Handicapping the MLS Cup playoff field: LAFC leads the charge
Fourteen teams, 13 matches, one trophy. That is what the Major League Soccer playoffs boil down to as the league prepares to unveil a new format that will give the top seeds in the playoffs a greater advantage than they have had in past years.
Los Angeles FC enters the postseason on the heels of a record-setting regular season, and will be rewarded by having all its matches at home in the playoffs. For a team that suffered just one loss at Banc of California Stadium this year, the new playoff format is beautiful, though we also shouldn’t forget that LAFC lost at home in last year’s playoffs. Chances are Bob Bradley hasn’t forgotten, and will remind his team once they begin play in the conference semifinals.
LAFC is the clear-cut favorite to win MLS Cup, but there are several teams with the quality to knock the top seed off the number one spot, starting with Atlanta United. No, the reigning MLS Cup champions didn’t finish atop the Eastern Conference, but you still have to make Atlanta the favorites to come out of the East, especially after the return of Josef Martinez from injury.
Here is a look at how I see the odds stacking up for all 14 MLS playoff teams as they chase the MLS Cup title:
1. LOS ANGELES FC (3/2 to win MLS Cup)
Walker Zimmerman’s concussion suffered in the regular season finale, coupled with Mark-Anthony Kaye’s recent hamstring injury while on international duty with Canada has created some question marks about LAFC’s title bid.
Those injuries will bear watching, but LAFC still has too much firepower, and depth, not to still be considered the favorites to win it all. Carlos Vela heads into the playoffs in top form, and stopping him has been near impossible for MLS teams this year.
2. ATLANTA UNITED (6/1)
Josef Martinez is back, and so is Ezequiel Barco, so even though Atlanta missed out on the top seed in the East playoffs, they are still the top choice to come out of the Eastern Conference.
The big question mark is the health status of Miles Robinson. If the hamstring injury he suffered while on national team duty keeps him out for multiple matches, then Atlanta United’s defense will be vulnerable against some dangerous attacks in New England potentially Toronto FC.
If Frank DeBoer can keep his defense solid, then Atlanta’s attack has the firepower to make a return to the MLS Cup final, but the champs will need Miles Robinson back in order to secure a second straight title.
3. NEW YORK CITY FC (7/1)
If it feels like NYCFC deserves more respect after the season it just had, that is probably true, but the team’s track record in the playoffs hasn’t been a good one, and Dome Torrent’s side could very likely have to defeat the past two MLS Cup winners just to get to the final.
NYCFC will open its playoffs at Citi Field rather than Yankee Stadium due to the New York Yankees still being in the baseball playoffs, and while NYCFC players insist there’s not much of a difference between the two venues, you have to wonder what that could mean in a difficult potential opening matchup against Toronto FC.
NYCFC had the second highest-scoring attack in MLS this year, and it doesn’t rely on any one goal-scorer. That depth in attack is good news during the regular season, but who from Heber, Alexandru Mitrita and Valentin Castellanos will step up to take charge in the playoffs, where defending gets tighter and scoring chances prove tougher to come by?
4. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (10/1)
The return to the lineup of Roman Torres helped Seattle’s defense settle down and post a pair of shutouts to close the regular season, but is the Sounders defense really good enough for a deep playoff run?
The Sounders secured the second seed in the West playoffs, meaning a pair of home games before a potential conference final clash against LAFC. Seattle has a wealth of playoff experience, which is why you have to take the Sounders seriously as a team that could knock off LAFC.
Why is Seattle not feeling like a sure-fire title contender? The Sounders are missing that anchor in the heart of defense that Chad Marshall provided for so long. Torres has helped bring some experience and toughness, but will that be enough as Seattle faces tougher and tougher attacks deeper in the playoffs?
5. TORONTO FC (12/1)
The 2017 MLS Cup champions are just two years removed from a title, but also just a year removed from a nightmare season. Their 10-match unbeaten run to close out the regular season has TFC looking like a good darkhorse candidate for a surprise cup run.
Jozy Altidore’s health will be key to TFC’s chances. If he is healthy and able to start, then Toronto’s attack becomes much tougher to handle. Without him, it becomes much easier to neutralize TFC’s playmakers.
The bigger question is can Toronto’s defense hold up against the top teams in the East once it faces the NYCFCs and Atlantas of the world? In the end, it will likely be Toronto’s defensive frailties that prevent another title run.
6. MINNESOTA UNITED (15-1)
One of the surprises of the season, Minnesota United has benefited from the revamping of its defense, which should give the Loons a chance against anybody, even as a team making its first foray into the playoffs.
Newly-crowned MLS defender of the year Ike Opara anchors the back-line, while Roman Metanire gives Minnesota United a dynamic threat on the right flank. Throw in the underrated but outstanding Jan Gregus, and presence o MLS Cup winner Osvaldo Alonso, and the Loons defense has some championship qualities.
What stands in the way of a title run for the Loons? An attack that has struggled for consistency all season. Darwin Quintero is a terror when he’s on, but he has been on and off this season, and as impressive as Mason Toye has been at times in the second half of the season, he isn’t the goal machine to lead a championship attack. At least not yet at this point in his career.
7. NEW YORK RED BULLS (20-1)
Why aren’t the Red Bulls getting more love as a potential title threat? Chalk it up to a thoroughly inconsistent season that saw a once-impenetrable defense lose its reliability, as well as to Bradley Wright-Phillips’ injury-hit season, which led to the team having to go striker-by-committee for most of the season.
The Red Bulls do have the ability to make things tough on anybody they play, and it’s not difficult to envision them pulling off a win or two in the playoffs. What’s tough to imagine is the Red Bulls putting together four straight strong performances, and all four most likely on the road.
8. PHILADELPHIA UNION (20/1)
Why aren’t the Union ranked higher after the regular season they just enjoyed? The team’s sparse playoff track record makes it tough to see them go from never having won a playoff game to one that wins a title.
What can we expect from the Union? Beating the Red Bulls in the opening round is well within their capability, and the minimum requirement for a team that desperately needs to build up some playoff experience that won’t be helped by a quick exit.
Kacper Przybylko quietly posted one of the best seasons in the league, and is a player to watch in the postseason, but any hopes of a deep playoff run will be tied to a defense that has overachieved in 2019, but now has a chance to show it’s better than people realize.
9. LA GALAXY (22-1)
It might seem insulting to have a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led team this low on any list, but the harsh reality is Zlatan and the Galaxy also have to play with the absolute worst defense in the playoffs.
The Galaxy attack is as dangerous as any in MLS, and that attack is capable of delivering a win or two in the playoffs, starting with their opening match against Minnesota United, but we have watched the Galaxy defense implode over and over this season, so it’s extremely difficult to imagine Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side putting together four strong defensive performances in a row, and all on the road to boot.
That said, can we really count out Zlatan? He can carry a team on his back, and nobody would be shocked if the Galaxy won in Minnesota and went on to knock off LAFC. Expecting more than that with a defense as bad as the Galaxy’s is an extremely tall order.
10. D.C. UNITED (24/1)
D.C. United is the opposite of the Galaxy, in that it boasts an extremely stingy defense but an attack that has been invisible in recent weeks.
Things hit rock-bottom for the D.C. attack in its regular-season finale, when it failed to score at home against a nine-man FC Cincinnati team that happened to boast the worst defensive record in league history.
Wayne Rooney will be back, and should be up for the playoff opener against Toronto FC, but the D.C. United attack simply hasn’t been dangerous enough in recent weeks to see Ben Olsen’s side making a deep playoff run.
11. REAL SALT LAKE (25/1)
If you were left scratching your head at how Real Salt Lake wound up the third seed in the West, you weren’t alone. What went overlooked in the wake of Mike Petke’s dismissal as head coach was how new coach Freddy Juarez helped RSL stay together and post some impressive wins against tough opponents.
The trio of Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach and Jefferson Savarino enter the playoffs in good form, and can also lean on the memory of RSL’s good showing in last year’s playoffs. They will create chances against anybody they face.
Can the defense step it up another notch in the playoffs? It will need to in order to navigate a road that could include matches against Seattle and LAFC. The RSL defense has shown some improvement, but if there is a weak link that will hold back RSL from a title run, it will be its back-line.
12. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (26/1)
Bruce Arena has a drawer full of MLS Cup rings so he knows a thing or two about winning in the postseason, so if there is a coach who can capitalize on Atlanta United missing Miles Robinson in the opening round, it’s Arena.
The tandem of Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou can cause problems against anybody, and goalkeeper Matt Turner heads into the playoffs in good form, but the Revs defense isn’t good enough to see them going very far.
13. PORTLAND TIMBERS (33/1)
We are a year removed from the Timbers making an improbable run to the MLS Cup final, so why can’t we see them doing it again? The list of reasons is a long one. Brian Fernandez’s absence will impact the team’s depth and options, and Diego Valeri is coming off a calf injury that forced him to miss the final two weeks of the regular season.
So why should we believe a team that one just one of its final seven matches can turn things around for another cup run? They have a good opening matchup against Real Salt Lake, and wouldn’t be a heavy underdog in a potential second round match against Seattle. A mini-run is well within reach, but the Timbers defense isn’t good enough to expect them to go much further than the conference final.
14. FC DALLAS (40-1)
Simply reaching the playoffs was enough to make 2019 a success for Luchi Gonzalez’s team, in a season where the first-year coach relied heavily on young players.
Dallas could pull an upset in the opening round, but expecting FCD to navigate the brutal road to an MLS Cup title, which would require four straight road wins, is too much to ask. The reality is FC Dallas won just three road games all season.