It’s time to get ready for the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. With a maximum of twenty-three matches played for each team, and a record high eighteen teams qualifying for the playoffs (or play-in round), it could very well be the most unpredictable post-season in MLS history.
At the bottom end of the pecking order, you have MLS newcomers, Inter Miami, who in their inaugural season managed to sneak into the final play-in spot (10th in the East) on just 24 points in 23 matches played. Although their regular season record is not that impressive, some of the names on the roster certainly are, with Blaise Matuidi, Gonzalo Higuaín and Rodolfo Pizarro making for an unpredictable three-headed monster. This is a team even top-seeds would probably rather avoid if possible.
On the other end of the spectrum you have the Supporters Shield winning Philadelphia Union, whose eight game unbeaten run to finish the season has them flying high as they enter the MLS Playoffs as a clear favourite. Rather than pure star power, the Union have relied on impeccable roster construction, good coaching, and an MLS SuperDraft success story in Andre Blake (former 1st overall pick), who just picked up his second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.
In the West, it’s a bit harder to pick favourites. Perennial contenders, Seattle, Kansas City and Portland, distinguished themselves once again at the top of the standings: all finishing in a tie for 1st (before tiebreakers) at 39 points a piece. Even with those teams in mind though, there are some sneaky-good teams lying in wait further down the standings, as LAFC, FC Dallas, San Jose, and Colorado have all shown encouraging signs this season, despite lacking the consistency of those top three.
With the overall stage set, let’s take a look at the first round of matchups.
East Play-In: #8 New England Revolution vs. #9 Montreal Impact - Friday, November 20 at 6:30 PM ET
Montreal was never really able to recover from a lacklustre Canadian series of matches late in the summer. When you couple that with possible international absences and the suspension of Samuel Piette, things look pretty bleak for MTL.
That being said, New England hasn’t been a whole lot better recently. The Revs have found it difficult to field a consistent XI this year, but a couple weeks off should help them reset for a playoff run.
Ultimately, this one could come down to the top strikers, with an individual moment of brilliance from Gustavo Bou or Romell Quioto.
Prediction: 1-0 New England
East Play-In: #7 Nashville SC vs. #10 Inter Miami - Friday, November 20 at 9 PM ET
It’s the battle of expansion teams. These two have taken very different approaches in terms of play style, and in a one-off matchup, I always tend to side with the better defensive team.
Nashville’s defensive spine, featuring standout goalkeeper Joe Willis and top centreback Walker Zimmerman, has made Nashville an imposing defensive team, although their 24 goals for, the lowest of any playoff team, could always come back to bite them.
Inter will be just one or two moments away from breaking this match wide open, but they’ll have to capitalize on those chances.
Prediction: 1-0 Nashville
Round One: #4 Orlando City vs. #5 NYCFC - Saturday, November 21 at 12:00 PM ET
These two teams both faced massive culture changes this season, and both have come out on the other side looking all the better for it. While Orlando’s success at MLS is Back put them on the map, NYCFC’s marauding late season run of form (just three losses in their final seventeen matches) put the rest of the East on notice.
NYCFC’s Taty Castellanos and Jesus Medina have combined for seven goals over the past four matches, so unless New York has a complete breakdown defensively (which has happened from time to time) I’m riding with the hot hand.
Prediction: 4-2 NYCFC
Round One: #3 Columbus Crew vs. #6 New York Red Bulls - Saturday, November 21 at 3:00 PM ET
The only thing holding Columbus back this season has been injuries, while the Red Bulls’ biggest enemy has likely been themselves. Although New York finished the season strong (winning two of their last three), they are dealing with a coaching carousel that has been a massive distraction. Chris Armas was relieved of his duties in early September, and although the club has signed Gerhard Struber as his replacement, he has yet to join the club.
Columbus, meanwhile, has quietly put in a very solid season under Caleb Porter. They had a poor mid-season run when many of their top players were absent, but with a healthier roster, the Crew could be a force to be reckoned with in these playoffs.
Columbus has a standout player at every position: Eloy Room brings Columbus confidence in between the sticks, Jonathan Mensah is an underrated defender, playmaker Lucas Zelarayan was the MLS Newcomer of the Year, and Gyasi Zardes is finally looking back at full fitness.
Prediction: 3-0 Columbus
Round One: #1 Sporting KC vs. #8 San Jose Earthquakes - Sunday, November 22 at 4:00 PM ET
It was a comeback year for top-seeded SKC, while the Quakes might be the most unpredictable team in all of MLS. Matias Almeyda’s boom-or-bust style has been a bit toned down this season, but Chris Wondolowski is still lurking in the shadows ready to score goals, and their man marking approach can lead to costly individual errors for opponents. JT Marcinkowski has solidified the Quakes in goal (a welcome sight), but defensively San Jose is still often just a moment away from disaster.
Kansas City, on the other hand, is one of the best-drilled teams in MLS and Peter Vermes has seen it all before. Despite Wondo’s MLS records, Alan Pulido will likely be the most dangerous man on the pitch this weekend, and I’d expect SKC to maintain their impressive home record against San Jose, as the hosts are 7-1-1 all time against the Quakes at Children’s Mercy.
Prediction: 3-1 Sporting KC
Round One: #4 Minnesota United vs. #5 Colorado Rapids - Sunday, November 22 at 7:30 PM ET
It’s the Kei Kamara revenge match. The former Rapid will be looking to show Colorado just what they are missing on Sunday, as he and the Loons take on the team with the fewest matches played in MLS this season.
The Rapids are coming off three consecutive wins, but overall their season has been a mess, from a poor showing at MLS is Back, to a seven-game winless run, to very serious COVID issues.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has been a quiet contender in the West. Kevin Molino and Robin Lod do the majority of the goal scoring for the Loons, so it will be Lalas Abubakar’s job to shut them down. Hopefully the Ghanaian can avoid his fate from the last matchup between these two sides, where he deflected the late game-winner into his own goal.
it’s almost impossible to predict what kind of performance the Rapids will bring, but I have a sneaky feeling this could be an upset waiting to happen.
Prediction: 4-3 Colorado
Round One: #3 Portland Timbers vs. #6 FC Dallas - Sunday, November 22 at 10:00 PM ET
The MLS is Back Champions are a frustrating team to watch at times. They obviously have the quality in attack, even without Sebastian Blanco, but they also often refuse to hold possession and are error prone defensively. Despite their faults, they finished tied atop the West and are only seeded third based on tie-breakers.
FC Dallas notably sat out of MLS is back, and have lost a few of their familiar faces to greener pastures this year, in Reggie Cannon & Zdenek Ondrasek. Despite this though, Dallas continues to churn impressive squad depth out of their academy. Losing Paxton Pomykal was a serious blow for the Toros, but newcomer Andrés Ricaurte has picked up the slack, linking the play to Dallas’ dynamic strikers. Franco Jara has been the main danger man for Dallas, but 17-year old Ricardo Pepi, who saw the last two starts of the regular season, could provide FC Dallas with some additional spark, so keep an eye out for the teenager.
Portland feasted on the weak during the regular season, and their underlying numbers are not flattering. I’m probably not backing Dallas to make a prolonged run at the MLS Cup, but I think they can beat the Timbers in a one-off encounter.
Prediction: 2-0 FC Dallas
What are your expectations and who are you backing as we head into these 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs? Let me know in the comments!