Previewing the MLS Cup Playoff Picture

By Dylan Butler | Posted 2 years ago

The 14-team field is set for the MLS Cup Playoffs after a wild Decision Day where the six final berths — three in each conference — were booked on the final day of the regular season. 


While the league takes a brief pause for upcoming World Cup qualifiers, who are the favorites, contenders, dark-horses and players to watch in each conference when the playoffs start Nov. 20. 


Eastern Conference 


Favorite: New England Revolution 


The Revolution set an MLS record by securing 73 points over the course of a 34-game regular season. That earned New England the Supporters’ Shield and immediately placed them as a favorite to win their first MLS Cup title. 


It’s more than just the points. The Revs are led by the most successful coach in league history in Bruce Arena and are the most balanced squad this year. Carles Gil is the favorite to win the MVP award, Matt Turner is the favorite to win the Goalkeeper of the Year award, Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou are a dangerous attacking duo and Tajon Buchanan will likely be among those selected to the MLS Best XI. 


But New England aren’t a lock, with the 21-day layoff between their regular- season finale and first playoff game possibly the biggest hurdle. 


Contenders: Nashville SCNew York City FCPhiladelphia Union 


Nashville SC are built on stout defense and are tied with the New York Red Bulls for least goals conceded (33) during the regular season. That was the basis for a surprisingly deep postseason run as an expansion side last year. Now they’ve put together a formidable attack, led by MLS MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar, and finished the regular season undefeated at home (8-0-9). 


New York City FC ended the regular season on a five-match unbeaten run and enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams. They might have gotten hot at the perfect time. They have the Golden Boot winner in Taty Castellanos surrounded by a veteran core that has been through several previous unsuccessful postseason runs. 


The Philadelphia Union claimed the No. 2 spot in the East with a 1-1 draw against NYCFC on Decision Day, important because if the top seeds all win, the Union would play host to Nashville SC rather than having to try and hand Nashville their first loss in the Music City. This is also a team that have plenty of key players who have played in big matches — from the MLS Cup Playoffs to the Concacaf Champions League and a nice safety valve in Andre Blake, a two-time winner of Goalkeeper of the Year.


Darkhorse: Atlanta United


Atlanta have an interesting mix of players who have an MLS Cup ring in goalkeeper Brad Guzan and star striker Josef Martinez, young players who have thrived in large roles this season in defenders Miles Robinson and George Bello, who have both earned regular call-ups to the U.S, Men’s National Team for World Cup qualifiers and dangerous attacking threats including Luiz Araujo and Marcelino Moreno and a midfield lynchpin in Matheus Rossetto. If they can get past NYCFC in the opening round, look out. 


Five Players to Watch: 


Carles Gil, New England Revolution

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC

Taty Castellanos, New York City FC

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union 

Daryl Dike, Orlando City SC

Western Conference 


Favorite: Seattle Sounders


Wait a second, you say. The Sounders aren’t the top seed in the West. That is true, but there is no more dangerous roster in the West, maybe the league. Raul Ruidiaz is one of the best big-game strikers in MLS, Joao Paulo was arguably the best player in MLS who won’t win the MVP award, Nico Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan are also studs in attack and Jordan Morris is back healthy. Their problem is all of those players mentioned have been battling injuries with Roldan the only one from that list playing on Decision Day. A first round bye would have done this group wonders, but the brief hiatus from the end of the regular season to the start of the playoffs should be the rest they need. 


Contenders: Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers


The Colorado Rapids made a huge Decision Day statement with an emphatic win over LAFC that not only knocked Bob Bradley’s squad out of the playoffs — and also likely resulting in Bradley losing his job — but they earned the top spot in the West as a result. There are no MVP candidates, no Best XI players, just a quality bargain-bin Moneyball-esque squad led by Robin Fraser, who should be the league’s Coach of the Year — if Arena doesn’t claim the award again. 


Sporting Kansas City 


Sporting KC could have claimed the West’s top spot with a win over Real Salt Lake on the final day of the regular season, but instead are the No. 3 seed following a late 1-0 loss at Children’s Mercy Park. SKC might have the best attacking trio in MLS with Daniel Salloi (another MLS MVP candidate), Johnny Russell and Khiry Shelton. Center midfielder Ilie Sanchez might be the most underrated player in the league and star forward Alan Pulido is expected to be back for the postseason. Oh, and if penalty kicks are needed to advance, no one in league history is better at stopping them than Tim Melia


Portland Timbers 


Sebastian Blanco’s return from injury — he was the favorite to win MLS MVP last year before needing ACL surgery — and return to his preferred role as the No. 10 has been huge for the Timbers. The brothers Chara, Diego and Yimmi, have been solid and in Giovanni Savarese the Timbers have one of the best big-game coaches in North America. 


Darkhorse: Vancouver Whitecaps 


The Whitecaps had to scratch and claw their way into the postseason, securing their spot with a 1-1 Decision Day draw against the Sounders. They closed out the regular season on a six-match unbeaten streak. Ryan Gauld’s signing, giving Vancouver the playmaker they desperately missed, was the turning point of the season. The underrated Brian White can’t stop scoring goals — he has eight in his last nine starts — and interim coach Vanni Sartini injects energy and keeps the squad loose at the same time. 


Five Players to Watch


Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders 

Tim Melia, Sporting Kansas City 

Brian White, Vancouver Whitecaps 

Jack Price, Colorado Rapids

Damir Kreilach, Real Salt Lake

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