meeighteen teams, 17 games, 23 days. What promises to be Major League Soccer’s most unpredictable playoffs in the 25-year history of America’s top division begins Friday night with a couple of games before the first round this weekend proper. Here’s an idea of what to expect.
The best team to miss the playoffs
Chicago fire. A bit of a misleading question, as there is a record 18 clubs in this tournament, four more than have qualified for a postseason that was bloated to begin with, with eight from the Western Conference and 10 from the Eastern, not complying. the standards. If David Beckham’s freshman Inter Miami was good enough to make the cut with just 24 points from 23 games, then it’s hard to garner too much sympathy for the clubs that made even less. Still, an honorable mention here for Chicago, which was expected to end a two-year playoff drought in its first season with head coach Raphael Wicky and sports director Georg Heitz.
Senior team at risk of leaving early
Seattle Sounders. The defending MLS Cup champions have a pair of MVP candidates in Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro. But a devil of a draw finds the second-seeded Sounders stuck in the same quarter with three of the other best teams in the conference. Even reaching the West final will require getting through a couple of one-off matches against a revitalized LAFC (see below) and the Portland Timbers-FC Dallas winner.
Dark horse to win
Los Angeles FC. The talent-rich side of Bob Bradley, plagued by injuries for most of the season, is a record-only dark horse. Yes, the No. 7 seed will not feature Diego Palacios, José Cifuentes and golden boot winner Diego Rossi, each of whom tested positive for Covid-19 during the recent international window. But star playmaker Carlos Vela is in shape – the mexico international scored against Portland in his first start since returning, while midfielder Eduard Atuesta has regained form. The key could be Jesús David Murillo, a late-season acquisition on loan from Independiente Medellín, who helped shore up an uneven defense.
Player to watch
Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City. The Mexican forward will not be in the MVP discussion after missing half the season through injury and international duty. But Sporting KC won eight, lost two and drew one in the 11 games it started (with Pulido scoring six goals and five assists in those games). He shows up about week to week with a sprained left knee and could miss Sunday’s first round against the San Jose Earthquakes, but he will surely make his presence felt late in the tournament.
Will this year’s MLS Cup winner have an asterisk?
It depends. As in other sports, the coronavirus pandemic has made it look like no other for a year. The compressed regular season has prevented clubs from rolling out their preferred starting lineups each time they finish, while regional schedules have created a competitive imbalance. Then there’s the playoff format itself – last year’s switch to single-elimination competition was enacted to reward top-ranked teams by putting more emphasis on home field advantage, but a lack of supporters in most places could have a reverse effect in this day and age. Ultimately, the answer will depend on which team lifts the trophy. Big winners like Philadelphia, Toronto, Sporting KC or Seattle will have gone through a season of unprecedented challenges both on and off the court. But if a Montreal Impact or Inter Miami catches fire and takes the trophy, it’s a different conversation.
End of the Eastern Conference
Philadelphia Union over Toronto FC. The climax of Philadelphia’s eight-game undefeated streak to close the season was a 5-0 destruction of Toronto at Subaru Park behind a Sergio Santos hat trick. Yes, Greg Vanney’s injured club hit took several men down, including designated players Jozy Altidore and Pablo Piatti, but it was the kind of wire-to-wire beating in a yardstick match Union fans have been waiting for. during years. It was no accident. Expect more of the same when the clubs race again in the Eastern Final.
Western Conference Final
Sporting Kansas City over Los Angeles FC. No team will benefit from a more favorable draw than Peter Vermes, who has a pretty clear path to the West final with San Jose in the first round and the Minnesota United-Colorado Rapids winner in the second. That should give them the advantage against any team coming out of the death room. From there, the offensive verve of Pulido, Johnny Russell and Gadi Kinda (along with home-field advantage) should be enough for the No. 1 seed to reach his first MLS Cup final since 2013.
MLS Cup Final
Philadelphia Union over Sporting Kansas City. The Union, long home to the last class in a league of rich and poor, surprised almost everyone by finishing with the best record in MLS despite having one of the lowest budgets. Head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright have taken no shortcuts to build a genuine contender from an inspired mix of their excellent academy graduates (Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie), successful draft picks (Andre Blake, Jack Elliott and Ray Gaddis), sagacious free agent signings (Brujo Martinez, Kacper Przybyłko and Kai Wagner) and cost-conscious designated players (Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro). Throughout the year they have proven that they are more than the sum of their parts and will continue to serve them until the finish line. Look to the Union to fire Sporting KC (and come the acid memory of the 2015 United States Open Cup Final) to become the second Supporters’ Shield winner in nine years to lift the MLS Cup.
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