Exactly how big is Sunday's marquee Decision Day match between the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN)? It depends whom you ask.
"Winning in Kansas City would be wonderful for us," Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes told ESPN FC in a phone interview Wednesday, noting that three points would guarantee his team second place in the Western Conference and the first-round playoff bye that goes with it. "Having to play midweek and then again on the weekend is extremely tough on your body. The opportunity to rest, get guys healthy and get mentally prepared for the playoffs would be huge."
There's no question Sunday's game is huge for the hosts, especially after SKC squandered a golden opportunity to secure a postseason berth with a 2-0 home loss to West cellar-dwellers Colorado on Wednesday. The upset left sixth-place Sporting's playoff hopes dangling by a thread. Now only a win against the defending champs can ensure their participation.
"It's a final," Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said afterward. "We have to win to get in."
Not necessarily. A loss by San Jose at West champ FC Dallas would also be enough to allow SKC to qualify no matter what happens in the match. When it comes to the MLS playoffs, history shows that just finding a way to get in -- no matter what the seed -- is all it takes to compete for MLS Cup.
Don't believe it? Look at the Galaxy. The standard-bearer of excellence in the domestic league hasn't won a Supporters' Shield as MLS' regular-season champ since 2011, yet they have hoisted three Cups in the past four seasons. In 2012, they finished fourth in the West and still won. A year ago, they lost the Shield to rival Seattle on the last match day but beat the Sounders on away goals in the conference final and again wound up atop the mountain.
"We've won championships in all different ways," Galaxy boss Bruce Arena, the dean of MLS coaches, told ESPN FC this week. "We've played the Wednesday-Saturday/Sunday thing. We've had the week off. I don't know if there's an advantage one way or the other, to be honest. Any one of the 12 teams that get into the playoffs are in position to win."
The fact that LA has already clinched doesn't mean Arena is looking past Sunday's game. His team is winless in its past two games -- a draw in Seattle on Oct. 4 and a 5-2 spanking at home against Portland last weekend.
What's more, this week was complicated by Wednesday's Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football Champions League game in Guatemala City, which the Galaxy were forced to play with reserves. Even Arena didn't make the trip. Without their starters, the visitors gave up a stoppage-time equalizer against Comunicaciones and settled for a 1-1 tie. That means they'll face Mexican club Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals when the tournament resumes next year. The tight scheduling won't help them Sunday, either.
"Half of our team is in Guatemala, and the other half's in L.A.," Arena said. "You can't prepare."
Still, the Galaxy remain prohibitive favorites to retain their title. They've dealt with adversity in previous seasons and, more often than not, still came out on top. Even during this difficult stretch, they carry the confidence of champions.
"Although we lost against Portland, I feel like we're right where we want to be," Zardes said. "We're in second place, and our fate is in our hands. That's exactly what we want."
Arena knows how difficult it is to repeat in MLS, but he also knows what it takes, having done it with both the Galaxy and D.C. United in the 1990s. He wants to win at Sporting Park more for momentum's sake than for how it will impact his side's position in the standings.
"We're not worried about the postseason," he said. "Our focus is on this game Sunday. I think it's a good challenge for our team and very good preparation for the playoffs. We're going to have a much better feel for where we are after that game."
In other words, It's going to be big.