MLS Cup Playoff preview: Frontrunners, dark horses and a “curse”

The 2020 Major League Soccer regular season is over but for most, that means the action is only just getting started.

Yes, the MLS Cup Playoffs are upon us, bringing with them all the thrills and spills you would expect from knockout football as the USA and Canada’s finest battle it out for the top prize.

2018 winners Atlanta United and five-time champions LA Galaxy will be absent from this year’s post-season having suffered horrendous regular seasons but there is still a ton of quality on show, with some blockbuster ties to look forward to right from the first whistle.

2020 MLS Cup Playoffs format

2019 saw MLS ditch their two-legged Playoff clashes in favour of a single-elimination format and to say the decision ramped up the entertainment would be understating it. We were treated to some incredible games last year, including Seattle Sounders’ 4-3 win over FC Dallas, the extra-time capitulation of Wayne Rooney’s DC United against Toronto FC — losing 5-1 — and that unforgettable 5-3 El Trafico win for LAFC which turned out to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last game for LA Galaxy.

The single-elimination format returns again this year, the only difference being an increase from 14 to 18 teams making the Playoffs. Four Eastern Conference teams will contest a “play-in round”, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami travelling to fellow expansion side Nashville SC and New England Revolution hosting Thierry Henry’s Montreal Impact.

The Playoffs will conclude with the MLS Cup on December 12th.

Graphic via Betway

Who are the Playoff frontrunners?

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Union

MLS clubs have worked hard to rid the league of its “retirement home” status in recent years and few clubs have embodied that better than Philadelphia Union. Jim Curtin has moulded a hugely competitive side built upon homegrown players from the club’s academy, with the fruits of his labour coming to bear this season as the Union won the Supporters’ Shield — their first-ever trophy.

Conceding just 20 goals, the Union were the best defensive outfit in the whole of MLS throughout the regular season and that could prove vital in these winner-takes-all Playoff clashes. One thing Curtin will have to contend with, however, is the “curse” of the Supporters’ Shield, with only three of the last 17 winners going on to lift MLS Cup — although the Union boss isn’t being drawn on superstition.

“Do I believe in curses? No,” he told reporters at a press conference recently. “I believe that consistency, good soccer on the field and the five phases we talk about — with the ball, without the ball, offensive transition, defensive transition and restarts — if you’re solid in those phases, you can do some damage in the playoffs.”

Player to watch: At just 20 years old, Brenden Aaronson has already sealed his move to Europe with RB Salzburg after a season in which the United States international has scored four goals and notched six assists so far.

Toronto FC

Having contested three out of the last four Playoff finals (winning in 2017), you can never discount Toronto FC. They have the experience and, most importantly, they have the sheer talent.

If Alejandro Pozuelo has a dip in form, Argentina international Pablo Piatti can pull the creative strings. If Jozy Altidore picks up an injury, Ayo Akinola stands a very good chance of adding to the 14 goals he’s scored in a superb breakthrough season.

Greg Vanney has all the pieces of the puzzle at his disposal and there’s no doubting he can piece them together for another deep run into the Playoffs.

Player to watch: With nine goals and 10 assists in 23 appearances this season, Alejandro Pozuelo is front and centre in the MVP conversation. The Spaniard holds the key to Canadian success in the 2020 Playoffs.

Western Conference

Seattle Sounders

Defending champions Seattle Sounders are the other team to have played in three of the last four finals, losing to TFC in 2017 but beating the Canadian side in 2016 and last season.

Brian Schmetzer is a supreme tactician, able to adjust brilliantly to opposition demands on a game-to-game basis. Perhaps most importantly, this squad is jam-packed full of winners, with the likes of Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan all veterans of the 2016 and 2019 wins.

The Sounders were inconsistent throughout the regular season, finishing sixth overall, but they always turn it on in the Playoffs.

Player to watch: There is so much to admire about this Seattle team but when it comes to Playoff matches, Raul Ruidiaz is arguably the most important piece. The Peruvian striker notched four goals and three assists in four Playoff games last season and will be Schmetzer’s biggest attacking threat this time around.

Los Angeles FC

After winning the Supporters’ Shield with a record 72 points in 2019, LAFC have regressed a little this time around, only managing a 12th-placed finish overall.

That being said, Bob Bradley has one of the most talented squads in MLS at his disposal and at any given moment, the likes of Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez and Eduard Atuesta can turn it on. But…

Player to watch: Rossi, Rodriguez, Jose Cifuentes and Diego Palacios all look set to miss Round One due to quarantine rules following international duty. With that in mind, 2019 MVP Carlos Vela becomes that much more important. Despite being restricted to just 422 minutes of action in 2020, Vela still managed four goals and an assist in the regular season and will effectively carry the Black and Gold attack against Seattle.

Who are the dark horses?

Columbus Crew

Columbus Crew were something of a disaster in 2019, missing out on the Playoffs entirely, but after an off-season rebuild which saw the likes of Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe join the club, Caleb Porter has turned it around.

Inconsistency saw them drop away in the Supporters’ Shield race but make no mistake, on their day, the Ohio side can pass you to death, hit you with pace out wide or simply bulldoze their way through you in equal measure.

Honourable mentions in the East also go to Orlando City and New York City FC.

Player to watch: Gyasi Zardes will take a lot of the credit this season thanks to his ice-cool finishing but Darlington Nagbe has transformed this side beyond belief since signing from Atlanta United, offering ultimate control and composure in midfield.

Portland Timbers

It feels a little harsh to be leaving out Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City from this section but there’s no way we couldn’t give a mention to the Portland Timbers.

MLS Cup champions in 2015 and runners-up in 2018, Giovanni Savarese’s side have a wealth of experience and pedigree when it comes to the Playoffs, with the likes of Diego Valeri, Jorge Villafaña and Diego Chara well-versed in knockout success.

In fact, just this season, the Timbers won the first-ever ‘MLS is Back’ tournament in Orlando — Major League Soccer’s way of returning to action following the coronavirus shutdown — beating the likes of Orlando City, Philadelphia Union and NYCFC along the way.

Player to watch: With Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda both injured, the role of Diego Valeri as creator-in-chief and main goal threat becomes even bigger. At 34, the former Argentina international is reaching the twilight of his career but still pitched in with eight goals and seven assists during the regular season. Who would bet against him standing up just when the Timbers need him most again?

Predicted MLS Cup winner: Seattle Sounders