But with CONCACAF Champions League, MLS teams have to be ready earlier and earlier next February. MLS’s winter will move quickly. Two expansion teams enter the league, and neither (Nashville SC nor Inter Miami) have a core of players ready. Miami doesn’t even have a manager yet.
A number of teams face rebuilds. Others will make crucial decisions on whether to keep or sell core players. The upcoming transfer deadline is an opportunity for teams that are one piece away to add that one missing piece.
Let’s take a look at the most pressing offseason storylines.
1. Atlanta’s multiple dilemmas
It was a disappointing end to the season for Atlanta United. However, the problems that damaged the early part of the year generally dissipated, and their US Open Cup victory assures them a spot back in the Champions League.
Atlanta’s core is in place. They defended very well last year. While the retirement of Michael Parkhurst might necessitate the addition of a depth center back, there shouldn’t be obvious holes on the backline. But there are three primary concerns for the Five Stripes:
— Julian Gressel, an extremely valuable player who can play anywhere on the field, is up for a new contract. The latest reports are that the contract talks aren’t going swimmingly. Gressel has said that he would be willing to “go somewhere where I can be a priority.” Atlanta has to decide how much they’d be willing to pay him, and if his asking price is too high, how much they could get for him on the open market.
Losing Gressel could hurt. We’ve never seen Atlanta play without him as a core member of the team. As much as Frank de Boer and Tata Martino shifted tactics, Gressel never exited the lineup. He’s played right back, wingback, center midfield, and winger, with the forms and styles of those positions varying based on the formation. Josef Martinez surely loves Gressel’s exquisite crosses, which always land directly where they need to be.
— What will happen with Pity Martinez? Pity didn’t have the greatest debut season in MLS. His five goals and nine assists in 2,151 minutes did not live up to the price Atlanta paid for him. His tendency to turn the ball over and general unwillingness to play defense hurt the collective. There were times that it seemed like Hector Villalba might have been the superior option.
Regardless, Pity is a highly-touted player, and teams around the world (particularly from South America, where he has starred in the past) could come calling for him. If Atlanta can find a good transfer fee, they could cut bait and find a new player who makes more sense alongside Josef.
— The biggest move of the season so far was Atlanta’s trade of Darlington Nagbe to the Columbus Crew. Nagbe, who’s coming off a career season, wanted a move back to central Ohio, where he will play for his old college coach. Atlanta did well to secure a significant amount of allocation money for him.
Replacing Nagbe will not be easy. There are not many players like him out there. His skill-set is unique. Atlanta will look for a ball-moving midfielder who can act as fulcrum while also being competent on defense.
2. The start of the Dynamo’s Tab Ramos era
Houston Dynamo, coming off another disappointing season, hired former United States U-20 coach Tab Ramos as their replacement for Wilmer Cabrera, who was fired midseason. The Dynamo are in an interesting spot as a franchise. They’re just starting to see the benefits of having a USL team, but they have yet to integrate young players into the lineup outside of Memo Rodriguez. Houston should be a fertile area for soccer players. Ramos is the perfect person to lead a youth movement.
In the short-term, the Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas situation looms large. Both players appeared likely to be transferred during the summer window. However, both remained in Houston. Rumors have surrounded Elis for over a year now. The Dynamo should be actively shopping both, but the concern is that they waited too long, and may now be less likely to recoup full value. Manotas, in particular, should have seen his price skyrocket over the last couple of years.
Manotas and Elis would be core players if they stick around. But as we’ve seen elsewhere in MLS, it can cause issues when you keep players around who could have been transferred to greener pastures. (The Luciano Acosta situation comes to mind, and FC Dallas have had issues with this in years past.) It’s crucial for the Dynamo’s future that they come to a satisfying conclusion on the attacking duo.
3. The Chicago rebuild
On Wednesday, Chicago cut ties with coach Veljko Paunovic after it seemed like they were going to retain him. Controversially, though, the Fire kept president Nelson Rodriguez around for another year as they make the move to Soldier Field for 2019. Finding immediate success downtown is huge for a club that has struggled with attendance and relevance in the Chicago market. After another bad season in 2019, there will be significant changes on the field.
Outside of Jonathan Bornstein, who arrived midseason, there are no defenders of the future on that team. Nicolas Gaitan and Aleksandar Katai aren’t difference-makers. Chicago should look to at least move on from Katai. Nemanja Nikolic is no longer the high-volume scorer he was in 2017. They traded Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger retired, so they will need an entirely new midfield. They have no goalkeeper.
This is basically a clean slate in Chicago. Brandt Bronico and Djordje Mihailovic are acceptable building blocks. Przemyslaw Frankowski can be a good piece on the wing. Their much-needed new coach is entering a rebuild. The current front office has never had success, and it’s hard to see why they should be trusted with such an important offseason. Precarious times for the Fire.
4. Toronto FC’s search for another attacker
Even after an unexpected run to the MLS Cup final, TFC have plenty of holes. Most notably, they will try to find an attacker to go alongside Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo. One more difference-maker up top could push Toronto into more serious regular season contention.
The issue, though, is figuring what kind of an attacker they should be looking for. Pozuelo often played in the center behind Altidore, and then as a false 9 when Altidore was out in the postseason. A Sebastian Giovinco-esque second striker would be ideal for Altidore, but what happens to Pozuelo in that situation? The Spaniard might have to shift to the wing and take a backseat, and defensively they might see issues with three pure attackers on the field.
Adding a winger who can take more control in chance creation should be a priority. Tsubasa Endoh played heavy minutes in the playoffs. And while Endoh is fine, he is not a player who can run your attack. Searching out a player who fits their needs will be an interesting task for TFC’s management.
5. Year two of the tear-down in Vancouver
Year one did not go well. The Whitecaps finished last in the Western Conference and showed barely any glimpses of hope in their first season after they cleaned house. Most of their new signings didn’t pan out and will probably move on this offseason. Their supposed building blocks, Inbeom Hwang and Ali Adnan, have flaws that restrict their ceilings as core pieces.
Marc Dos Santos, the manager tasked with navigating these choppy waters, mostly set the Whitecaps up in a deep-lying block, clearing the ball at every opportunity and forcing goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau to face a constant barrage of shots. It’s hard to do much else other than bunker and counter as a bad team, but improving on last year will be hard if Vancouver spend all their time treating the ball like a ticking time bomb and letting opponents rip howitzers at Crepeau.
They can’t afford another year of failed signings. To keep the trust of a wary fanbase, they have to find ways to improve internally (maybe a guy like Theo Bair takes a leap) and hit on a couple of expensive signings. Muddling along as a last-place team will only push Vancouver farther behind in a changing league.
There is something that feels a little bit different about this victory for the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup.
It is odd calling the Sounders MLS Cup champs in a year that they never really stabilized the way other champs have. There was no regular season domination. Chad Marshall’s retirement raised questions. They entered as the second-seed in the Western Conference. However, they finished a full 16 points behind LAFC, and they spent most of the season closer to the middle tier of playoff contenders.
Calling their championship random delegitimizes it. Seattle obviously deserved their ring, beating LAFC on the road in the Western Conference final. No one in the West outside of LAFC was a convincing contender, and Seattle took advantage of their favorable path.
But the Sounders are not like other recent champions of MLS. There is no coronation. Atlanta United won last year after a 69-point regular season, running out the best player in MLS at the time (Miguel Almiron) and a record goal-scorer (Josef Martinez). Toronto FC won the year before, and they remain the best team in league history. The 2016 Sounders championship team had dominated the second half of that season after the emergence of Nicolas Lodeiro.
An LAFC championship would have been the expected result. Another Atlanta Cup would have made more sense, or even an NYCFC Cup. Seattle never looked dominant on their road to the title, and coming up with reasons for their success beyond “they defend with discipline” and “Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are good” isn’t the simple task it is with other title teams. It’s reminiscent of the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup. They’re not the ones with the best player; they’re just the ones that navigated the postseason better than anyone else.
Sounders = dynasty?
And so we face the question: Is this Sounders team a dynasty? This was their third MLS Cup appearance in four years, and their second title. They’ve been one of the most consistently successful and relevant team in that stretch.
In the last four years, Seattle have the third-most total points in the 136 regular season games played, behind only the two New York teams. (By points per game, they drop to fifth, after adding Atlanta and LAFC.) They have the best defensive record of teams that have been around for the entire stretch. In the standings, they’ve finished second three times and fourth once.
Simply reaching the final so many teams is a feat arguably worthy of being crowned as a dynasty, regardless of anything else. But the Sounders have never been world-beaters. They are a team that is good enough to win and take advantage when others falter. By American Soccer Analysis’ Expected Points metric, taken as a total number since 2016, they are eighth, behind teams like Portland and Columbus.
The Sounders are Sporting KC from 2015-18, only Seattle had playoff success. One could argue that the combination of regular season solidity and playoff success is enough for all-time great status. Part of being a dynasty, though, is feeling like a dynasty. This is all extremely subjective. Sometimes there are no cold hard facts to coherently explain an answer.
Are the second-stage LeBron James Cavaliers a dynasty? They made the NBA Finals four straight years, and won once. But the Golden State Warriors beat them the other times, and completely overshadowed Cleveland’s success in a weak Eastern Conference.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been good since 2006, when the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era started. They’ve won three Stanley Cups and been to another in the 13 years that they’ve been successful. But despite their back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins are not a dynasty. They are simply a team that has had one of the most impressive sustained runs in hockey history, with the greatest hockey player of all time leading the charge.
The Sounders also have an impressive sustained run, though it is a decade shorter than the Penguins’. The Cup runs don’t do enough to give them “dynasty” status on their own. We can be impressed by what the Sounders accomplished, and if they continue it, they will only improve their legacy. But as of now, they are a team that interrupted a run of dominant champions.
The Seattle Sounders’ first goal was fluky. Kelvin Leerdam fizzed the ball across the 18-yard-box and hit Toronto FC left back Justin Morrow in the back, deflecting it past Quentin Westberg and putting them ahead in the second half. Leerdam was eventually given credit for the goal, but he clearly was not trying to score himself.
TFC never recovered. They didn’t dominate play to the extent that possession numbers might indicate. However, they played well enough to disrupt what Seattle were trying to do. Greg Vanney’s tactical set-up was effective. They re-pressed well, muddying the Sounders’ attempts at buildup and forcing turnovers high up the field. Michael Bradley navigated higher in midfield.
None of it was enough. Toronto never created a chance worth more than 0.17 xG, per Opta, and that didn’t even come until the 87th-minute. They lost 3-1, with substitute Victor Rodriguez doubling Seattle’s lead in the 76th-minute.
How Seattle won MLS Cup
The Sounders won like they have for most of this postseason: they concentrated on finding opportunities to counter-attack, and set up in a disciplined defensive shape that minimized the effectiveness of TFC’s gameplan. When the opportunity to keep the ball presented itself, Seattle did not pass it up, and did well to release Jordan Morris and Brad Smith down the left flank.
Brian Schmetzer is a pragmatic manager, and there is never anything too complicated about his 4-2-3-1 formation. Nicolas Lodeiro has license to do everything and go everywhere. Morris stays wide to the left. Smith maneuvers into space when possible. Raul Ruidiaz probes the opposing center backs.
The biggest reason for the Sounders’ playoff surge was their improvement in the final third. They played faster and with more purpose, conceding fewer counters in the other direction and increasing the speed of the game. Too often in recent years, they bogged down near the opposing goal and struggled to generate chances. Other teams were happy to let the Sounders pass it around for five minutes and then loft a low-percentage cross.
As Seattle figured out how effective they could be on the counter, that problem figured itself out. They let other teams work the ball up the field, daring opposing right backs to push forward and leave space for Morris to exploit. The Sounders worked faster, and understood the positive endgames for their attack. They created overloads. Lodeiro initiated skillful combination play — Rodriguez’s goal was a brilliant example.
Toronto managed to not get killed on the counter, and they successfully bossed the game for stretches of the first half. It is not easy to pin the Sounders deep in Seattle. But without Jozy Altidore in the starting lineup, their attacking setup was fatally flawed. Alejandro Pozuelo, playing as a false 9, can only do so much. Even as they played well in possession and forced Seattle to play behind the ball, TFC rarely looked like scoring, outside of one shot that forced a good Stefan Frei save.
Jozy Altidore entered in the 68th-minute and barely did anything. The quad injury that had kept him out of the playoffs must have hampered him. He touched the ball a total of five times: three successful passes, one clearance on a defensive set piece, and a stoppage time consolation goal.
Seattle walk away with a title in front of one of the biggest and most exciting crowds we’ve seen in MLS. Schmetzer played his cards right, trusting the system and style that took them so far. His insertion of Rodriguez was important; they needed a jolt of playmaking, and V-Rod came through in the clutch. Any defensive concerns did not come to fruition. The Sounders take the Cup.
Welcome back to MLS’s version of Cavs-Warriors and Alabama-Clemson: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final.
We’ve seen this matchup twice already, and you might know what to expect from both teams by now. Seattle will play a 4-2-3-1 and keep the ball in front of them. Toronto will build through the middle and give the ball to Michael Bradley a lot.
Not everything is quite the same. Jozy Altidore is likely out, at least from the start, which means we’ll probably see Alejandro Pozuelo at the false nine. Seattle host this version, possibly encouraging more aggressive play. Let’s preview Round Three:
MLS Cup Final Preview: Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders
1. The last time we saw Toronto FC this late in a season was 2017, when they blitzed the Sounders in that year’s final and secured MLS’s first treble. They’ve morphed into a lesser version of that team in the time since. They collapsed in last year’s regular season and inexplicably missed the playoffs, souring relations with Sebastian Giovinco and wasting a year of the core they established back in 2015.
TFC let Giovinco walk in the offseason and replaced him with Pozuelo, a bona fide star. Pozuelo put up 12 goals and 12 assists this season as an attacking fulcrum. He surprisingly managed to find his way onto the league’s Best XI this year, a misleading indication of his abilities. He can float in and out of games, with his best moments overshadowing his quiet stretches. He is no Giovinco.
The rest of the team isn’t dramatically different. TAM winger Nicolas Benezet, acquired late in the summer window, replaced Victor Vazquez. Tsubasa Endoh carved out a role in the starting lineup. Quentin Westberg stole the starting goalkeeper job from the struggling Alex Bono.
The defense, which became the biggest problem in 2018, experienced similar struggles this year. However, they survived much better this time. Omar Gonzalez helped significantly, making his debut at center back in July and shoring things up at the back. Gonzalez hasn’t played in the playoffs due to injury, though.
Greg Vanney is still the coach, and he’s maintained the tactical flexibility he’s become known for. Hype for Vanney as one of the best American coaches has died out, but he has done well in the past month or so to help TFC navigate a tough playoff road despite injuries to two of their three best players.
2. The good money is on Toronto playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with Pozuelo up top as a free No. 9. They will take their opportunities to play on the ball, knowing that the Sounders will try to counter-attack when possible. TFC’s buildup will come primarily through the middle of the field, where Bradley is the fulcrum and Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado are capable ball-movers. Expect Auro and Justin Morrow to maneuver forward from outside back as well, though Auro will have to be cautious with the threat of Jordan Morris running the other way.
Seattle know how to play compact in midfield; you don’t beat LAFC without being able to get pressure to the ball. Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan are one of the most solid and trustworthy deep midfield duos in MLS.
One potential deficiency for Seattle that Steve Zakuani brought up on the HPS MLS podcast is Nicolas Lodeiro’s movement. Lodeiro goes everywhere, and while he is the key to everything the Sounders do, his positions when Seattle loses the ball could be a liability. When he vacates the middle of the field, Toronto could capitalize on the resulting space.
3. Some have theorized that TFC play a five-at-the-back, in anticipation of Seattle controlling play at home. Vanney should consider that approach. If Toronto take a lead at any time, we may see a midgame formation switch.
The Sounders are better when they’re attacking into space and playing fast. Their flaws poke through when they’re trying to move the ball and control the flow of the game. They tend to get bogged down in trying to move it into the final third, and then get trapped once they get there. By playing a deeper, more stout line, TFC would be able to induce Seattle into possessing the ball more, deflating Morris and the threatening counter-attack.
4. Concerns about the Sounders heading into the playoffs surrounded the center backs, where they no longer have the presence of the retired Chad Marshall. Xavier Arreaga has acquitted himself well. Roman Torres is a liability if he has to enter at some point (or if he starts over Arreaga). Toronto arguably have more pressing defensive concerns, especially without Gonzalez.
5. Seattle are the definite favorites. They have home-field advantage, and they profile as the more solid team. Altidore is an X-factor, given that he could come off the bench and influence the proceedings. In this year of unpredictable playoff results, I’m not stepping outside the box: Sounders in regular time.
Also Read: MLS Cup Final Odds
A new HPS MLS Pod is up!
Joining host Harrison Hamm is ex-Seattle Sounders winger and current broadcaster Steve Zakuani. During his time at Seattle (2009-13), Zakuani made 80 appearances and scored 17 goals. Zakuani is also the subject of a 2019 documentary, “Unbreakable,” highlighting his recovery from a horrific tibia and fibula injury.
He’ll provide insight into the Seattle vs Toronto FC MLS Cup final match-up.
- Why Brian Schmetzer has been so successful as Sounders coach
- What it’s like to play with Nicolas Lodeiro
- The tactical battle between Seattle and Toronto
The MLS Cup playoffs are down to four. On Tuesday, LAFC will host the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference finals. On Wednesday, Atlanta United will host Toronto FC in the East.
Last time out, we all whiffed on Toronto. Are we under-estimated their chances? Let’s do some more predictions, with site editor Chops and contributor Peter Nolan.
LAFC vs. Seattle Sounders
Harrison Hamm: I have a hard time seeing how Seattle can pull this off in LA. They’ll have to condense the midfield as much as they can to cut off distribution centers, and release Jordan Morris into space. I don’t think they’ll do it. LAFC moves on.
Chops: Their match against the Galaxy was the perfect encapsulation of LAFC. They’re vulnerable defensively but just next level on offense. I don’t expect them to keep a clean sheet against Seattle. It’ll be a decent match. But LAFC will prevail.
Peter Nolan: Seattle will tell themselves that they can catch LAFC on the hop because, well, what else would they tell themselves? Yes, LAFC has set the record for the most points in an MLS season with 72 but they broke New York Bulls record of 71 set one year earlier and the Red Bulls didn’t win the title; they didn’t even get there.
Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC
Harrison Hamm: We haven’t had too many big surprises in these playoffs. The biggest one, clearly, was Toronto FC walking into New York and eliminating one-seed NYCFC last round. If TFC are going to score a second upset of a higher-seed, they probably have to get one of Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez back. Atlanta’s form makes the Five Stripes tough to pick against.
Chops: I still think there are some flaws with ATL. If Michael Parkhurst is healthy and fit that would alleviate one concern (sounds about 50/50 now). They’re still nowhere near as fluid as they were last year offensively. I’ve been impressed with Toronto this post-season. They know how to win. You’d just have to have brain damage to pick against ATLUTD at home in a big game.
Peter Nolan: This match features the two most recent MLS Cup champions and the two sides prior to LAFC’s reign that left MLS in ruins. Of the two, Atlanta has done a far better job of maintaining their standards in the wake of winning the Cup, and Atlanta will be favored to advance to the 2019 MLS Cup.
MLS Cup pick
Harrison Hamm: I had NYCFC at the beginning of the playoffs. That didn’t happen. I think LAFC is going to come through.
Chops: I think Bob Bradley is 10x the coach as FdB. LAFC has the best player. But I feel like this is Atlanta’s ‘Barry Switzer season.’ Enough of the old crew is there to power through one more MLS Cup win before the bottom falls out next season. ATL.
We’re back for another round of MLS Cup playoff predictions, this time for the second round. We have four games to get to, with myself, Chops, and Peter Nolan picking them. Let’s go.
NYCFC vs. Toronto FC
Harrison Hamm: TFC pulled away late from D.C. United in extra-time. The 5-1 score there probably overrates how well they played. Without Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez, they’ll have a hard time beating NYCFC in New York.
Chops: I don’t think NYCFC has much of a home-field advantage here. Like Harrison, if Toronto had Altidore and Gonzalez, I’d be all “We the North.” But NYCFC has been too good this year not to beat an under-manned squad.
Peter Nolan: This is a deeper, more versatile New York team than previous editions and therefore I give the nod to tonight’s traveling “home” team. With Maxi Moralez pulling the strings and Heber and Vincent Castellanos available to lead the line I think NYC has enough firepower to outslug a Toronto side that packs a wallop as well, particularly if Jozy Altidore can make it back.
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Harrison Hamm: I’m not particularly sold on either team, but RSL played better than expected against Portland and Seattle put up four against FC Dallas, led by Jordan Morris’s hat trick. The Sounders’ defense is concerning. RSL will find a way to put the ball in the net and pick up an away win.
Chops: I feel like I should start buying into RSL. But I’m stubborn. And I like Seattle’s attack. Going with the Sounders.
Peter Nolan: RSL has been a surprise packet this season under interim coach Freddy Juarez and is a team to watch for in the future with former Academy coach Juarez leading a very young team. The future, however, is not now and with Jordan Morris leading an experienced Sounders side in front of a big Seattle crowd, I look for a home team victory.
Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union
Harrison Hamm: Philly narrowly escaped against the Red Bulls on Sunday, giving up three soft goals. Andre Blake can’t be a liability in Atlanta. As interesting as it will be to watch the Union try to control the game at Mercedes-Benz, it’ll be Atlanta United moving through.
Chops: I’m going to this game. I want Atlanta to win. However, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw from ATL against New England. However however, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw from Philly (defensively at least). It’s hard not to ride with Atlanta at home. Going ATL here.
Peter Nolan: The Union are tough, they’re on on the rise, and they’re tough to pick against. And Atlanta will be without defenders Michael Parkhurst and Miles Robinson. So, the pick must be Philadelphia?
LAFC vs. LA Galaxy
Harrison Hamm: This is up there as one of the most anticipated games in MLS history. It should go similarly to other El Trafico games: The Galaxy will constrict the midfield and play through an energized Zlatan, while LAFC will try whatever they can to get Carlos Vela going. Unlike previous meetings, though, LAFC will pull out a victory.
Chops: Listen, do I think Galaxy is the better side? No. But Zlatan is to LAFC what Liverpool / Klopp are to Pep. They just rent real estate in their head. Zlatan finds some magic to derail LAFC only to lose the next round. But Galaxy here.
Peter Nolan: Bob Bradley’s LAFC has just completed the best regular season in MLS history, but we know that MLS Cup decides greatness in this league; just ask the Red Bulls. But the Galaxy have had their neighbor’s number this season and the Galaxy has Zlatan. It is easy to be seduced by the notion of Ibrahimovic leading the Galaxy to a historic victory over LAFC but I just can’t get there. Carlos Vela and company are just too good.
Who: Atlanta United vs Philadelphia Union
When: Thursday, October 24th @ 8:00pm ET
Line: Atlanta -152 | Draw +310 | Philadelphia +350
After the first round of the MLS Cup postseason, it’s hard to be very confident in either Atlanta United or the Philadelphia Union. Both teams faced a scare; Atlanta only narrowly escaped extra time at home against feisty underdog New England Revolution, while Philly had to come back from 2-0 down against the Red Bulls to win 4-3 in extra time.
Still, Thursday’s match between the two Eastern Conference elites will be fascinating. Atlanta, as the defending champions with the heaviest money invested in winning now, face the most pressure. The young Union will play what might be the biggest game in club history.
Let’s preview the match.
Atlanta United vs Philadelphia Union preview
— To get right to the point, the best bet here is Atlanta. They have more outright talent, more know-how in crucial games, and significant home-field advantage. The win over the Revs wasn’t super convincing, but this post-Miguel Almiron version of the Five Stripes isn’t built to bulldoze teams. Pity Martinez didn’t even get off the bench against New England. Josef Martinez, the second-best player in MLS, is the elite attacker carrying them.
Atlanta controlled 55 percent of possession against the Revs, but you can bet that figure will go down some against Philly. The best approach for Frank de Boer’s side will be to absorb some pressure and try to attack into space, minimizing whatever press the Union send their way. In the past, Atlanta have struggled against pressing teams. Philly have had success holding a high line.
— I’d assume that Atlanta will start in the 3-6-1-ish formation they like to play, but that’s less of a guarantee after they had success by switching to a four-at-the-back and subbing on Hector Villalba in the second half against the Revs. Franco Escobar, who usually plays as a mobile member of the back-three, switched to full back and promptly scored a 70th-minute winner on the overlap.
Most likely, they’ll start with the three-at-the-back and then use Villalba as a super-sub in the second-half. They look most comfortable in that 3-6-1, though costly injuries at center back could change that calculus.
— Philly went with the 4-4-2 diamond against the Red Bulls, and Jim Curtain might go that route again for the midfield solidity. Without Kacper Przybylko, their top goal-scorer and striker, they have to find ways to put the ball in the net. They managed four against the Red Bulls, thanks in part to set pieces. They may need a repeat performance.
If Andrew Wooten and Sergio Santos play up top again, Curtain will know he has three positive substitutes he can bring off the bench: Fafa Picault, Marco Fabian, and super-sub extraordinaire Ilsinho. All three came on against the Red Bulls and played well.
— Despite the loss of Miles Robinson to a hamstring injury, Atlanta saw little negative impacts on defense against New England. Michael Parkhurst filled in admirably. But Parkhurst’s shoulder injury rules him out, possibly forcing Atlanta to start Florentin Pogba alongside Escobar and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. Philly could capitalize on any resulting weakness there.
— Most concerning for the Union: the performance of goalkeeper Andre Blake. He has had a mostly dismal season and did everything in his power to cost Philly the game on Sunday. All three Red Bull goals can be directly blamed on Blake. He looked completely out of his depth in crossing situations and appears to lack all confidence. Costly errors from the Jamaican would be harder to come back from this time.
Atlanta has the advantage in this matchup, with superior attacking skill and more trustworthy defending. They will let Philly control the game some and then pounce in space, the way the LA Galaxy did against Minnesota. Villalba could be a big difference-maker. As interesting as it would be for the Union to score a massive victory, I’m going with the Five Stripes.
With the MLS playoffs starting this weekend, High Press Soccer is back with a roundtable of writers to predict the winners of the Eastern Conference, Western Conference, and MLS Cup.
On our panel: Site editor Chops, MLS contributor Peter Nolan, and American Soccer Analysis writer Harrison Crow, who recently joined me (Harrison Hamm) on the HPS MLS podcast to preview the postseason. Here are our picks.
Toronto vs DC United
Harrison Hamm: It’s easy to simplify this matchup as offense vs. defense — Toronto will beat teams in high-scoring barnburners, while D.C. will rely on a solid backline. TFC have home field advantage, and enter on better form. Jozy Altidore might be better than Wayne Rooney right now. I’m leaning toward Toronto.
Harrison Crow: I got DC United, in the cold and on the road. DC United is a really solid defensive team and they have a coach who knows how to be pragmatic and isn’t scared to go that route when it favors his team (or even when it doesn’t). Wayne Rooney has a legacy to uphold here in MLS and his level of commitment has been pretty impressive even after announcing his departure to Derby County after the season. TFC has had some small issues all year and I’m not sure if they, or even Greg Vanney, are up to the tactical match of trying to pull apart a scrappy and compact DC United team.
Chops: The best team in the Eastern Conference over the final five games of the season was Toronto. The third best was DCU. So both teams are playing their best going into the playoffs. They drew both times they played this season (0-0 and 1-1). Toronto is at home though and oddsmakers have them heavily favored. I’m going with Toronto here.
Peter Nolan: By definition the 4v5 matchup reckons to be the closest of all the playoff games and that should hold true here as number 4 Toronto hosts 5th seed DC United. This game would have been held in our nation’s capital, however DC was unable to defeat league worst on Decision Day, drawing 0-0 with Cincinnati while Toronto topped Columbus 1-0.
Toronto has more firepower, DC has finished the year with five consecutive shutouts. Jozy Altidore pulled out of the U.S. Nations League matches and DC has a solid 6-6-5 away mark, so the pick here is DC United to squeak through. Of course Altidore could recover…
Philadelphia Union vs New York Red Bulls
Harrison Hamm: I have no doubt that the Union are the superior team, but I trust the Red Bulls’ strength down the spine more than I do Philly’s, with the experienced Tim Parker and Aaron Long at center back. The Union might have trouble converting all of their chances. The Red Bulls, though, have some similar concerns, and haven’t inspired a ton of confidence recently. I’ll go with the Union. Tough one.
Harrison Crow: I flip flop on this one constantly but Philly is my dark horse so I’ll stick with them. I think New York is kind of hard to predict and under Chris Armas this season they’ve not been same team we’ve seen in recent years. Obviously with no Tyler Adams and an older BWP that’s probably not surprising. But it’s not just the quality it’s the change in tactics and even being gun shy to give opportunities to some of the young guys who were brought in to help carry the load left behind by Adams.
Philly is just a really solid team that knows their identify and is going to do work. They create a volume of chances and while they get exposed from time to time defensively they’re pretty good at limiting the high leverage opportunities forcing opponents more to rely upon half chances from beyond the box, not exactly the Red Bulls forte. I’m picking Philly… but this is gonna be a good one I think.
Chops: Changed my answer on this one a half dozen times. I don’t really trust either team. Comes down to this: Both are strong attacking down the wings. Philly isn’t good defending down the wings though. That may be the difference. I’m also concerned about the fitness of Kacper Przybylko and Alejandro Bedoya. Will they be at 100%? They need to be for Philly to win. I’ll go with RBNY here.
Peter Nolan: Philadelphia flirted with winning the Eastern Conference, while New York has been a year long disappointment. Red Bulls followed a record-setting Supporters Shield-winning 2018 with a year-long slump, inevitably following a good result with a bad one.
This is the best year in Philadelphia Union history and I expect it to continue for at least a little while longer.
Atlanta United vs New England
Harrison Hamm: I am intrigued to see how New England come out against Atlanta. Bruce Arena could try some interesting things, especially given that the Revs played in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. Atlanta is the easy pick here, though.
Harrison Crow: Atlanta should pretty easily dispose of New England. New England is the worst defensive playoff team in modern MLS history and their attack is going to have to be completely on point to compete on the road against Atlanta.
Chops: Finally, an easy one! Atlanta United is at home. Atlanta United will win.
Peter Nolan: Hats off to Bruce Arena for turning things around in New England after Brad Firedel’s disastrous debut as a head coach. Hopefully, Friedel will have learned some lessons for his next gig, should he get one.
However, Atlanta is too good for the Revs and the MLS Cup defenders could have another run to the MLS Cup in them.
Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy
Harrison Hamm: I, along with the rest of the league, am rooting for the Galaxy so we get an El Trafico match in the second round. Minnesota would be a fun story, and they might be a better team than the Galaxy right now. LA have the difference-makers. I will give them the edge.
Harrison Crow: I honestly think Minnesota is the better team. They have basically a better player at 9 of the 11 positions and yet… how do bet against Zlatan AND, furthermore, how do you bet against Zlatan who if he wins gets a chance to play LAFC again? I really really really want to pick Minnesota but the chaos inside me is picking LA. I’ll go with the Galaxy and may god have mercy on my soul.
Chops: Since this is a single elimination tournament, the only two Western Conference teams I see having a shot at stopping the LAFC juggernaut are Minnesota and LA Galaxy. Thanks to MLS’ wonky schedule making, these two teams wrapped up their season series in April. They’ve both evolved since then, so it’s harder to draw conclusions from previous results. Galaxy have slightly better quality overall. I think the consensus here is if Zlatan does Zlatan things, Galaxy prevails. Can he create a moment of excellence against the Loons defense? While my head is telling me Minnesota, I ride with Zlatan. Galaxy prevail.
Peter Nolan: As always it comes down to Zlatan, After all, there are no statues of Ethan Finlay- as far as I am aware. But former Premier League keeper Vito Mannone, (Arsenal, Sunderland) and once (and future) MLS Defender of the year Ike Opara have stabilized United’s formerly shaky defense and Opara may be the only center back in MLS with the athletic ability to compete with Ibra in the box.
And at 10-1-6 Minnesota’s home mark stands out versus road dogs L.A. at 5-10-2.
RSL vs Portland
Harrison Hamm: This one is going to be a cagey affair. It will come down to individual moments, and which team’s attackers come through when it matters. Portland’s injuries concern me, but I’m going with the Timbers.
Harrison Crow: Look, Portland have been bad this second half of the season. Baaaaaad. That’s the narrative, anyway. The reality is that they’ve been both bad and unlucky. It’s a terrible combo for sure but while they’ve cleaned up some of the “bad” they’ve continued to be extremely unlucky with closing out the season—the last game of the year not withstanding and now they go on the road, an element that suits their play style against the best defensive team in the second half of the season. RSL got here because their defensive organization and execution has been above every one since July. Allowing only 0.73 xG per game. Their problem is a complete lack of attacking ability. It’s the fourth worst in all of MLS and the worst for any playoff team in the pool.
RSL’s game is going to be about closing down the attack forcing terrible shots and then finding two or three opportunities over the course of the game on the break to win 1-0. I’ll take Portland, I really think they will pull through but I’ve been betting against RSL this whole season and they’ve done a miraculous job considering the off-season stuff they’ve had to overcome.
Chops: Of all the road teams, oddsmakers like the Timbers chances to win the best. I think this comes down to who scores first. RSL is great at protecting a lead, particularly at home. I just can’t get there with them. Going Portland here.
Peter Nolan: After starting the season with an epic road trip Portland tried its level best to miss out on the playoffs despite a home-heavy schedule to end the season, while Real Salt Lake survived the Mike Petke mess to earn a home game under interim coach Freddy Juarez.
Juarez came up through the academy ranks and it is no surprise that the RSL youngsters have responded. Look for MLS legend Nick Rimando’s retirement to be delayed at least one more week.
Seattle vs FC Dallas
Harrison Hamm: I’d like to see FC Dallas pull this one out, but they’re going to have a tough time traveling to Seattle and creating enough chances to strike fear in the Sounders. Jordan Morris is going to score and the Sounders are going to pull this one out.
Harrison Crow: I think Dallas has enough talent over all here to compete but the game is going to be decided by Seattle. Are they going to be able to create more than a few high quality looks. Will Lodeiro and Ruidiz be there to step up? Will Jordan Morris continue his run of being a vicious and relentless on the counter creating and even finding chances on his own. Likewise Dallas has the attacking trio of Zdenek Ondrasek, Michael Barrios and Paxton Pomykal which could do some work against a Seattle defensive line that has struggled since the lossing Chad Marshall. I’ll take Seattle but I think Dallas could make an absolute game of it.
Chops: I don’t like Dallas on the road. I know they tied 0-0 at Seattle few weeks ago but the Sounders are too strong at home. Seattle wins.
Peter Nolan: Seventh-place FC Dallas could be set for an upset of 2nd seed Seattle as they come roaring into the playoffs on the strength of a 6-0 shellacking laid on Sporting KC. But it may be a year too soon for Luchi Gonzalez’s youngsters, led by U.S. up and comers Reggie Cannon, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Sevania, Jesse Gonzaez, and (passport pending) Jesus Ferreria.
Seattle is just too solid from back to front, with playoff hero Stefan Frei in goal and a devastating front three of Niclas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raul Ruidiaz.
Who will win the MLS Cup?
Before each round, we’ll offer our pick for who will win the MLS Cup. Going into round 1 of the playoffs, here’s who we think will win.
Harrison Hamm: I don’t like to pick the favorite, especially with the new single-elimination format. NYCFC has impressed me the most outside of LAFC, and they have a first-round bye as the winners of the Eastern Conference. I could see Max Moralez giving LA’s midfield trouble. Mark-Anthony Kaye’s injury with Canada is mildly concerning.
Harrison Crow: LAFC. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, Bob Bradley somehow gets more out of guys than most of the coaches in this league. They’re the best team in MLS, perhaps EVER and they have the best player in MLS, perhaps EVER. I don’t want to sensationalize this team and I hate being part of the machine that continues to push a narrative of “OH THIS IS NOW THE BEST TEAM OF ALL TIME”… but LAFC are just SO GOOD that it’s impossible not to pick them. They’re one of the few teams in the history of the MLS Cup Playoffs to have a better probability of winning MLS Cup than the rest of the ENTIRE FIELD.
This is a remarkable team and right now they’re the best pick to win MLS Cup.
Chops: The single elimination format adds an element of chaos into the mix. Soccer is fluky on a game-by-game basis. Luck plays a big role. Because it’s single elimination I always favor the squad who has “been there before.” For the past year, Atlanta United has shown an ability to stop up in big moments. They know how to win. Going with Atlanta United.
Peter Nolan: I hate to be boring but it is hard to see past Bob Bradley-led juggernaut LAFC.
A new HPS MLS Podcast hosted by Harrison Hamm is up!
- Handicapping the RBNY-Philly matchup
- Favorite dark-horse?
- Tactical previews of each match
Look for our MLS playoff predictions post this week as well.
With the MLS playoffs starting this week, we’re taking a look at which teams will contend and which will be long shots. As we’ve seen, every team has a realistic shot, especially in the new one-off format. MLS parity is not quite as pronounced as it once was, though, and some teams are clearly better than others.
I’m not huge on the black-and-white-ness of power rankings, so think of this as a general outline of the contenders.
14. New England Revolution
The Revs are just happy to be here. Given their awful start under Brad Friedel, it’s a miracle that Bruce Arena has dragged this team to a playoff berth. They have a foundation for future success, and they have a handful of talented, difference-making attackers, but they just lost 3-1 in Atlanta on Decision Day and it’s hard to expect them to do anything different in the playoffs.
13. FC Dallas
A 6-0 win over rival Sporting KC on the last day of the season has FCD entering the postseason confident. But that win came after a crappy September, and Dallas only narrowly snuck into the seventh spot in the Western Conference. It would be great if this young and fun FCD team made a run, but they don’t quite have enough.
12. Real Salt Lake
The biggest concern for RSL: The lack of a game-changing attacker who can create something out of nothing in a cagey game. Real have the luxury of hosting the Timbers in the first round, and given RSL’s 4-9-4 record on the road, they should be glad they held onto the third spot in the west. It’s a good bet that the Portland-RSL match will be heavy on slow and conservative possession. Saturday night would be the perfect time for a Jefferson Savarino golazo.
11. D.C. United
DCU can keep the ball out of their net. Their case as a contender comes down to their ability to defend. Incredibly, D.C. are on a streak of five straight MLS clean sheets, elevating Bill Hamid to Goalkeeper of the Year favorite. But they struggle to score. It’s an open question as to whether they should even start Luciano Acosta, and they somehow didn’t score in 50 minutes of soccer against a nine-man FC Cincinnati on Decision Day. This feels like Benny Ball’s final form.
10. New York Red Bulls
This might be high for a Red Bulls team that lost 3-0 to Montreal a couple of weeks ago. Something about NYRB made me put them above DCU. Bradley Wright-Phillips will be as motivated as ever. New York are still solid down the spine. Their attackers are concerning, but Daniel Royer has a way of stealing goals at the back-post. Philly could be exploited in the first round.
9. Portland Timbers
Diego Valeri is listed as questionable as of this posting, and Brian Fernandez entered MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, rendering his participation unlikely in the Timbers’ first-round match. Portland will have to play to their identity (sitting deep and countering) and find a way to slip through a road game at altitude against RSL. Without their two best attackers, it’s a difficult task.
8. Toronto FC
Assuming Jozy Altidore plays, TFC have plenty of attacking talent. Alejandro Pozuelo is probably not as good as public opinion would indicate, but he could still be capable of magic. Toronto will create wide-open barnburners to overcome their lack of defensive acumen. On pure talent, they have a shot.
7. Seattle Sounders
Things aren’t perfect in Seattle. There is reasonable concern about the defensive corps, despite a reasonably good late season run. Good teams could exploit them down the middle as they wait on a true Chad Marshall replacement. Striker Raul Ruidiaiz’s slump has been a bit overblown, but the Sounders will need him to come through given the relatively weak supporting cast. The Nicolas Lodeiro-Cristian Roldan infrastructure might still be enough.
6. LA Galaxy
The only reason the Galaxy are this high is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They do actually have other competent players (Cristian Pavon, Jonathan dos Santos), but Zlatan is their entire system, for better or worse. For LA, it comes down to him.
5. Minnesota United
I debated putting Minnesota over Philly, but the Loons’ general weakness in attack kept me away. Darwin Quintero will have to be the superstar we know he can be. Their defense, led by Defender of the Year favorite Ike Opara, could win them games on its own. In the first round against Zlatan and the Galaxy, Opara should be able to hold his own.
4. Philadelphia Union
Philly have been great all season, and the playoffs would be more fun to watch if they keep it up. They play with possession and shapeshift tactically. Their midfield, with Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin, moves the ball well. The Union will win if the attack finishes its chances in front of goal, certainly not a guarantee.
3. Atlanta United
Atlanta will live or die by Josef Martinez, who has grown into by far their most important player. With a solid backline (featuring the mobile pairing of Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Miles Robinson), they have a chance to play tight with teams and strike on the counter. A Pity Martinez breakout will always be welcome. Atlanta’s homefield advantage is very real.
Regardless of where they play their home games, NYCFC will give any team trouble. They use actual tactics, something not every team can say, and they have no obvious weak spots across the field. Anton Tinnerholm is vastly underrated at right back. Keaton Parks has been fantastic in midfield. Valentin Castellanos is the best penalty-drawer in the league.
Was there really any question? LAFC is the best team in the league, with the best player (Carlos Vela) and the best midfield. Anything can happen in a one-off game, but it is tough to imagine any team knocking LA out. A potential El Trafico in the second round looms.
Where to Bet MLS Playoffs in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer online in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
With the end of the MLS regular season, it’s now Awards Time. And with a full international break to sit through until the playoffs start, we have plenty of time to argue about the races.
Let’s get right into it.
MLS Most Valuable Player
- Carlos Vela (LAFC)
- Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
I don’t think I really have to defend myself here. Everyone is going to pick Vela. The man had 34 goals and 15 assists on the best team in league history. He is the best player MLS has ever seen and he has no competition for this award.
Most people will have Josef and Zlatan behind Vela. For fear of over-valuing goal-scoring, I considered for a brief second throwing a guy like Maxi Moralez or Eduard Atuesta here over Ibrahimovic, who negatively impacts his team more than an MVP candidate should. But both Martinez and Ibra had incredible scoring seasons, and established a clear elite tier alongside Vela, the likes of which MLS has never seen.
MLS Goalkeeper of the Year
- Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
- Daniel Vega (San Jose Earthquakes)
This is a tough award. Turner was fantastic this season, but he played only 20 games thanks to injuries and the bumbling incompetence of Brad Friedel. There is a reasonable argument that a keeper has to play more games to see serious consideration for this award, barring some otherworldly performance.
I settled on Turner after considering the other options, none of which were enticing. Brad Guzan and Stefan Frei, two stalwarts, weren’t good enough. It would have been tough to seriously consider a guy like Tyler Miller, despite his team’s success. Analytically, Steve Clark and David Bingham are near the top, but neither really inspires confidence.
Choosing Nick Rimando as a sort of legacy award was the closest I came to usurping Turner. Rimando has somehow never won a GKOTY, and while his final season wouldn’t normally merit this award on its own, Rimando might be the best keeper in league history. Given the lack of clear favorites, Rimando isn’t a terrible choice.
After last year’s Zack Steffen-Frei debacle (in which Frei should have easily won), I couldn’t bring myself to give the award to someone who hasn’t been the best goalkeeper in the league. Thus, I come to Turner, who was certainly the best in the league this year, despite his smaller sample of games. Turner blows his competition away statistically with an outrageous -10.14 g-xG figure, meaning he’s making tougher saves than other keepers.
The Revs would not have made the postseason without Turner’s performance in the last stretch of the season, adding a certain layer of importance to his argument. Turner was clutch and crucial to his team’s performance.
Vega isn’t my favorite candidate, but he performs well by the underlying metrics. The Quakes improved dramatically, despite their late-season collapse.
MLS Defender of the Year
- Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)
- Ike Opara (Minnesota United)
Some have started to favor Opara and Atlanta’s Miles Robinson over Zimmerman, but I’m still leaning toward LAFC’s rock. However, I will concede that Zimmerman has not been quite as good in the second half of the season as he was in the first. A mistake-free, comfortable-on-the-ball force for such a dominant team is hard to pass over.
Opara and Robinson are both worthy contenders. Opara, especially, has a very good chance of winning for a second time, and he would be deserving.
Shout-out to all the fullbacks are consistently snubbed for this award. American Soccer Analysis made the case for Jorge Moreira, and while I can’t quite get there, I understand their case.
MLS Rookie of the Year
- Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union)
- Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United)
There are numerous good Rookie of the Year candidates this year. Aaronson, who has been a critical part of the Philadelphia Union’s success, is the best pick. He has excelled as an attacking midfielder, and has pushed star DP Marco Fabian out of the lineup.
Dotson has been a consistent starter for Minnesota. He’s worn a number of important hats for them, and the Loons’ success helps his case.
Shout-out to Andre Shinyashiki, who came close. Shinyashiki appeared in 31 games and scored seven goals for the revitalized Rapids. I also would have considered Keaton Parks, if I were convinced that he’s eligible for this award.
MLS Newcomer of the Year
- Carles Gil (New England Revolution)
- Heber (NYCFC)
Gil and Heber are the consensus favorites for this award. Orlando City’s Nani wasn’t too far off here; OCSC’s lack of success pretty much eliminated him. Cristian Espinoza would have had a better shot if San Jose hadn’t lost their last six games and choked away their playoff chances.
Heber was close. It’s true that his arrival as a No. 9 was a huge reason for NYCFC’s spring revival, but when Valentin Castellanos had to fill in up top as a result of Heber absences, NYC fared similarly.
Gil started all 34 of New England’s game, an impressive feat. 10 goals and 14 assists is a good haul, and Gil has been the Revs’ best player all season.
MLS Coach of the Year
- Bob Bradley (LAFC)
- Jim Curtain (Philadelphia Union)
These Coach of the Year awards tend to go to managers who turn bad teams around.
There are the usual slate of candidates who tout their club’s turnaround as their COTY case, but Bradley deserves this award over all of them. His LAFC, as we’ve mentioned plenty of times already, dominated the league. Bradley’s ability to develop players internally (Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, etc.) and maximize the tools at his disposal allowed LA to grow as much as they did.
Curtain improved as a tactician, successfully adjusting the Union’s formations and set-ups throughout the season. He crafted a team-oriented approach and integrated youth, deepening Philly’s player pool. He deserves second-place here.
Matias Almeyda, who completely turned the San Jose Earthquakes around, would probably have been here if not for the Quakes’ aforementioned collapse. Bruce Arena, Dome Torrent, and Luchi Gonzalez are also hanging around this race.
MLS Best XI of 2019
My only questions on this XI came with the full backs and in the midfield. Kai Wagner, Philly’s stalwart, deserves the left back spot. (I also had a hard time finding another deserving left back.) Anton Tinnerholm has long been underrated at right back. He is effective as a possession option in the final third for NYCFC.
Moralez and Eduard Atuesta weren’t difficult choices. Moralez is one of the more important players for his team in MLS, and Atuesta has by this point made a compelling case as the best d-mid in MLS. Darlington Nagbe has had a career year in Atlanta. The front three writes itself.
Shout-out to Jonathan dos Santos, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Miles Robinson, and Gil.
Onto the playoffs.
MLS’s Decision Day is on Sunday. It is the last regular season game for everybody, and the whole league will play at the same time to decide various playoff matchups and seeding. For many, it is a crucial day.
Let’s run through the five most important matches.
Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes
This is basically winner-take-all here. Both teams qualify for the postseason with a win. The Timbers, who will play at home (debatable whether that’s even a positive for them), make it through with a tie. San Jose, who trail seventh place by one point, have no chance at the playoffs if they lose, but would qualify if they draw at Portland and both FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids hold up their end of the bargain.
The Timbers will be without ice-cold forward Brian Fernandez, who will be suspended on a red card. San Jose’s current free-fall (five straight losses, though all have been against good teams) would indicate that Portland are the favorites here.
Atlanta United vs New England Revolution
New England are safely in the playoffs, thanks to some epic long-term choking out of the Chicago Fire, but they would love to avoid traveling to a New York baseball stadium for the first round. A win against Atlanta (don’t count on it, but crazier things have happened) plus a Toronto FC loss to Columbus (more plausible) would move the Revs up to sixth.
Atlanta have all the motivation to beat New England, because any win on Sunday guarantees them second in the East and a rubber match with the Revs in the playoffs. Hosting Bruce Arena’s side again is much more favorable than having to deal with Toronto or even the New York Red Bulls in a knockout game.
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United
The 2-5 slots in the Western Conference are up for grabs on Sunday. Seattle and Minnesota are locked at 53 points and 15 wins right now, with the Loons holding the goals tiebreaker and thus second place. The winner of this game secures second, while the loser could drop as low as fifth if the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake both win.
They might play to a cagey draw. That result could benefit both teams, but a Galaxy win and a Seattle-Minnesota draw would elevate LA to second and drop the Sounders and Loons. LA play the 11th-place Dynamo. Seattle and Minnesota should both be playing to win.
FC Dallas vs. Sporting KC
In addition to being a rivalry match, this will be make or break for FC Dallas. A win over SKC and Dallas are in. A draw or loss, though, and they’d have to root heavily for Portland (and LAFC, to prevent a miracle rise out of Colorado).
Last week, FCD fell flat in a 3-0 loss to the Rapids, which assured that this game would be of interest. They will have to rebound here, and play much better on defense.
NYCFC vs. Philadelphia Union
This is the other end of the battle for second in the East. Atlanta have the wins tiebreaker, so the Philadelphia Union don’t control their destiny here. They’d need to win or draw and have the Five Stripes pick up fewer points against the Revs in order to finish second.
NYCFC have no immediate implications to play for here. But this might be the most interesting game of the week, given that both teams are elite and gearing up for a chance at a deep playoff run. NYC are the better team, and have a much clearer shot at going far in the playoffs. Philly could prove people wrong if they walk into Yankee Stadium and score an important victory.
Who: Columbus Crew vs Philadelphia Union
When: Sunday, September 29th @ 05:00pm ET
Line: Columbus Crew +114 | Draw +270 | Philadelphia Union +205
With LAFC and NYCFC clinching the top spots in both conferences, the race between Philly and Atlanta United for second place in the East is one of the most compelling storylines of the last two games. Finishing second likely guarantees a first-round playoff game against a weaker New England Revolution team, avoiding Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls.
Philly play NYCFC on the road on Decision Day, arguably the toughest possible matchup in MLS right now, so the Union can’t afford to leave Columbus without three points if they’re going to have any chance of inching out the Five Stripes. Atlanta enter the weekend one point behind Philly, and while ATL will suffer without Josef Martinez, they have the luxury of a soft final two games, against the Revs and Montreal Impact. The Union control their destiny.
Columbus Crew vs Philadelphia Union match preview
As we did with the crucial Atlanta-NYCFC match earlier this week, let’s take a look at a couple of quick points to prepare:
1. Columbus are purely trying to play spoiler here. They have already been eliminated from playoff contention, and are looking toward a future that may not include many of the players on the roster. As they prepare to reconstruct, they are trying to figure out which players are worth building around.
After a horrendous spring filled with losing, the Crew have generally been competent for the last few months. Pedro Santos, now the No. 10, has been very good, with 10 goals and five assists and a productive role as the centerpiece of the attack. They are a threat to the Union, despite a huge slate of injuries — in addition to Federico Higuain and Milton Valenzuela, who both tore their ACLs months ago, defenders Josh Williams, Waylon Francis, and Hector Jimenez are out this week.
Tactically, don’t expect anything crazy out of Caleb Porter, who has a reputation for pragmatism. Columbus will put out a 4-2-3-1 formation and stay compact in the middle of the field, with Wil Trapp distributing and Gyasi Zardes running around up top.
2. Jim Curtain will likely counter with a 4-2-3-1 of his own. It will be interesting to see anything else out of the Union for the rest of this year, given how much Curtain has begun to rely on the 4-2-3-1. Philly’s tactical versatility has been an asset this year.
One of the best things about watching the Union has been the emergence of Brenden Aaronson, a talented 18-year-old Homegrown midfielder who looks comfortable moving the ball and connecting play. He has basically kicked star Designated Player Marco Fabian out of the starting lineup, forming a very solid attacking midfield trio alongside Jamiro Monteiro and Fafa Picault. Fabian isn’t even the first player off the bench; Ilsinho is an absolute weapon as a super-sub, and has staked a legitimate case as the most effective sub in league history.
In the playoffs, the deep midfield duo of Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya will be fascinating to watch. Medunjanin has been fantastic this season, fitting perfectly in the aggressive ball-moving system Philly has implemented. But his mobility is always a question, and while Columbus probably won’t threaten him too much, a better team might, especially in an intense winner-take-all playoff game.
Columbus Crew vs Philadelphia Union prediction
As for a prediction: I see the Union getting the job done here, though the Crew will muck things up and make it difficult. The final score will be 1-0, with Ilsinho scoring somewhere around the 80th-minute to secure a huge late win for Philly.
On Saturday, Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez went down with a scary knee injury. We don’t yet know the timetable, but no one in Atlanta seems optimistic, and it’s possible that Martinez will miss weeks or months.
Obviously, Martinez is a significant player whose injury carries significant consequences. He was in the middle of a 15-game goal streak when he went down, and he would have at least come close to beating out Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the Golden Boot. Atlanta’s attack changes completely without their star.
This is the backdrop for a crucial midweek match between Atlanta and NYCFC. A NYC win would all but seal them first place in the Eastern Conference, putting them ahead of Atlanta by seven points. If Atlanta wins, though, they would pull within one, and the Five Stripes’ final two games (against Montreal and New England) are both winnable. NYC face third-place Philly on Decision Day.
NYCFC vs Atlanta United Match Preview
First in the East gets you a first-round bye in the playoffs, which is extremely valuable. Wednesday’s game might be the biggest of the season for both teams. Let’s run through some tactical points:
1. Atlanta will likely play a three-at-the-back. NYCFC might as well, as they used something resembling a 3-4-3 in a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas on Sunday.
2. Dome Torrent’s Light Blues are MLS’s second-best team right now, and it probably isn’t close. They haven’t lost since August 11 (when they played at Atlanta) and they are the only team still in mathematical range of the Supporters’ Shield. Their attack is coordinated and deadly, and their possession is fluid and free-flowing. Maxi Moralez is a dark-horse MVP candidate, the orchestrator and maestro with high-volume possession influence.
While striker Heber is out with a collarbone injury, Valentin Castellanos is filling in capably at forward. Castellanos can score (he has 11 goals on the season), but most importantly he can do all the work of a No. 9. He occupies defenders to free space for Moralez and he makes the right channel runs, assuring that NYCFC’s attack keeps humming.
Atlanta will worry about the secondary scoring NYC can generate, with Moralez, Alexandru Mitrita, Anton Tinnerholm, and possibly Ismael Tajouri-Shradi off the bench able to put the ball in the net. Many teams struggle to find wingers and creators who can carve out chances in front of goal and run at defenders. ATL’s wingbacks (particularly the active Julian Gressel) will have to worry about NYC’s ability to get numbers in attack.
3. What will Atlanta do without Josef? It’s a good bet that Frank de Boer will start Brandon Vazquez up top as a target forward. When Martinez was out for three games in late June and early July, Vazquez started all three games, playing well enough to earn a couple more starts alongside Martinez in later July.
Vazquez is obviously a downgrade from Josef in terms of scoring, but the biggest concern could be the loss of a gravitational force up top. Martinez draws a ton of a attention, and he’s such a smart and savvy runner that defenses are constantly preoccupied with him. Vazquez won’t have that ability, and he’s not an especially fast or agile player to make up for it, nor is he a great passer of the ball.
A more intriguing option is Hector Villalba, who does not seem to be a favorite of de Boer. Villalba is lightning fast and a winger at heart, and he has a very good scoring record in MLS. He may not be a natural striker, and it’s not easy to see de Boer handing Villalba a start, but Tito playing up front ahead of Pity Martinez and Darlington Nagbe would be fun to watch.
I’ll give the edge here to NYCFC, who are playing at home and facing an Atlanta team missing their best player.
A new HPS MLS Podcast is now live!
Topics covered include:
- Why FC Cincinnati has played so badly this season, and potential building blocks for the future
- Cincy’s academy situation and lessons they can take from other teams to rebuild
- David Silva potentially going to Inter Miami.
Last year, the LA Galaxy went into Decision Day needing a home win over the woeful Houston Dynamo to make the playoffs. Real Salt Lake’s loss the week before had made the Galaxy’s objectives clear: win, and they’re in. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic starting up top and a relatively talented team surrounding him, there was no excuse for them to even be in that position. Making the playoffs should have been a minimum.
They went up 2-0 in the first half with two goals from Ola Kamara. It was seemingly a guarantee that they would survive and do their job. But Romell Quioto pulled one back for the Dynamo in the 57th-minute, and then Mauro Manotas scored twice in a six-minute span to put Houston ahead 3-2. LA couldn’t come back. RSL made the postseason and upset LAFC in the first round, with the Galaxy watching from home.
Thus the criticism of Ibrahimovic: in spite of the goals and the antics, he couldn’t get it done in that decisive game against a terrible team. He had zero goals, zero assists, and four shots against Houston, walking solemnly off with his team eliminated in the most humiliating of ways.
LA Galaxy’s playoff chances this season
This season, LA face a similar situation over their last four games, in which they will almost certainly qualify for the playoffs. They are in fifth right now (seven teams in each conference make the playoffs), and they’re two points ahead of eighth-place Portland. Both the Galaxy and the Timbers have a game in hand on seventh-place FC Dallas.
LA have an extremely easy schedule the rest of the way: home against Montreal, away at RSL, home against Vancouver, and away at Houston (deja vu). Traveling to Utah won’t be easy, but the other three games should be wins. FiveThirtyEight likes their chances too, pegging them at 95% to make the postseason.
I’d say they have an equal chance of making the playoffs now as they did heading into the second half on October 28 of last year, up 2-0 at home against ninth-place Houston. They have a better team now, and more margin of error. The defense has better personnel, though it has often struggled, and Cristian Pavon accompanies Zlatan in attack.
Galaxy (and Ibra) can be a threat if they make it in
Once they’re into the postseason, they are a threat. Their system (or lack thereof) is built to succeed in one-off games, as we’ve seen in their matchups with LAFC. Ibra gets up for important games, or at least those that interest him — clearly last year’s game against Houston wasn’t enough, though.
The Galaxy play through Zlatan more than any MLS team plays through any player in the league. They pass to him in build-up, and they cross the ball to him at high rates, probably more than they should. To an extent it works, but when Zlatan doesn’t do anything, they have no plan B, and their defense is not going to win them any games. Ibra is a huge minus on the defensive end, basically acting like a whiny traffic cone.
They are a massive wild-card in projecting the playoffs. It’s easy to see two completely different scenarios playing out: they continue playing the way they have in the regular season, meaning they get run over in midfield and make terrible defensive errors, or the attack comes together and Zlatan takes over, the way he did in a recent 7-2 victory over Sporting KC.
Their first-round opponent (probably Seattle, Minnesota, or RSL) would most likely prefer to avoid them. LAFC would certainly love to avoid them in the second round. Much of Zlatan’s MLS legacy will come down to how he and his team performs in this postseason, considering the flop last year and how much the Galaxy rely on him, for better or for worse.
Before anything else, they have to get through the regular season. Nothing is a guarantee with this team.
Who: Philadelphia Union vs LAFC
When: Saturday, September 14th @ 06:30 pm ET
Line: Philadelphia Union +160 | Draw +300 | LAFC+132
The Union will have a chance to host LA for the first time ever, after losing 4-1 in southern California in June of 2018, and a win would be huge — Philly are hanging on by a thread in the race for first in the Eastern Conference, trailing NYCFC by three points. First-place gets you a crucial bye in the playoffs.
Philadelphia Union vs LAFC match preview
Against a full-strength LAFC, a Philly win isn’t the most likely outcome. But recent LAFC results give the Union a certain amount of hope. Here are a couple of storylines in the lead-up:
1- This is a very nice opportunity for Philly to go against an elite opponent, and test whether they can win a one-off home game against a very good team. The 3-1 win over Atlanta in their last game before the international break was a positive sign. A draw or loss to LA wouldn’t write the Union off, but a harsh loss would tamper some excitement heading into the playoffs.
The concern with Jim Curtain’s team is a lack of game-breaking talent, specifically attackers. Ilsinho is the league’s most impactful super-sub (possibly of all time), but he isn’t as effective as a starter, and the Union don’t have elite attackers in their XI. It’s hard to compete for trophies in MLS without a reasonable counter to players like Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi.
Philly need Kacper Przybylko to prove he can put the ball in the net at a consistent rate, which he’s shown in the past few weeks — he’s scored four goals in the last five games, scoring 13 on the year and going 90 every game since an April 27 draw in Vancouver. When the Union play Brendan Aaronson, Marco Fabian, and Jamiro Monteiro in midfield (MLSsoccer.com projects them all to start), they lack scorers beyond Przybylko.
2- As ever, the big tactical question in a game involving the Union is whether Curtain plays a diamond formation. Bob Bradley won’t shift from a 4-3-3, but he could adjust his team’s tactical approach to match numbers in the midfield. If Vela plays (and he hasn’t since being removed from the last El Trafico with a minor muscle injury, though he has been removed from the injury report), the Union could attempt to condense his space centrally with the diamond.
One of the more impressive elements of Philly’s rise this season has been their tactical flexibility. Curtain’s Coach of the Year case (which is very real, against Bradley’s and Matias Almeyda’s) is based partly on that flexibility. Playing a diamond against such a dominant and talented team like LA could be a risk. Whatever Curtain puts out, it will be a calculated decision, and Bradley will likely have some counter.
Haris Medunjanin’s mobility will be tested against the fast, ball-moving LA midfield. Medunjanin has been great this season, and his ability to hit exquisite balls out of the back has been huge for Philly, but he isn’t amazing as a ground-covering defensive midfielder. If Latif Blessing and Eduard Atuesta can find a way to isolate him, they could put Philly’s defense on its heels and set Vela up to devour the damage.
3- Rumors this week have had LA as being in contention to sign Mario Mandzukic, the 33-year-old Croatian forward who is out of favor at Juventus. That would certainly be a coup. Mandzukic, as an aerial power and an effective defender from the front, would fit as the head of an LA front three. His arrival would indicate that Rossi is likely to be sold in the summer, to create a front three of Brian Rodriguez, Mandzukic, and Vela. Philly can be glad they’re not going against that on Saturday.
The latest episode of the HPS MLS Podcast is up. Host Harrison Hamm discusses underrated MLS players with Ian, of American Soccer Analysis.
By this point, it’s hard to argue that LAFC isn’t the greatest team MLS has ever seen.
They’ve won 19 of their 28 games, lead the league by 12 points, and are basically unbeatable at home (unless you’re Minnesota, apparently). They are on pace to squash the single-season points record set last year by the New York Red Bulls. They’re already tied for second most goals in a season, and have only given up 30, the best defensive record in the league.
With surefire MVP Carlos Vela and an astounding team of best XI players and award winners (Walker Zimmerman is the probable DOTY and Bob Bradley is the probable COTY), I’d take LA in a matchup against any MLS team in history.
But imagine this hypothetical: LAFC does not win MLS Cup in November. Say they make the final but get blitzed by Atlanta United, or perhaps fall prior to the final in a wild El Trafico against their kryptonite, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy. Such a flop would change their legacy, right?
Supporters’ Shield vs MLS Cup
This gets back to an enduring philosophical MLS dilemma: Is it better to win the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup?
The Shield is for the best regular season team, and the Cup for the winner of the playoffs. While the Shield may indicate the superior team over the entirety of the season, the Cup is the true champion. Players and fans want the Cup more than anything else. The MLS Cup champion defines the season, honoring the team that was able to get it done when it mattered.
You could argue that the Shield is better to win, because it means you’ve played well for a long stretch. But at the very least, perception rests on playoff performance — as is to be expected in American sports, the postseason is the true barometer, no matter the randomness and variability.
So there is certainly an argument that an MLS Cup is necessary for LAFC to say they are the “greatest MLS team ever,” even if they may very well be favored in a matchup against any other historical lineup. Two years ago, Toronto FC won every title they possibly could, and then lost the Concacaf Champions League final on a coin flip the following year. They are the team to beat for LAFC.
2019 LAFC = 2007 New England Patriots
The obvious comparison for the Black and Gold, if they were to finish without a Cup, is the 2007 New England Patriots. The Pats went 16-0 in the regular season and then lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Those Patriots were dominant, with a record-setting Tom Brady and Randy Moss. They might well be the best NFL team of all time regardless of the loss to the Giants.
For LAFC, their legacy will come down to their performance in the playoffs — more specifically, the nature of any potential loss. An early flame out, similar to last season’s, would disqualify them. Something more understandable, or subject to variability, would simply relegate them to a status as the team that couldn’t get it done when it mattered, even if they maintain the greatest title in the aggregate.
By the eye test, they are simply outstanding, and come close to making this whole discussion moot. Vela is the best the league has ever seen. The defense is mistake-free and rarely comes up short in emergency defending situations. The midfield is far and away the best in the league, with two legitimate best XI contenders. You could go on and on, and we have. LAFC deserve the plaudits.
When the dust has settled, we’ll probably be thinking of this team as the best in league history. They almost certainly won’t suffer some major playoff upset. Without a ring, they will add only a caveat — albeit a pretty noticeable one — to their legacy.