It's only Decision Day but the MLS Cup Playoffs have started in mind, body and spirit with the Eastern Conference picture now clear.
In a remarkable winner-take-all showdown between Orlando City and Columbus Crew at Exploria Stadium on Sunday, the Crew — needing only a league-leading 17th draw to qualify for the playoffs — threw away a 1-0 lead to crash out of the main event.
Orlando — already leading a charmed season after capturing the U.S. Open Cup in September — will now be in the playoffs for a third straight campaign while Columbus has missed out in consecutive seasons despite the move to Lower.com Field.
The path looked straightforward for the Crew after Derrick Etienne opened the scoring in the 38th minute off a beautiful backheel from Lucas Zelarayán with five defenders monitoring him.
COLUMBUS CREW TAKES THE 1-0 LEAD! pic.twitter.com/x7siHoDWkW
However, in the 56th minute, Mauricio Pereyra assisted Júnior Urso for an equalizer to bring Exploria Stadium back to life.
The drama reached fever pitch in the 84th minute after the VAR spotted a Columbus handball in the area on an Orlando shot that was going on frame. Facundo Torres took the spot kick and thumped it beyond Eloy Room.
Despite an extended period of second-half stoppage time, Columbus couldn't find an all-important equalizer.
Elsewhere, Philadelphia beat Toronto 4-0 to secure the top seed in the East and a bye to the conference semifinals. Cincinnati also booked its first-ever playoff ticket with a 5-2 victory over D.C. United — Wayne Rooney's first season ends with a bit of silverware, the Wooden Spoon.
Montréal (Stade Saputo), RBNY (Red Bull Arena) and NYCFC (also Red Bull Arena) get to host first round matches.
MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference
First round | Oct. 15-17
E4 New York Red Bulls vs. E5 FC Cincinnati
E3 New York City FC vs. E6 Inter Miami
E2 CF Montréal vs. E7 Orlando City
Conference Semifinals | Oct. 20, 23
E1 Philadelphia Union vs. E4/E5
E3/E6 vs. E2/E7
Conference Finals | Oct. 30
MLS Cup | Nov. 5