Why Each Playoff Team Will Win MLS Cup, and Why They Won’t
The playoffs are upon us. And the biggest joy of the playoffs is how anything can happen once the games start. We’re talking about a competition where Colorado once won an MLS Cup against another Western Conference team in Toronto on an own goal. Anything can happen here. Throwing a wrench into things is the new playoff format which does away with the old home-and-home series in favor of a single elimination game held at the higher-seeded team’s home venue.
So let’s take a moment to look at every team in the bracket, and look at why each of them could win MLS Cup, as well as why each of them won’t.
1st Seed: NYCFC 18-6-10 — 64 pts
Why They’ll Win: NYCFC quietly took control of the Eastern Conference at the end of the season. This team could ride a very crowded attack all the way to a title. Maxi Morales has been pulling the strings on an offense that forces defenders to choose between Mitrita and Héber, which just makes everyone uncomfortable. Add in the towering presence of Sean Johnson in goal, and NYCFC are going to be real tough to beat.
Why They’ll Lose: Despite their firepower, NYCFC never seems to run away with games. With the exception of a couple teams laying down for them, they seem to be squeaking out too many results. In the high-pressure atmosphere of the playoffs, this could be a killer.
2nd Seed: Atlanta UTD 18-12-4 — 58 pts
Why They’ll Win: This team shines in knockout tournaments. While the team struggled to adjust to a new coach and losing Miguel Almirón at the beginning of the year, they cruised to victories in both the US Open Cup and the Campeones. Plus, with a healthy Josef Martínez scoring like… well, Josef Martínez, they give themselves a chance to win every game they’re in. Also, as the defending champions, they’ve proven they know how to win high-pressure games.
Why They’ll Lose: Pity Martínez isn’t Miguel Almirón, and Frank De Boer isn’t Tata Martino. Atlanta are better than they were at the beginning of the season, but they’re not the unstoppable juggernaut they were last year. Josef Martínez is capable of magic, but if teams learn how to shut him down, the goals dry up real fast. They’ll also occasionally give up three or four goals in a game.
3rd Seed: Philadelphia Union 16-11-7 — 55 pts
Why They’ll Win: Philly is one of the most fun teams to watch in the league, and that alone is a shocking statement to make. Alejandro Bedoya hasn’t been putting up the most gaudy numbers in the league, but he’s been a creative force on the field. Kacper Przybylko has been an assassin in the box, and Jim Curtain’s team can create chances from all over the field. they play a smooth and thrilling style and on a good day are capable of tearing apart any defense in the league.
Why They’ll Lose: The Union are going cold at exactly the wrong time. Bedoya’s been injured, and the team went 1-3-1 to finish the season. They’ve already slipped to the 3rd seed when they were controlling the East for most of the season. All three of those recent losses are against Eastern Conference teams, and one of them was even at home. Also, while Curtain has the team playing the best soccer of their franchise history, what little playoff experience he has hasn’t gone well.
4th Seed: Toronto FC 13-10-11 — 50 pts
Why They’ll Win: Toronto is another team that’s quietly crept into playoff relevance. After a rough start, the team has consistently found results and moved their way up the table. While nothing they do is very loud and flashy, they play disciplined defense, and let Michael Bradley feed Pozuelo and Jozy up top to find a way to win. This is a team that has not lost since August 3rd. AUGUST 3RD!!!! IT’S OCTOBER, PEOPLE!!! You can’t tell me there’s a team that wants to face these guys.
Why They’ll Lose: Jozy just came home from national team duty with an injury. That could be a real problem. Without Jozy creating chances seemingly out of nothing, all of the goalscoring lands squarely on the shoulders of Pozuelo. And since opposing defenses don’t have to split their attention, he’s gonna have a tough time finding space to score. Perhaps if they still had Giovinco, you could count on some magic, but the magic might be running a bit thin in Toronto.
5th Seed: DC United 13-10-11 — 50 pts
Why They’ll Win: Ben Olsen has been on my shortlist for next coach to get fired for about five years now. I don’t know how, but every time I think this team has entirely fallen apart, Olsen finds a way to stitch them back together. Defensively, this team is a juggernaut. They haven’t given up a goal since August 24th, and have only given up four goals in their last twelve, and never more than one in a game. That’s pretty intimidating for any opponent. Since these playoffs are Wayne Rooney’s MLS swan song, you can hope he turns it on so he can leave on a high note.
Why They’ll Lose: Defense can keep you in a game, but it can’t win you one. This is a team that couldn’t score over an entire half with a two-man advantage against CINCINNATI!!!! AT HOME!!!! Cincinnati, you might remember, is the team that just broke the MLS record for the most goals conceded in a single season. Also, Ben Olsen seems to not trust Luciano Acosta anymore. This team’s playoff hopes rest entirely on the aged shoulders of a Wayne Rooney who already has a new job lined up. He might not want to turn it on after all.
6th Seed: New York Red Bulls 14-14-6 — 48 pts
Why They’ll Win: I don’t think there’s a team in the league more hungry for a title than the Red Bulls. It took them the better part of two decades to win their first trophy, but now they’ve piled up three Supporter’s Shields, and they’re ready for the big one. Daniel Royer is having a career year, and there are 18 other players on the team who’ve scored a goal this season. They’re dangerous all over the field, and still have the reigning Defender of the Year on the back line.
Why They’ll Lose: Because that’s so Metro. You knew that was coming. But seriously, this a team that struggled to get in the playoffs at all one year after winning the Supporter’s Shield by becoming the first team every to break 70 points. They have a 23 point drop from last season’s team, which is second in the league only to Sporting KC. The fact that they could drop so far and still make the playoffs says more about MLS’ playoff structure than it does about the Red Bulls. This team is just a shadow of last year’s team, and they couldn’t close the deal, so I doubt they will this year either.
7th Seed: NE Revolution 11-11-12 — 45 pts
Why They’ll Win: It’s not gonna be easy, but a lot of people have made fools of themselves betting against Bruce Arena. The Freidel Era was a disaster, and this team was a mess when Bruce came riding in. He promptly put them on a 11 game unbeaten streak and grabbed that last playoff spot. I don’t think another coach in the league could’ve managed it, because Bruce just gets MLS on a level nobody else does. Sure they lost against Atlanta on Decision day, but that just gave Bruce a chance review the tactics they’ll be throwing at the Revs in the next match up. Not many people beat Bruce twice in a row.
Why They’ll Lose: Because let’s face it, Brad Friedel wasn’t the only problem with this team. Newcomer Carles Gil is the team’s leading goalscorer with 10, and there’s not much else happening after that. They’ll be playing in front of a rockin’ Atlanta crowd, and defensively they won’t be able to handle Josef Martínez. In the words of Guy from Galaxy Quest, “I’m just happy to be on the show, man.”
1st Seed: LAFC 21-4-9 — 72 pts
Why They’ll Win: Because let’s face it, this is one of the best teams MLS has ever produced. If there’s a record in MLS, they’ve probably broken it (or didn’t want to break it, which means Cincinnati probably broke it). Carlos Vela has been everything Bob Bradly hoped he could be. The attack is fast, clever, and ruthless. The defense is stout. There’s no single place that this team is weak. Their plus-48 goal differential is just gross. They’ll be playing at home every game all the way to MLS Cup. This team is just the class of the league this year.
Why They’ll Lose: Because they’ve started to show their weaknesses at the absolute worst time. They’re vulnerable, and teams are starting to figure them out. They only have two wins in the last eight, and they haven’t beaten a playoff team since the middle of August. Plus, depending on the result in Minnesota, their first match-up might be against their most feared rival, Zlatan. LAFC have never beaten the Galaxy, and Zlatan in particular seems to have their number. If they face the Galaxy, the added pressure of the playoffs will be too much for this team.
2nd Seed: Seattle Sounders 16-10-8 — 56 pts
Why They’ll Win: Eleven Seasons in MLS, Eleven playoff appearances. There is no team more experienced in the postseason than Seattle. This is a team that got 2nd place in the West, and 4th in the Supporters Shield standings, and considers it somewhat of a disappointing season. Jordan Morris is showing the world why he was the USMNT’s hottest prospect just a few years ago, and Raul Ruidíaz is always a threat to score. Add one of the leagues best creators in Nicolás Lodeiro, and this is an attack that can score a ton of goals on pretty much anyone.
Why They’ll Lose: Seattle’s defense can occasionally be summed up as nightmarish. The team never fully recovered from the retirement of Chad Marshall, and Kim Kee-Hee and Xavier Arreaga really never figured out how to play together. The return of Roman Torres helps, but with only one start since mid summer, he’s bound to make some mistakes. If their vaunted offense goes cold, which it will occasionally do, there’s not much hope for this team.
3rd Seed: Real Salt Lake 16-13-5 — 53 pts
Why They’ll Win: All hail Nick Rimando! The league’s greatest goalkeeper is finally hanging up his cleats, but he has clearly shown he’s still got it in him. Not only does RSL have a solid defense in front of Rimando, but their attack isn’t anything to take for granted either. With three players with eight or more goals each, and Jefferson Savarino capable of creating out of nothing, this team is the one everyone is sleeping on, and they’re ready to take advantage.
Why They’ll Lose: Counting on Savarino to make something out of nothing isn’t a great playoff strategy. Sure you’ll pick up some points in the regular season that way, but there’s no room for error in the post season. While they may have three goal scorers with eight goals, none of them have more than ten. There’s just not enough firepower to keep up with the the giants in the West this year.
4th Seed: Minnesota United 15-11-8 — 53 pts
Why They’ll Win: Congrats to Minnesota on their first playoff appearance! This is a team that looks to make some noise in the playoffs, too. Sitting pretty with a home game, where they’ve only lost once all season, this team is tough to beat. Between Ozzie Alonso in the midfield and Ike Opara on the back line, they’re tough to break down. And they have so much attacking talent that Adrian Heath has kept Darwin Quintero on the bench. They only fell short of the second seed on decision day, and have taken 4 points from LAFC since the beginning of September. They don’t make many mistakes, they wait for you to make one, and then they pounce.
Why They’ll Lose: Part of the reason Darwin Quintero is on the bench is because he’s just not producing. The attack on this team is pretty thin after him. Ethan Finlay is a good player, but if he’s your second highest goal-scorer, then something’s gotta give. It’s true they don’t make a lot of mistakes, but they have a tough time capitalizing when other teams make as few mistakes as they do.
5th Seed: LA Galaxy 16-15-3 — 51 pts
Why They’ll Win: Move over Loki, there’s a new Norse god of chaos. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of those once-in-a-generation talents that can truly change any game he’s in. When he’s on the field, anything can happen. With enough goals to get him the Golden Boot in any but two seasons in MLS history, he’s shown he can do it again and again. Plus, as mentioned before, this is the team that has never lost to LAFC. The Galaxy certainly aren’t afraid of anyone.
Why They’ll Lose: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Galaxy headed into the last game of the season needing a win against an already eliminated Houston Dynamo, but despite an early lead, couldn’t close it out. This team seemingly can win at any time except when they actually must. Zlatan’s great, but the drop-off to the next player is pretty significant. And without the talent around the rest of the field, it’s gonna be tough for Zlatan to carry the team alone. He maybe a Ferrari, but he’s truly on a team of Fiats.
6th Seed: Portland Timbers 14-13-7 — 49 pts
Why They’ll Win: Sure, Portland look like underdogs, but they relish being the underdogs. All they need is a chance, and they can wreck your day. Look at last year, when they snuck into the playoffs, and then rode it all the way to the final before finally being stopped by Atlanta. With youngster Jeremy Ebobisse coming into his own this season, and Dairon Asprilla turning it on at just the right time (again), this team is designed to wreck your day. Not to mention, Steve Clark has been sitting in goal having a crazy season, and nobody seemed to notice.
Why They’ll Lose: Things are not looking good on the top end of the Timber’s roster. With Brian Fernández out indefinitely for personal issues, and Diego Valeri injured and unhappy with his contract status, the team is gonna have a tough time keeping up with the stacked rosters around them. Plus, Portland’s schedule was backloaded with home games because of renovations to Providence Park, which should’ve given them the chance to run up the table, but they only managed to go 10-7-5 despite 17 home games. And with their low seeding, they’re unlike to get any home games in the postseason.
7th Seed: FC Dallas 13-12-9 —48 pts
Why They’ll Win: The kids are alright. FC Dallas, as usual, is stacked with young talent, and they’ve been performing brilliantly all season. With 14 different goal-scorers, they’re dangerous from just about any part of the field. On top of that, they’ve got great veterans in the back with Ryan Hollingshead and Matt Hedges. They’re also good in the clutch. They came into Decision Day needing a win to have a chance for the playoffs, and they dropped six on Sporting KC. They want to ride that wave all the way to the cup.
Why They’ll Lose: The future looks bright in Dallas, but it’s still in the future. FC Dallas just tied down Paxton Pomykal for the foreseeable future because he’s a great prospect, but he’s not quite there yet. You could say much the same for the rest of the team. Add in the fact that they’re going to Seattle in the first round, where they’ve only won once in the past 11 years, and it’s not looking good. The window is opening for this team, but they’re just not quite there yet.