In about a little more than a week, the MLS playoffs will kick off. Like the rest of this weird season, it will be frantic and unpredictable.
These one-off knockout games present a significant randomness variable. Then again, when MLB expanded their postseason to include best-of-three rounds at the start, the favorite LA Dodgers still won the World Series. We’ll see if the same happens in MLS.
Let’s take a look at some notable storylines.
Another round of Seattle and Toronto?
Don’t look now, but the Sounders and Toronto FC are arguably the favorites in their conferences, and could be on track to meet yet again in the MLS Cup final. They’ve done it three times already in the past four years, and they have a chance to cement their status as MLS’s version of Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors.
They both have elite, proven scorers and defenses that have stabilized over time. They’re peaking at the right time, as always, and should be getting healthy and rested.
One issue: Seattle face LAFC in the first round of the playoffs. The Sounders, the second-seed, are unlucky to have to deal with LAFC so early on. LA has had a slow season, dealing with longer-term injuries to key players Carlos Vela and Eduard Atuesta, but both Vela and Atuesta are both back. Defensive questions mean that LAFC still aren’t as good as they were in their dominant 2019 season, but they will be a major threat.
Toronto will face one of New England, Montreal, or Inter Miami after the Eastern Conference play-in round. TFC has a much easier first round matchup.
Philly go for a double
The Philadelphia Union won the Supporters’ Shield last week and will enter the playoffs as the one-seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto FC, though, are considered favorites over them, and with good reason: TFC are proven in big games, and they have the top-tier talent that it takes to win tight games. Philly doesn’t have Alejandro Pozuelo or Jozy Altidore (or even Ayo Akinola, for that matter).
That doesn’t mean the Union can’t continue winning the way they did in the regular season. But they’ll need players like Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos to step up.
Eastern Conference teams rounding into form
Any of the Columbus Crew, Orlando City SC, or NYCFC could pose serious threats to Philly and TFC. The Crew’s defensive brick wall lapsed a while ago, but they’re getting players like Darlington Nagbe, Gyasi Zardes, and Eloy Room back from injury. Lucas Zelarayan, the No. 10 who has been in and out of the Columbus lineup due to injury, scored in the last regular season game of the season.
Similarly, Orlando have gotten some of their talent back after a season in which Oscar Pareja had to shuffle lineups. They proved they could float through knockout games back in July, but left back Joao Moutinho is out for the year.
NYCFC has also been hit hard by injuries. (Sensing a theme?) They have Maxi Moralez back, though, and that could be enough to overcome the absences of Heber and James Sands. Each of these three teams would be legitimate contenders at their peak. We’ll see if any can get there.
Can the Timbers do it without Sebastian Blanco?
Portland already has a pretty nice trophy this year, as they won the MLS is Back tournament in the summer. Blanco was their best player in that tournament, but he has since torn an ACL. Forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda also tore his ACL. That means the Timbers are without crucial attacking pieces.
They have depth, though, and the outline of the consistently-successful team is still there. Diego Valeri is still clicking. Jeremy Ebobisse has taken a leap in a larger role (though he is listed as questionable with a concussion right now). Yimmi Chara is improving. Diego Chara, 34, is somehow still absolutely dominant in defensive midfield.
With Chara and Valeri, the Timbers can’t really be counted out. If they can beat FC Dallas in the first round, they might face the Sounders in round two. By law, either Seattle or Portland has to make MLS Cup every year, so that will be a pretty important game.