The Major League Soccer regular season? It's over. Decision Day? Come and gone. That leaves the MLS Cup playoffs, which kick off Wednesday with the wild-card round.
The wild card sees the eighth and ninth seeds in each of the Eastern and Western conferences square off at the home of the higher seed for the right to meet each conference's No. 1 seed. That means the New York Red Bulls host Charlotte FC vying for the opportunity to take on Supporters' Shield-winning FC Cincinnati, while the San Jose Earthquakes will visit Sporting Kansas City with shocking conference top seed St. Louis City SC waiting in the wings.
What do you need to know about each of these matchups? Cesar Hernandez and Arch Bell have you covered as the league embarks on its biggest postseason ever.
8. New York Red Bulls vs. 9. Charlotte FC (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Call it a fingertip, a whisker, a hair, whatever; those were the margins in which both the New York Red Bulls and Charlotte FC managed to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference wild card, and now these two survivors of Saturday's Decision Day drama square off on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
These are not your older brother's Red Bulls. The Sacha Kljestan/Dax McCarty/Kaku possession-based days of yore are long gone, but full credit to coach Troy Lesesne for the job done this season. The Red Bulls were downright awful under former boss Gerhard Struber, winning just one of their first 11 games.
Lesesne made this Red Bulls team into a defensive force, allowing just 39 goals during the regular season, the same amount conceded by Cincinnati. A team that had been below the playoff line the entire campaign finally climbed above it on the last kick of the season via John Tolkin's stoppage-time penalty conversion against Nashville.
The Red Bulls have every reason to believe they are playing with house money after squeezing into the postseason for a record 14th consecutive season, but upstart Charlotte probably feels the same. The second-year franchise got a top performance from goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and a timely goal from Kerwin Vargas to down Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF to punch their playoff ticket.
Kahlina's form is important and will be a factor for a Charlotte team that has 10 points from its past four games, including three clean sheets. Vargas is the attacking key. The young Colombian is an excellent moment right now, with goals in back-to-back games and has the ability to unlock a defense.
The Red Bulls do not have that game-changing player who they can turn to, to find a goal in a pinch, even though Omir Fernandez has shown that at times. Meanwhile, Charlotte appears to be getting that from Vargas, but a stout Red Bulls back line is likely too tall of a task.
These are two teams coming off emotional results to get into the playoffs in their own historical fashion. Experience sides with the Red Bulls, while Charlotte will be experiencing the excitement of a first ever playoff match. -- Arch Bell
Fatigue is a factor, so that, combined with two teams that are playing well defensively, suggests a 0-0 draw is on tap. Kahlina's form swings this wild card to Charlotte in a penalty shootout. -- Bell
I'm going with form here, and even though Charlotte is heading in with a four-game unbeaten run, you can't overlook the four wins in the past five for the Red Bulls. I also don't trust Charlotte away from home and its minus-10 goal differential in those 17 road trips. -- Cesar Hernandez
8. Sporting Kansas City vs. 9. San Jose Earthquakes (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET)
Six months after stating "I genuinely don't know how to fix it" following a 0W-3D-7L start to the season, Sporting Kansas City captain Johnny Russell did just that on Saturday. His brace in the 3-1 Decision Day win over Minnesota United pushed SKC into the MLS Cup playoffs.
With a 12W-5D-7L resurgence since May that has turned them into the comeback story of the year -- and the first MLS team to qualify for the playoffs after a 10-game winless start -- SKC will soon host a San Jose Earthquakes side that have become one of the more resilient squads in the Western Conference.
Led by Brazilian goalkeeper Daniel, who's made 32 saves in his past eight appearances, San Jose has only lost once since September. With an immense amount of support through Cristian Espinoza pulling the strings in the attack, manager Luchi Gonzalez has crafted his roster into a pragmatic and cautious group that were able to qualify for the playoffs in his first season in charge.
Heading into Wednesday's meeting, MLS fans will now get to see an intriguing encounter between a more proactive SKC group that will want to control possession and build on their momentum, who will then have to find a way past a Quakes team that churned out a sturdy 1W-6D-1L record since last month. SKC will undoubtedly be the favorites in this match at home -- and especially with striker Alan Pulido in the mix with his 14 goals -- but let's not overlook San Jose either despite its penchant for low-scoring draws.
Although their 1-1 Decision Day draw at home was against a listless Austin FC, Gonzalez's men looked hungry for a win and created multiple dangerous opportunities that could have led to a higher spot in the standings. No longer sitting back as they've typically done in recent matches, San Jose was suddenly on the front foot in what could be a sign of things to come in the postseason.
"This is going to be a battle, but it's also one that we're not afraid of," Gonzalez said last Saturday about facing SKC in the wild card. "Why not San Jose," he later added about their playoff hopes. "I dare anybody to take us lightly." -- Hernandez
San Jose's poor road form this year rears its ugly head against a Sporting team that has played very well since Leagues Cup. In the battle of alpha attackers, Pulido will have the bigger bite over Espinoza, giving Kansas City the win. -- Bell
Homefield advantage is going to be key here and I can't confidently back the Quakes when they're away from PayPal Park. Also, even if Pulido has an off-day, others like Dániel Sallói and Russell have shown that they can help with chance creation and goal scoring. -- Hernandez