The 2020 MLS Cup playoffs are upon us, with games beginning this Friday, and with 18 clubs vying for an opportunity to lift that most prized piece of silverware, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle and Austin Lindberg have broken down the biggest storylines to follow this postseason and analyzed every matchup.
Playoffs will put teams’ depth to the test
In just about any season, the MLS Cup playoffs are witness to all kinds of chaos. In the past 10 years, only twice has a conference’s top seed so much as reached MLS Cup. That dynamic continued even when the league moved to a single-game format, with higher seeds hosting for every round in 2019.
But 2020 has proven to be a campaign unlike any other in the league’s history. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the compressed regular-season schedule that it wrought, stretched the resources of teams to breaking point. For some presumed powers — like the LA Galaxy and Atlanta United FC — those stressors went beyond the breaking point, and resulted in a failure to qualify for the postseason.
For those teams that did qualify, finding success will require managers to utilize the depth of their rosters to a higher level. In years past, a head coach’s starting XI was pretty much set heading into the postseason. That is still true to a degree, but the aforementioned dual challenges of COVID and a tight schedule are very much in play.
A team that reaches MLS Cup is likely facing the prospect of playing four games in 21 days. On the face of it, that pace seems manageable, but the last three games will be played in what could be as many as 14 days and as few as 12. Last season’s run to MLS Cup saw Seattle play its last three games in 19 days. For that reason, managers will be faced with the prospect of rotating players — or at least rationing minutes — more than might otherwise be expected in the playoffs. The availability, or lack thereof, of same-day travel could tax the players as well.
As for the pandemic, that already is set to have an impact, through no fault of the league. The just-concluded international window saw three members of LAFC test positive for COVID-19 while they were away on international duty, a group that includes Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. (They, along with teammate Brian Rodriguez, who did not test positive but was with Rossi and Uruguay over the break, will miss the Nov. 24 game vs. Seattle.) That is on top of the 42 players who tested positive via the league’s testing protocol since late August.
The bulk of those have since recovered and are back on the field, but according to MLS, seven players tested positive during the last week of the regular season, a testament to the virus’ continued effect on the season.
On the plus side, managers have been digging deep into their rosters for most of this season, especially after teams resumed in their home markets, which has given young players some valuable experience that, in a normal season, would have been absent. But the playoffs apply their own special kind of pressure, a stress that’s rarely replicated during the league campaign. That stress will put a premium on striking the right balance between youth and experience, although with the injury bug — and the viral one — never far away, some managers may have little choice than to throw young players to the playoff wolves. Health, it would seem, will be even more of a factor than it usually is in the postseason. – Jeff Carlisle
Will the expanded field spring surprises?
Another unique — some would say overly generous — aspect of this year’s playoffs will be the expanded field. All told, 18 teams will be taking part, four more than there has ever been in an MLS postseason. Ten are from the Eastern Conference and eight qualified from the West.
Might this set the stage for even more upsets? In a season blighted by a pandemic and with schedules heavily regionalized as a result, it’s difficult to get a sense of just how big the gap is between the presumed haves and have-nots. It’s tempting, in that case, to look at which teams finished the regular season the strongest — like New York City FC, the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City — and declare them favorites, but there are other factors at play.
Last season, MLS went to a single-elimination format. That was done primarily to reward higher-seeded teams and put more of an emphasis on homefield advantage. But with fans limited in most venues, and in others outright prohibited, playing in a home stadium won’t be as advantageous as it would be during a normal postseason.
Regardless, the playoffs should serve up their usual bits of drama. In the middle of a pandemic, contesting MLS Cup will be the biggest victory of all. – Jeff Carlisle
OUR PICK: New England 2-0 Montreal
Few coaches in MLS garner the headlines like Bruce Arena and Thierry Henry. That their teams finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in the Eastern Conference will come as a disappointment to both men, not to mention the owners who’ve invested significantly in their ability to build a team capable of contending.
After Henry’s Impact beat the Revs on the opening day of the season, Arena got the better of his counterpart in the ensuing three matches between the sides. With Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou both returning to fitness for New England, Henry will need to find a way to get destroyer Victor Wanyama some help in patrolling the midfield and protecting a back line from a fluid and versatile Revs attack. – Austin Lindberg
OUR PICK: Nashville 1-0 Inter Miami
The last time two expansion clubs qualified for the playoffs in their inaugural season was 1998, when the Miami Fusion were knocked out in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Chicago Fire FC won MLS Cup. Before the 2020 campaign, few would’ve predicted that both Nashville and Miami to reach the postseason; fewer still would’ve imagined David Beckham’s outfit on South Beach being the underdogs of the two.
Neither team is all that prolific going forward, despite Miami’s star power in the attack, but Nashville’s defense has been stout down the stretch, averaging 0.88 goals against in its past 17 games. While Gonzalo Higuain has largely been kept quiet since moving to MLS in September, scoring just once in eight games, Walker Zimmerman will be tested in organizing a back line that will need to account for the former Juventus star as well as fellow Designated Player Rodolfo Pizarro. – Austin Lindberg
Round One: Orlando City SC vs. New York City FC | Saturday, 12 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Orlando 1-2 NYCFC
Another meeting of expansion cousins in the East, but while NYCFC has been here before — every season since 2016 — this is the first time Orlando has qualified for the playoffs.
The emergence of Daryl Dike and the maturation of Chris Mueller alongside captain Nani has formed an attacking triumvirate capable of creating opportunities from tight interplay, balls in behind and crosses from the wings. They’ll test a sturdy Bronx back line of James Sands, Alexander Callens, Maxime Chanot and Anton Tinnerholm.
At the opposite end of the pitch, 2020 has been hit or miss for NYCFC. With Heber lost to a torn ACL and Alexandru Mitrita loaned to Al-Ahli, the Cityzens have relied on Maximiliano Moralez, Jesus Medina and Valentin Castellanos to provide the goals, which they can do from just about anywhere. No. 6 Oriol Rosell will be tasked with tracking Moralez in particular as he floats between the lines, while full-backs Joao Moutinho and Ruan will need to keep Medina and Castellanos from creating chances from wide. – Austin Lindberg
OUR PICK: Columbus 2-0 Red Bulls
Things were different the last time these two met. It was in the MLS is Back bubble in Orlando, for starters, the Crew were the toast of the league and Chris Armas was in charge of the Red Bulls.
Results haven’t markedly improved under interim boss Bradley Carnell at Red Bull Arena after the club parted ways with Armas, but they stabilized enough to reach the postseason for the 11th consecutive season. Things are quite a bit different in Ohio, though, where Columbus won just three of its last 10 games to close the campaign.
If Jonathan Mensah can return to the form of the first half of the season, when the Crew were allowing just 0.25 goals per game, they should be able to keep the Red Bulls at arm’s length. If he’s the player who appeared in the second half of the season, when that goals-per-game figure ballooned to 1.6, then don’t count out an unsatisfying end to Caleb Porter’s second season in charge. – Austin Lindberg
Sporting Kansas City vs. San Jose Earthquakes | Sunday, 4 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Sporting KC 2-1 San Jose
This isn’t your typical No.-1-vs.-No.-8 matchup. To be clear, Sporting Kansas City certainly fits the bill as a No. 1 seed. They’ve been the most consistent team in the Western Conference over the course of a trying season. SKC’s attack has been varied, but the availability of forward Alan Pulido makes a massive difference given his ability to link up with teammates. Combined with the winger Johnny Russell’s ability to cut inside, as well as Gadi Kinda’s runs out of central midfield, Kansas City has more than enough attacking thrust to hurt teams. Defensively SKC has become more solid over the course of the season, with center-back Roberto Puncec a steady presence.
What makes this game intriguing is down to the Quakes. You just don’t know which San Jose side is going to show up on a given day. Will it be the chaotic, ball-hawking team that passes teams into oblivion? Or will it be the defensively fragile side that concedes soft goals? San Jose has shown comeback ability this season, but will need to be defensively sharp — especially on set pieces — to grab a win. The ageless Chris Wondolowski remains a feel-good story, even as he announced he’ll return for one more season.
One item to watch for: Kansas City averaged the most set-piece goals per game (0.56) among playoff teams, while San Jose allowed the most (0.55). – Jeff Carlisle
OUR PICK: Minnesota 2-1 Colorado
The Loons benefited as much as any team from the league’s decision to use charter flights to bring back players from international duty. At one point, Minnesota thought it would be down four starters. Now it looks like Jan Gregus, Kei Kamara, Romaine Metanire and Robin Lod will all return in time. Combined with Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino, the Loons’ attack should be in full force. You can also bet that Kamara will be plenty motivated against his (most recent) old club.
The Rapids finished the season with three straight wins after a COVID-19 outbreak sidelined them for a month, and if you had to pick a sleeper team in the West, Colorado might be it. Robin Fraser & Co. are plenty adept at set pieces thanks to the service of Jack Price, averaging the second-most set-piece goals per game behind Kansas City, although Minnesota has been strong in defending them. Cole Bassett has emerged as an attacking option in the center of midfield, with Price and Kellyn Acosta covering his back. – Jeff Carlisle
OUR PICK: Portland 3-1 FC Dallas
Portland’s win at the MLS is Back Tournament seems eons ago, but it will give the Timbers confidence that they can prevail in a knockout-style tournament. Portland’s attack has been excellent this season, with its 46 goals second only to LAFC’s 47. While forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda is sidelined with a torn ACL, the Timbers boast a balanced attack led by club legend Diego Valeri. Yimmi Chara found his form in the latter months of the season, tallying four goals and adding seven assists since Sept. 16. Brother Diego Chara remains the team’s defensive foundation, although Portland has shown a penchant for giving up late goals.
Defense has carried FCD for most of the season, with the central defensive tandem of Matt Hedges and Matheus Bressan proving as adept in preventing attacks as starting them. Where this team confounds is on the offensive end, where there seems to be precious little in the way of consistency, especially in terms of finishing — the team has averaged 1.27 goals per game compared to an expected goals per game of 1.64. Of late Ryan Hollingshead and Brian Reynolds have been Dallas’ best chance creators, which is good news and bad news. Overall, the attack is going to have to overperform in order to prevail against the Timbers. – Jeff Carlisle
OUR PICK: Seattle 3-2 LAFC
This match is notable for who won’t be there as much as who will be. The recent international window saw three LAFC players — Diego Palacios, Jose Cifuentes and Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi — all test positive for COVID-19.
The loss of Rossi in particular is a massive blow. Yet hope persists in the form of Carlos Vela, who seems to be fitter at this point than at any other time this season. Bradley Wright-Phillips has proved an astute pickup with eight goals and six assists. They’ll need to be at their peak given the inconsistency shown by LAFC’s defense, especially in transition, though he recent acquisition Jesus David Murillo has helped.
Seattle looked short of its best down the stretch, going 2-2-3 in its last seven matches. A 4-1 final-day win against San Jose hinted that things were coming together. But Seattle’s edge is in its attack, where Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and forward Raul Ruidiaz have proved potent over the season, combining for 29 goals and 22 assists. – Jeff Carlisle