gone unharmed by injuries this season aside from center back Nat Borchers’s torn ACL, and they’ve played this season with what has mostly been the same lineup as the one that won the championship in 2015. Only Rodney Wallace and Jorge Vilafaña were the key contributors who left the team after last season, and their departures shouldn’t have had a real effect on their place in the standings.

I think there are a few smaller factors that combined to doom this team. For one, their defense was often left shaky by the lack of a starting-quality left-back (a place vacated by Villafaña) and the injury to Borchers, who was replaced by mistake-prone Englishman Steven Taylor. In addition, right back Alvas Powell missed significant periods of time with injuries and international duty. Liam Ridgewell and Jake Gleeson can’t do it all themselves.

Darlington Nagbe, fresh off a season that vaulted him into a regular national teamer, disappeared for stretches and left the Timbers without another creative field-stretching presence to go alongside Diego Valeri. His isolation to wing played a part in his decline, as he is a much better presence when playing as a box-to-box midfielder.

Caleb Porter recognized the defensive deficiencies on the right side of the field — Wallace was one of the better defending wingers in the league — and decided that moving Nagbe there was the best solution to that problem. In doing that, he took Nagbe’s space-eating qualities away from an attack that proved too one-dimensional.

Lucas Melano has been, for the most part, a failure. Darren Mattocks often replaced him out on the left, but a hamstring injury ruled him out for a few months in the middle of the season. Winger hasn’t been a great spot for Portland this season.

Perhaps the most important factor in the Timbers’ premature demise was a deficiency pointed out by a number of pundits, most notably MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle. They failed to give any Timbers II player or almost any of their own SuperDraft picks meaningful minutes, and when a team uses the same lineup built around the same veterans for a year and a half as Portland has, teams will figure you out eventually.

As a result, the Timbers will stay at home this Halloween:

Colorado stay unbeaten at home

Houston spoiled the party in Commerce City, as they stole two points from the Rapids to ruin their hopes of winning the Shield. But I decided to focus on the more positive aspects of that result.

The Rapids finished unbeaten at home this season, obviously the only team to do that in MLS, and more than anything else, that perfectly describes their success. They’ve gotten the results that they need to get — points at all costs at home, 0-0 and 1-1 draws on the road — and they’ve ridden that philosophy to the higher echelons of the MLS table.

That is a significant part of Pablo Mastroeni’s case for Coach of the Year. They do the simple things right, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

Oh, and by the way, they should start working on their PKs.

Red Bulls clinch Eastern Conference title

It wasn’t really in question going into their game in Philadelphia, but the Red Bulls eliminated all doubt with a 2-0 victory over Union, securing a second consecutive Eastern Conference title.

In the process, Bradley Wright-Phillips won himself the Golden Boot trophy with his 24th goal of the season and Sacha Kljestan *almost* picked up his MLS-record 20th assist of the season (Opta was feeling pretty stingy). Going into the postseason, the Red Bulls not only have two of the best attackers in the league going strong, they also have wingers Mike Grella and Alex Muyl producing, which is huge in their MLS Cup quest.

Real Salt Lake lose at Seattle

Seattle are really good right now — they’re not perfect, but Nico Lodeiro is — so we’ll shift our focus to RSL, who are backing into a knockout round matchup with the Galaxy after they lost again in Seattle on Sunday.

RSL haven’t won since August and have picked up just three of a maximum 21 points over their last seven matches. There are a few reasons for their struggles, but the most important of them is their lack of midfield mobility and resulting one-dimensional attack.

Javier Morales is supposed to be their central chance-creator, but he is unable to be the top playmaker with the defensive responsibilities he has to handle in the 4-3-3 formation; he’s 36 and can’t run all day any more. Without him playing like the JaviMo of old, they are forced to play through skillful wingers Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez. That’s not something that holds up against the more elite teams in this league.

And so RSL struggle. It’s Jeff Cassar’s job to fix this, and there’s been no signs of that happening. The 4-3-3 formation remains in use, and Jordan Allen is not starting yet. These things should have been happening a month ago.