The MLS playoff system lends itself to underdog runs. A lot of teams make the playoffs every year. It’s an MLS tradition to have more than half the teams in the league make the postseason, and that’s especially the case this year. With all the expansion and the pandemic-induced reshuffling of conferences, 18 teams of 26 will show up in the playoffs — 10 of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference and eight of 12 in the West.
That amount keeps teams in contention for longer portions of the season and gives us more intense, frantic playoff games. (The elimination of two-leg rounds was a fantastic rule change.) But with this many teams, there are bound to be deeply flawed teams that show up. Not every club that makes it really deserves to make it, even if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of this system.
With the regular season entering the home stretch and battles emerging across the standings, let’s take a look at some MLS teams lower down the standings that could take advantage of the playoff system and make a run.
San Jose Earthquakes
Given their recent success, the Quakes feel like the best example of a team that could outperform their seeding. They’re seventh in the West on 24 points and a negative-15 goal differential, but they’re 4-1-1 in their past six games. After a stretch in which Matias Almeyda’s club couldn’t stop conceding buckets of goals, they turned it around out of nowhere and are suddenly keeping clean sheets on the regular.
This change coincided with the insertion of in goal (finally!) after Almeyda brought up the courage to remove the error-prone Daniel Vega. Some other lineup changes have helped, including the return of to the starting lineup and the presence of Florian Jungwirth in defense. Almeyda’s Quakes teams often end up difficult to predict, bouncing between wins and losses. For now, they’re on the good side of the rollercoaster.
It should be noted that the Western Conference playoff race is difficult to evaluate due to the Colorado Rapids. Due to a covid-19 outbreak, the Rapids have only played 13 games, whereas every other team has played 17, 18, or 19 games. Colorado’s points-per-game would be enough for fourth, but they’re in 11th (ahead of the Galaxy, somehow). They return to play on Saturday, and it’s hard to predict whether they’ll be rusty or worse than they were when they last played. Given their pre-outbreak performance, though, they’re well-positioned to finish in the top eight.
This expansion team has outperformed expectations. With a roster built with less money and in more of a low-key style than Inter Miami’s, Nashville is eighth in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand on the three teams ahead of them. Moved to the East temporarily for geographical reasons, they’ve put themselves solidly in the playoff race with unusually competent defensive play.
Walker Zimmerman, acquired from LAFC before the season, should be a Defender of the Year candidate for his performance in the center of Nashville’s defense. They don’t score a ton of goals, but they know how they want to play and they’ve been competent in a way that comparable expansion teams (Cincinnati, Minnesota, Orlando) weren’t.
At sixth in the East on 27 points, NYC are more secure in their position than the two above teams. But they’ve had a rough go of it this season compared to their expectations and success in the recent past. They’ve had a number of injuries affect their attack — Heber, their top scorer, tore an ACL, Maxi Moralez has been mostly out of the lineup, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has missed time. Add Alexandru Mitrita’s midseason departure on a loan to Saudi Arabia and NYC have often been shorthanded.
The increased roles for players like Valentin Castellanos and Jesus Medina haven’t paid dividends. We’ve even seen some Gary Mackay-Steven minutes. Nonetheless, the Light Blues have defended well, and have talent in midfield. If they put things together and find some goals at the right times, they could be a threat in the postseason
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