MLS Cup Playoffs Preview – Who Ya Got?

The MLS Cup Playoffs are upon us. 14 teams will battle it out over these next few weeks to determine the one true champion of Major League Soccer.

Los Angeles FC and New York City FC are the favorites to win it all (per FiveThirtyEight data) and there really isn’t much to be said about LAFC that hasn’t already been said. The Californians broke countless records as they stormed through the regular season, winning the Supporters’ Shield with ease and finishing with the highest points tally in MLS history.

Carlos Vela is the name on everyone’s lips. The 30-year-old scored a ridiculous 34 goals in 31 regular season games and his 15 assists have him sitting in third behind Maxi Moralez (20) and Diego Valeri (16) in the assist charts.

What makes LAFC so strong is that, despite all the talk being about Vela, they are not a one-man team. It’s the complete opposite. The Black and Gold’s strong spine and overall quality within the squad is the reason for their success. Having one of the best American coaches in the history of the sport is also a decent advantage to have over your opponents.

Bob Bradley has coached the crap out of his squad. Rarely has MLS seen such a disciplined and effective team. LAFC have only given up 37 goals all year and the center-back partnership of Walker Zimmermann and Eddie Segura has been ridiculously impressive.

LAFC’s midfield three of Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta has perhaps been the biggest key to their success. Blessing’s energy and ability to break up the play, paired with Kaye’s and Atuesta’s passing ability has been the foundation for the Black and Gold’s domination.

LAFC have a first-round bye, which seems like an advantage, but it might not be. Bradley’s men won’t have played a top-flight match for almost three weeks by the time their first playoff match is kicking off. As things stand, they will also be without Adama Diomande, who has been unavailable for some time after entering MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program. It won’t be plain sailing for the Black and Gold, but they are still the clear favorites to win MLS Cup, and rightfully so.

LAFC celebrate winning the 2019 Supporters’ Shield (Source, LAFC)

New York City FC finished top of the Eastern Conference and they too will have a first-round bye. Things looked pretty bleak for Domè Torrent and his Cityzens early on. The Spaniard took over from Nice-bound Patrick Viera and he tried to fix something that wasn’t broken. The 57-year-old did not build upon the impressive foundation that Viera had laid, but rather, he opted to implement his own system and philosophy. After a terrible end to the 2018 season and a slow start to this campaign, people started to question whether Torrent was the right man for the job.

Initially, NYCFC failed to adequately replace David Villa. The big-money arrival of Alexandru Mitriță looked like a clever piece of business one week, and then like a complete waste of money the next. The Romanian didn’t have the desired impact, but then Héber arrived from HNK Rijeka. The arrival of the 28-year-old Brazilian seemed to be the trigger for a big turnaround at the entire franchise. Héber was an instant success and whenever he has been on to the field, NYCFC have been nigh on unstoppable.

Of course, just like Vela and LAFC, NYCFC aren’t a one-man team. Young American defender/midfielder James Sands and on-loan midfielder Keaton Parks have made huge strides in their development. Alexander Ring has consistently been one of the best and most underrated midfielders in MLS. 21-year-old Argentine attacker Tati Castellanos has been quite impressive and Mitriță has been better since Héber’s arrival, but 12 goals and 3 assists in 29 games is nothing to write home about for the third most expensive signing in MLS history.

NYCFC will face the winner of Toronto vs DC United and if DC somehow manage to squeak through, NYCFC will brush them aside with relative ease. Toronto could prove to be a different animal, though. TFC have been inconsistent all season and they might be without Jozy Altidore, but on their day, they have the talent to beat any team in the league, even the best team in the Conference.

NYCFC’s Tati Castellanos vs NYRB’s Aaron Long (Source, Ira L. Black/Corbis)

The Match-ups

Let’s keep this Toronto vs DC train going. Both teams come into this match in weird form. Toronto haven’t lost a league game since a 2-0 defeat at Red Bull Arena on August 4th, but in the 10 games since that loss, TFC have only won on four occasions. They also lost to Montreal in the Canadian Championship final.

DC United went on a three-match winning run in September, but their last two games have been goalless draws, including an embarrassing 0-0 against bottom-of-the-league FC Cincinnati who were down to 9 men. Let that sink in for a minute. DC United did not score against the worst defense in league history, who were down to 9 men for the entire second half of their Decision Day clash. That’s not ideal.

Jozy Altidore will be a huge miss for Toronto, but I still got them going through against DC United. Rooney will want to go out with a bang, but I can’t see DC magically fixing their toothlessness in front of goal. DC are a very defensive side, so unless there is an early goal, this won’t be a great match to watch.

Staying in the East, let’s have a look at the Philadelphia Union vs the New York Red Bulls. The Union caught everyone off guard this season. People predicted that the Union would be better than in previous years, but nobody expected them to be this good. They fell off a bit towards the end of the regular season, which meant that they only finished third in the standings, but they have a perfect match to bounce back as they host the Red Bulls.

A few inspired signings by Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner proved to be the catalyst for the Union’s surge up the table. Jamiro Monteiro and Kai Wagner have been outstanding in midfield and at left-back respectively. Though perhaps the biggest impact has come from new-ish signing Kacper Przybyłko. The German-born Pole, arrived as a free agent last year after leaving relegated Kaiserslautern. The 26-year-old’s 15 goals and excellent technical prowess and hold-up play have been invaluable to the Union. It’s an old cliché, but he really has got a great touch for a big lad. Przybyłko got injured towards the back end of the regular season, but the Union have been given a huge boost with coach Curtin confirming that the Pole is fit enough to feature in the playoffs.

The Red Bulls’ regular season couldn’t have been more different from the Union’s. Negativity has been everpresent. When Jesse Marsch joined Leipzig’s coaching staff last year and Chris Armas took over, things weren’t actually looking that bad. Armas stuck with the system and it worked. They beat Atlanta to the Supporters’ Shield and set a new points record. Since then, though, it’s been all downhill.

The 2019 season has been a big bag of disappointment. The Red Bulls’ patented pressing style is now only observable for one twenty-minute stretch per game, Bradley Wright-Phillips has fallen off a cliff (figuratively) and last season’s Defender of the Year, Aaron Long, has been less than impressive whenever he has been on the pitch. The only real positive of the Red Bulls’ season has been the emergence of Brian White. The 23-year-old forward scored 8 goals in 19 regular season outings.

The 3-0 Decision Day loss to a Montreal Impact team that had nothing to play for has been symbolic of the Red Bulls’ season. Armas has gone on record to say that their match-up with the Union is perfect for them because “nobody gives the Red Bulls a chance”, but that is a very naive way of looking at it. Even without Przybyłko, I would’ve gone for a Union win, but now that he will definitely feature, I’m 99% certain that the Union will beat the New York Red Bulls.

Philadelphia’s Ilsinho vs NYRB’s Cristian Casseres Jr (Source, Brad Penner)

Up next is Atlanta United vs the New England Revolution and this is not as straightforward as it might look. Despite Atlanta’s 2nd place finish and the two trophies that they have already won, their season has been rather weird.

Frank de Boer’s side got off to an awful start and even though he has managed to steady the ship and get the required results, his team haven’t really been that convincing. Atlanta under de Boer is a very different side to the one we saw under Tata Martino. It’s all a bit slower and more calculated, rather than the relentless attacking style of play that we saw during the 2018 regular season. Pity Martínez has been a flop, plain and simple. The Argentine has not had the impact everyone expected of him.

Without Josef Martínez, this team wouldn’t have made the playoffs. They simply haven’t been consistently good enough, but Martínez’s sheer ability and cold-bloodedness in front of goal has saved them on numerous occasions. The mid-season arrival of Justin Meram rejuvenated the side somewhat and Julian Gressel has been in inspired form recently, but overall, this team isn’t the scary Atlanta of last year. The one thing Atlanta have done well this season is defending. Miles Robinson has been exceptional at center-back. The only problem is that Robinson will likely miss a good chunk of the playoffs after suffering an injury while on national team duty.

The New England Revolution are the real deal, maybe not this year, but definitely next year. Sacking Brad Friedel and hiring Bruce Arena has been the smartest decision the Revs front office has made in quite some time.

Arena’s arrival and the subsequent signing of Gustavo Bou from Tijuana breathed new life into the Revolution. Bou and Newcomer of the Year Carles Gil have been deadly in front of goal. Like the Philadelphia Union, the Revs fell off a bit towards the end of the regular season, but they are still good enough to do some damage.

I got Atlanta United going through against the Revs purely because of the sheer talent in that Atlanta side, but honestly, this one could go either way.

Let’s head West. The first match-up we’ll look at is Minnesota United vs the LA Galaxy. The winner of this match will have the distinct pleasure of facing LAFC in the next round.

Minnesota United have made huge strides this season. After two years of being a blemish on the league – at least on the pitch, the fans have always been amazing – the Loons have finally found their feet in MLS. The arrivals of Ike Opara from Sporting KC, Ján Greguš from Copenhagen, Vito Mannone from Reading and Ozzie Alonso from Seattle, as well as the form of 2018 draft pick Mason Toye and 2019 draft picks Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper have made Minnesota one of the best in the West.

Mannone has been one of the best keepers in the league, Ike Opara and Michael Boxall have formed a solid partnership, with the former even being named Defender of the Year, Alonso and Greguš have bossed the midfield and Mason Toye has burst onto the scene with his expert finishing.

Minnesota United’s biggest weakness is Minnesota United. Complacency has crept in over the last few weeks of the season and young Mason Toye seems to have become overconfident after his incredible brace vs LAFC, he has been in terrible form lately. I’m personally still not convinced by coach Adrian Heath, I don’t rate him at all.

Michael Boxall still has moments where he plays like the Michael Boxall we saw before Ike Opara arrived. Ján Greguš tends to go missing sometimes or try passes that are just not on. Darwin Quintero, who is supposed to be their star man, hasn’t had a great season. Angelo Rodríguez is hit and miss, Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay are good but inconsistent and Romain Métanire has seemingly lost his touch recently.

The LA Galaxy are a mess. Over the past two or three campaigns, they have tried many different things to fix their defense and nothing has worked. They are still an absolute shambles.

On paper, you’d think that the Galaxy should have one of the best defenses in the league. Diego Polenta, Giancarlo González, Rolf Feltscher and Jørgen Skjelvik are all experienced international-level defenders, but they just can’t seem to get their act together.

On the other side of the pitch, the Galaxy are great – obviously. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Cristian Pavón and Jonathan dos Santos are some of the best players in the league in their respective positions, but you can’t just outscore your opponent in every game.

MLS analyst Bobby Warshaw said it best following some of the Galaxy’s recent results – “they don’t care”. It’s true, the moment it was clear that the Galaxy would make the playoffs, they – excuse the language – stopped giving a shit. They shipped eight goals in their last two matches as they fell 4-3 to the worst team in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and 4-2 to the Houston Dynamo, who didn’t make the playoffs and had nothing to play for.

This first-round playoff match between Minnesota and the LA Galaxy could easily be a 7-goal thriller and both sides could win it, but I got Minnesota going through. The Galaxy have more match-winners in their squad, but I don’t trust their defense. This will be an exciting game to watch.

Minnesota’s Ike Opara vs LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget (Source, Kirby Lee)

Next up is Real Salt Lake vs the Portland Timbers and I don’t really have a lot to say about this game. RSL have gone quietly about their business this season, only Jefferson Savarino has really made waves with some incredible displays and then, of course, there was the Mike Petke controversy. RSL are a solid team at home, so they will fancy their chances going into this match.

The Timbers had a terrible start to the season, a really good middle part of the season and then a terrible end to the season. That’s really all you need to know about this team. The arrival of Brian Fernández rejuvenated the Timbers for a while, but he had a quiet last few months of the regular season and he won’t be available for this match. There is a lot of turmoil surrounding this Timbers team. It’s still unclear whether or not club legend Diego Váleri will get a new contract or if he’ll leave at the end of this season.

I don’t really know what to predict here, because on one hand, the Timbers are better playing away from home where they can sit back and counter-attack, but on the other, RSL are really strong at home and I’m wary of underestimating them because people did that last year and then they went and knocked LAFC out of the playoffs. I think I’m going to go with a close RSL win.

The last playoff match (thank god) that we have to talk about is Seattle vs FC Dallas. I think (and hope) this will be a pretty straightforward affair for the Seattle Sounders. Dallas are 0W-10L-2D since 2010 in Seattle and the Sounders have more experience within their ranks.

The Rave Green could easily tear apart Dallas’ defense with the pace of Jordan Morris and the brilliance of Nico Lodeiro, but equally, Dallas’ Zdeněk Ondrášek has been in outstanding form recently and if Paxton Pomykal is fit to play in this game, it could not be as straightforward as one might think. I do have the Sounders winning this one quite comfortably, though.

Seattle’s Victor Rodriguez vs Dallas’ Jacori Hayes (Source, Joe Nicholson)

What’s that? You want my prediction on who will win MLS Cup? Well, my heart says Seattle, Minnesota or Philadelphia will pull off the upset, but my head says it’ll be one of LAFC, NYCFC or Atlanta to win it all. I have to go with the sensible option, so I’m going to pick LAFC.

There you have it, folks. LAFC will *definitely* win MLS Cup. I’m sure the playoffs will be as exciting as ever and I hope you enjoy them as much as I will be enjoying them. Unless, of course, Seattle loses to FC Dallas. In that case, I will be logging off the internet for the foreseeable future.

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