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Countdown to MLS Decision Day: The playoff picture for Atlanta United and the rest of the East

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There’s still a lot to pick through. We help you through it.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe, but Atlanta United’s whirlwind MLS regular season ends on Sunday with Decision Day. While we know who the Eastern Conference’s playoff representatives will be - Toronto FC, New York City FC, Chicago, Atlanta, Columbus, and the New York Red Bulls - and while Toronto and the Red Bulls can’t finish outside of first and sixth, respectively, it’s seeds two through five that won’t be finalized until Sunday evening. (Pity to whoever is in charge of figuring out the West, where three teams could still sneak into sixth and three others could clinch the top seed.)

Let’s first take a look at where things stand at the time of this writing, remembering that only Toronto and New York have their seedings secured:

Top two: (1) Toronto FC; (2) New York City FC
Knockout stage (higher seed hosts): (3) Chicago Fire vs. (6) New York Red Bulls; (4) Atlanta United vs. (5) Columbus Crew SC
Semifinals (teams are reseeded after knockout stage; top seed hosts 2nd leg):
If Chicago and Atlanta win: (1) Toronto/(4) Atlanta, (2) NYCFC/(3) Chicago
If RBNY and Atlanta win: (1) Toronto/(6) RBNY, (2) NYCFC/(4) Atlanta
If Chicago and Crew SC win: (1) Toronto/(5)Crew SC, (2) NYCFC/(3) Chicago
If RBNY and Crew SC win: (1) Toronto/(6) RBNY, (2) NYCFC/(5) Crew SC

I don’t know about you, but a potential Atlanta/Columbus matchup would be horrific for United. Sure, Atlanta have won both meetings this year, but the notion of facing them in a one-off scares me.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Playoff Scenarios

We’ll start with Atlanta since that’s who you’re here for, anyway.

Atlanta United: Atlanta can clinch second with a win against Toronto, coupled with an NYCFC draw or loss and a Chicago draw or loss. The Five Stripes hold a goal differential of 30, so with a win pulling them level with NYCFC on points and victories, they’d win the goal differential tiebreak easily in the event of an NYCFC draw. They can only finish in third if they win and NYCFC lose and Chicago win, or vice versa. If Atlanta lose, a Columbus result of any type puts Atlanta in fifth, but Atlanta would remain in fourth if they draw and Columbus lose. One thing that works in Atlanta’s favor is that Toronto FC have the Supporters’ Shield won already and will have nothing to play for, meaning that what we’ll see at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will more closely resemble their B squad.

NYCFC: NYCFC is in control of its own destiny, needing a win against Columbus on Sunday to clinch second in the East. A loss, coupled with wins by Chicago and Atlanta, would drop NYCFC to fifth. They would fall behind the Fire and United in points and would lose the tiebreaker to Crew SC on wins (17 to 16). However, due to their GD of 13, if NYCFC lose and Chicago (17 GD) draw, NYCFC would drop to third. A draw, coupled with Chicago and Atlanta wins, would drop them down to fourth.

Chicago Fire: Chicago can finish in second with a win or draw over the Houston Dynamo and a NYCFC loss to Crew SC, meaning the Fire would bypass the knockout stage and drop right into the Eastern semifinals. (Chicago hold a 17-13 edge over NYCFC on goal differential, with the second tiebreaker being employed since both would be level on wins.) They can finish as low as fifth, but that’s if they lose and both Atlanta and Austin Columbus win.

Columbus Crew SC: Crew SC need a lot of help to get to second, but first they need to beat NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, or Citi Field, or the Meadowlands, or wherever David Villa and co. are playing on Sunday. Then they need both Chicago and Atlanta to lose. They can claim third with a win coupled with an Atlanta win and Chicago getting less than full points, or a Chicago win and anything less than full points for Atlanta against Toronto. They can get to fourth with a draw and an Atlanta loss against Toronto.