After a weird and rollercoaster regular season, MLS made it to the postseason.
It wouldn’t be 2020 without some significant complications, though. With the knockout-style postseason starting this weekend, many teams are without major contributors due to the recent international break. Players are returning from various foreign countries and either have to quarantine or actually contracted covid-19 themselves.
MLS chartered flights for many players in an aim to prevent quarantine periods, but some will still miss out for various reasons. That is all still being determined and is pretty unclear at the moment. But we’ll make do with what we can.
Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference’s four matches, two of which are play-ins (the winners face the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC) and two of which are straight first round matches. We’ll look at the West’s three games, all on Sunday, in a different article.
Play-in: New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact (6:30pm ET, Friday, Fox Sports 1)
This is a matchup of two lower-tier East teams. The Revs should have the edge here, with their stars finally coming back in the last weeks of the regular season. Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Adam Buksa all played in their 2-0 loss to Philly on the final day of the season. Gil is the most notable of the bunch, as he is their best player when healthy. He’s only played six times this season and has yet to score a goal.
The Impact have had a rough go of it, playing their home games in New Jersey and struggling to find a tactical identity under Thierry Henry that goes beyond “play defense sometimes.” New England has won three times against this Montreal team since July, and with Bou and Gil healthy, they’re the solid favorites. They also have Matt Turner, who is arguably MLS’s best goalkeeper.
Play-in: Nashville SC vs. Inter Miami (9:00pm ET, Friday, Fox Sports 1)
The expansion teams will battle for the right to play either Toronto or Philly. (The Union get the lower seed of the play-in winners.) Neither is a particular good team, and it’s probably Nashville that should be considered the favorite. They have a 2-0 win over Miami earlier in the year, and they’re built for these grind-it-out playoff games.
Miami have never really put it together this season, but they do have raw talent that Nashville can’t match. Rodolfo Pizarro, who played with Mexico over the international break, will reportedly be flown back in time to play in this game. His pairing with Gonzalo Higuain has all the potential to be deadly, though Higuain has not exactly lit up the scoresheet since he’s arrived in MLS.
Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman should have some fun battles with Higuain. Are we really going to bet on Higuain to come through in a winner-take-all game, though?
First round: Orlando City SC vs. NYCFC (12:00pm ET, Saturday, Unimas)
Big Noon Soccer here between two teams who have a connection going back to their 2015 expansion days. It’s a notable matchup between two teams that can be considered Eastern Conference contenders. Orlando, resurgent this season under Oscar Pareja, navigated a choppy, injury-marred regular season to earn home-field advantage in the first round.
The Lions should be mostly healthy, depending what happens with international players Sebastian Mendez and Pedro Gallese (left back Joao Moutinho is out for the season). Their MLS is Back run proves they can find success in knockout-style tournaments.
NYCFC have lost key contributors, but they’ve hit their stride recently on the back of Valentin Castellanos, Maxi Moralez, and Jesus Medina. This has the potential to be a tight, entertaining match.
First round: Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls (3:00pm ET, Saturday, Unimas)
If the Red Bulls pull this one out, it would be an upset. They’re a team in transition, with an interim coach trying stuff out and players who aren’t good enough to contend yet. The Crew enter with more guys healthy, including Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan, and improved form at the end of the season. It remains to be seen what will happen with two important Red Bulls contributors who went to South America on international duty: Kaku, for Paraguay, and Cristian Casseres Jr., for Venezuela.
The test for the Crew in this game will be avoiding whatever press the Red Bulls might throw at them, and then breaking down a bunkered block later in the game.