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ESPN has big plans for climax to Major League Soccer playoff race

Fans across Major League Soccer have been waiting for the last two weekends of this year's regular season ever since the schedule was released in January.

Update: Seattle-Real Salt Lake is on ESPN, Los Angeles-Dallas is on Fox Sports 1, and UniMás decided to not take a game at all.

Also, TSN will provide Canadian viewers live look-ins at games leaguewide during its Decision Day broadcast window. Vic Rauter and Kristian Jack host coverage from the network's Toronto studios. TSN1 airs Vancouver-Portland, with Peter Schaad, Nick Dasovic and Perry Solkowski on the call. TSN4 airs Toronto-Chicago, with Luke Wileman and Greg Sutton on the call.

Finally, kickoffs are at 4:20 p.m., not 4:15 p.m.

Fans across Major League Soccer have been waiting for the last two weekends of this year's regular season ever since the schedule was released in January.

With simultaneous kickoffs split by conference this weekend and leaguewide next weekend, the stage is set for lots of drama - and you'll get to see every moment that matters on national television.

The wild ride begins Sunday, when ESPN televises a four-and-a-half hour block of live coverage from coast to coast. The network will feature two games during that window - Montréal Impact vs. Toronto FC and Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids - and offer whip-around coverage of all the other games going on at the same times.

ESPN soccer producer Chris Alexpoulous, who will be at the helm of the show on Sunday, gave me some insight about how everything will work.

First, it's important to make clear what the kickoff times are. Games in the Eastern Conference will begin at 3:15 p.m. Eastern, and all games in the Western Conference will begin at 5:28 p.m. Eastern. All of the league's clubs and local TV broadcasters are aware of this, and have scheduled broadcast time slots accordingly.

Just how simultaneous will the kickoffs be? To the second, or at least a few seconds. Here's how it'll happen. You might have noticed that right before kickoff, there's a person standing on the sideline looking at the referee with a hand raised. That person is known in the TV industry as the "red hat," because the person often literally wears a red hat.

For these rounds of MLS action, the red hat at each stadium will have audio connection straight to MLS headquarters, where league director of operations Brent Delgadowill give the signal to start all the games.

In Montreal, ESPN will have Dan Kelly, Taylor Twellman and Katie Witham on site, along with producer Todd Kulis and director Bob Frattaroli. Kelly is making his ESPN debut after a few years as the play-by-play voice for Chicago Fire broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and other outlets. Alexopoulos said he's been a fan of Kelly's work for a while and wanted to give him a shot on the national stage.

Because Canadian national broadcasters TSN and RDS will also be carrying the game, the networks are pooling resources behind the scenes. Each will have their own produced broadcasts and their own cameras, but all of the camera feeds will be available to all of the networks if they want them.

TSN's commentary team will be Luke Wileman, Greg Sutton and Kristian Jack; RDS' will be Claudine Douville, Jean Gounelle and Patrick Friolet, along with the studio crew of François-Étienne Corbin and Olivier Brett.

In Portland, ESPN's crew on site will be Glenn Davis and Brian Dunseth, along with producer Matt Leach and Josh Haskins.

ESPN Deportes' commentary teams will be Richard Méndez and Robert Sierra for Montréal-Toronto, and Méndez and Giovanni Savarese for Portland-Colorado.

ESPN's whip-around coverage will be based out of the network's Bristol, Conn., studios. Adrian Healey will host, with analysts Alejandro Moreno and Sigi Schmid. It will be Schmid's first time on TV since departing the Seattle Sounders in July.

Alexopoulos said the studio production team will be "aggressive but responsible" with live cut-ins to other games. The goal is to be in and out of the studio in around 12 seconds. The coverage won't be split-screened, so the stopwatch matters.

Amy Rosenfeld, the head of ESPN's soccer production operations, will have her eyes on surveying the big picture. You know her name by now, as you should with Alexopoulos.

If there are still other games going on when Montreal-Toronto ends, ESPN will show that action live, probably with the studio crew describing action instead of the local broadcast audio. It's also worth noting that all cut-ins ins will feature MLS' global video feed, not the local ones with logos of Comcast, Time Warner and so on. It's a bit easier logistically for ESPN that way.

Once all the Eastern Conference games are done, the studio crew will talk for a few minutes, the network will sell some ads, and viewers will then be off to Portland.

MLS and its national TV partners first tested having simultaneous kickoffs to end the season last year, so Alexopoulos has some experience with what's coming.

When I asked him what he hopes to see this time around, he said his biggest goal is to make things run faster and more smoothly. And when I asked him what he hopes doesn't happen, he politely demurred. Better to not go asking for trouble.

"We've done a lot of whip-around shows and matches over the years where you have to be quick, whether it's whip-around shows like we did for the [UEFA] World Cup qualifiers in 2013, or whether it's even just simultaneous matches during the World Cup and Euros," Alexopoulos said. "There's a base there, where everybody keeps it together when something exciting happens, and figures out how to get it to the screen as quickly as possible for the viewer."

He did at least concede that scoreless draws aren't always fun. But then again, that won't be the case next week, when the regular season concludes with one final sprint for playoff positioning.

All 10 games leaguewide will kick off at around 4:15 p.m. Eastern, with one each on ESPN (simulcast on ESPN Deportes), Fox Sports 1 (simulcast on Fox Deportes) and UniMás. The broadcast window for all three networks is 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

MLS headquarters calls the occasion "Decision Day," because it's when the playoff matchups will be decided. The phrase can also be applied to the decisions you'll have to make at home as you try to take it all in.

Here's something you might not know yet. In addition to the live game on ESPN, there will be a simultaneous live whip-around studio show on ESPN2.

Yes, really.

Adrian Healey and Twellman will be at ESPN's live game, with Alexopoulos producing and Frattaroli directing.

The Bristol crew's pregame, halftime and postgame coverage will air live on both channels.

I've heard there's a possibility of there being an on-site reporter at another game who will contribute to the whip-around show on ESPN2, but that's not official yet.

Update: Turns out that's not happening. There were plans for Witham to be that reporter, but she'll be in Seattle instead.

The live game coverage will have score updates from other games, but not live cut-ins. For that, you'll have to go to ESPN2.

Fox will have live look-ins during its broadcast. Executive producer for soccer Jonty Whitehead told me that will likely be in a split-screen format. The network has plenty of experience with whip-around coverage of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

For obvious reasons, each network's whip-around coverage probably won't include much footage from the other nationally televised games. But you'll know when things happen.

Overall, the total number of national television feeds in play on Oct. 23 will be four. If you can watch them all at once, congratulations. If not, good luck.

As for which games will land on which networks, expect channel assignments to be announced Monday morning at the latest. I'm told ESPN has first pick.

None of the three networks will have an easy choice to make, because almost every game on the board could have major playoff implications. Obviously, some matchups could be less relevant when the time comes after results this Sunday, but right now the list looks something like this:

In the west, star-studded Los Angeles could be playing to secure a Wild Card round home game against Dallas, which is fighting for the Supporters' Shield. Colorado, which currently tops the table, will be hosting Houston.

Down the standings, Seattle and Real Salt Lake will be jockeying to clinch playoff berths in front of the usual huge crowd at CenturyLink Field. Sporting Kansas City will be right on the edge playing at San Jose, as will defending champion Portland at Vancouver - and that game will be for the Cascadia Cup.

In the east, New England-Montreal will have playoff implications for both teams if the Revolution win at Chicago this weekend. Toronto could steal a bye if New York City slips up against the Columbus Crew, or if the New York Red Bulls don't win at...

... You know where this is going, don't you.

I saved the Philadelphia-New York game for last on purpose. It has all the pieces to be epic, and ESPN and Fox know it. Two huge markets, the spice of a real rivalry (admit it, Red Bulls fans), and a home team trying to get into the playoffs for the first time in five years.

(And just so you know, national TV networks would be quite happy if Philadelphia is in the playoffs.)

Union-Red Bulls is, as Whitehead put it, a game "with an asterisk."

Except there are so many big games in the Western Conference that it could be shut out. And whether or not a team makes the playoffs - especially if that team is the defending champion - is a bigger story than a matchup to settle playoff seeds.

From where I sit, the three biggest games on the board are, not quite in order: Los Angeles-Dallas, Seattle-RSL and Philadelphia-New York. That doesn't mean those will be the national TV games; it's just my opinion. And of course, this Sunday's results could turn everyone's predictions upside down.

But in a way, that's the point. We don't know. We have to wait and let everything play out.

So let's do that. Because the one thing that is certain is that the next two weeks are going to be a lot of fun.

The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.