Football Features

MLS Cup play-offs: Predictions, fixtures & key dates as LAFC aim to justify favourites tag

By Chris Smith

MLS play-offs preview

Published: 15:34, 15 October 2019

At long last, the regular season is over and we’ve reached the 2019 MLS Cup play-offs.

This year brings a new format, with 14 teams now battling out for a place in November’s MLS Cup showdown in single-elimination matches, which means two-legged affairs are now a thing of the past.

Many of the 14 teams will have their eyes firmly set on November 10th’s showdown, while for others, just reaching the play-offs at all is an achievement in itself.

But who are the favourites? And what about the dark horses?

Read on for our full 2019 MLS Cup play-offs lowdown as we breakdown the chances of each team taking part.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Football Club

Regular season finish: 1st and Supporters’ Shield winners

Even in recent years with 2018 Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls, and 2017 Toronto FC, there have been some incredible team efforts in MLS. None match up to LAFC’s 2019 effort.

Bob Bradley has transformed these 2018 play-off flops into a relentless winning machine, playing some of the most attractive, expansive football ever seen in North America and scooping up the single-season MLS points record (72) along the way. As a result of finishing first in the West, they receive a bye into the next round.

Of course, they’re lead by Carlos Vela, but watch out for their buccaneering full-backs, the dynamic partnerships between Eduard Atuesta, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Lee Nguyen in midfield, and the direct pace and trickery of Diego Rossi. They can hurt you all over the pitch and are quite rightly the massive favourites.

Player to watch: LAFC have quality all over the pitch but none of their achievements so far would have been possible without Vela, whose ‘Decision Day’ hat-trick made him the first-ever player to score 32 goals in a single MLS regular season.

Carlos Vela - 2019 - MLS Regular Season - LAFC

Seattle Sounders

Regular season finish: 2nd

The Sounders have generally been good value for second-place in the West having played some expansive football throughout the regular season.

The likes of Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam are great at getting forward from full-back positions, although it does leave them quite susceptible on the break. However, players such as Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz add a ton of individual quality to their side in forward areas.

Drawing FC Dallas in the first round may seem like an easy draw, but the Texan side have taken four points from the Sounders already during the regular season. Brian Schmetzer’s side will have to be guarded and professional if they are to progress.

Player to watch: Lodeiro made more key passes (86) and provided more assists (7) than any Sounders player during the regular season and really does make the whole side tick.

Real Salt Lake

Regular season finish: 3rd

Lacking the quality of some of the teams around them, RSL shocked many by earning a third-place finish in the West, especially given their managerial controversies this season. Back-to-back wins over strugglers Houston Dynamo and Vancouver Whitecaps certainly helped that happen but, LAFC aside, RSL also conceded the fewest goals of any side in the Western Conference.

They will have to call upon that defensive solidity as they host Portland Timbers in the first round. Giovanni Savarese’s men may have struggled to even make the play-offs but, once there, can never be written off and are also incredibly dangerous away from home.

Despite their high regular season ranking, RSL are definitely outsiders.

Player to watch: Jefferson Savarino completed more dribbles (68) and provided more assists (5) than any other RSL player during the regular season.

Minnesota United

Regular season finish: 4th and US Open Cup runners-up

At long last, traditional Western Conference strugglers Minnesota United have finally made the play-offs.

Their move to Allianz Field has done the Loons the world of good and backed by their brilliant “Wonderwall”, they’ve been a joy to watch this season.

Despite actually being well-liked in MLS, Adrian Heath has managed to introduce a siege mentality within his squad which has helped them defy the odds and they may well do so again against LA Galaxy in the first round. Keep an eye on these Western Conference dark horses.

Player to watch: Ike Opara won more aerial duels (78) and made more clearances (155) than any other Minnesota United player during the regular season.

LA Galaxy

Regular season finish: 5th

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores goals, Cristian Pavon is a wonderful addition to the flanks and Jonathan Dos Santos is one of the best central midfielders in MLS but, for one reason or another, LA Galaxy are absolutely terrible.

Their only real achievement so far this season has been taking four points from El Trafico rivals LAFC, while they head into the post-season on a run of just four wins in their last 13 games. Their direct, rudimentary style of play likely won’t cut it on the road at Minnesota, where we could see our first play-off shock of 2019.

Player to watch: Ibrahimovic will obviously get all the attention but if the Galaxy are to make a fist of the play-offs, they will need Pavon to step up, too. The Argentina international has completed more dribbles per 90 minutes (3) and played more key passes per 90 (2.5) than any other Galaxy player in 2019.

Portland Timbers

Regular season finish: 6th

After an initial bounce, Portland Timbers were absolutely terrible during their home stretch at the newly-renovated Providence Park, but just about got the job done with a 3-1 ‘Decision Day’ win over San Jose Earthquakes.

The Timbers head into the play-offs with uncertainty regarding the availability of two of their star players, Brian Fernandez and Diego Valeri, but still have plenty of threat in Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse.

Savarese’s side have been better on the road than at home this season and cannot be discounted in the play-offs – they might just make it past RSL to set up a derby clash with the Sounders.

Player to watch: Sebastian Blanco has more assists (10) this season than any other Timbers player and will be key in the potential absence of Valeri and Fernandez.

FC Dallas

Regular season finish: 7th

FC Dallas may have made it look easy with a 6-0 ‘Decision Day’ win over Sporting Kansas City but that does anything but tell the full story of their regular season.

At times, it looked like ‘Toro’ didn’t even want to make the play-offs but, that said, Luchi Gonzalez deserves huge credit for persisting with his young side’s brave, progressive style of play, while other sides bunkered in to make sure of their post-season qualification.

Despite their good record against them, it’s hard to see Dallas getting past the Sounders, although the likes of Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira will benefit greatly for getting some play-off experience.

Player to watch: Zdenek Ondrasek has more goals per 90 minutes (0.8) than any other FC Dallas player this season and recently opened his international account against England.

Eastern Conference

New York City FC

Regular season finish: 1st

After comfortably sealing top spot in the East, NYCFC get a bye into the second round and really do mean business heading into the post-season.

The Bronx side lost just one of their final 11 regular-season games and, in fact, only LAFC (4) have lost fewer than their six matches throughout 2019.

With the likes of Maxi Moralez, Alexandru Mitrita, Heber and Valentin Castellanos, NYCFC arguably have the most complete attacks in MLS – a lack of play-off experience is their only weakness and could likely be their undoing against a proven Atlanta United side if they both make the Conference Finals.

Player to watch: Moralez has provided more assists (12) than any other NYCFC this season and ranks second throughout MLS.

Atlanta United

Regular season finish: 2nd and US Open Cup & Campeones Cup winners

Despite some early-season struggles transitioning to Frank de Boer’s style of play, the winning machine that is Atlanta United has rolled on once more.

Just as they did in last season’s MLS Cup-winning campaign, they finished the regular season second in the East, but have already sealed US Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles in 2019.

Josef Martinez made an unexpectedly early return from his knee injury on ‘Decision Day’, scoring and assisting in a 3-1 win over New England Revolution – who they will play once again in their first-round match – while the duo of Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco will likely prove deadly weapons in the post-season.

Player to watch: Martinez has scored 87 goals in 96 games for Atlanta United across all competitions since joining the club in 2017.

Philadelphia Union

Regular season finish: 3rd

Picking up results against sides such as LAFC and Atlanta United, Philadelphia Union have really upset the apple cart this season and have been good value for third in the East.

Jim Curtin has built a side composed and commanding in possession, although they do concede an unusually high amount of goals for a side as high in the league as they are.

The Union could hurt the Red Bulls at home in their first-round match but would likely face Atlanta United after that, which is a match-up it’s hard to see them winning. Even if they don’t get that far, it’s been a fantastic season.

Player to watch: Haris Medunjanin has completed more passes (2182) than any other MLS player this season.

Haris Medunjanin = Philadelphia Union - MLSplayer_passing-sonar

Toronto FC

Regular season finish: 4th

The 2017 champions are back in the play-offs and the competition is a much better place for their involvement.

Toronto FC suffered a huge dip in form last season, thanks in part to their run to the 2018 Concacaf Champions League final, but for most of 2019, have looked somewhere closer to their best.

Greg Vanney will be sweating on the fitness of Jozy Altidore but his side are unbeaten in their last 10 matches and host a quite frankly terrible DC United side in their first-round match. It’s a clash they should win at BMO Field.

Player to watch: Alejandro Pozuelo completed the second-highest number of final-third passes (656) in MLS during 2019.

DC United

Regular season finish: 5th

The main question surrounding DC United is “where the hell are the goals going to come from?”

Only FC Cincinnati (31), Vancouver Whitecaps (37) and Columbus Crew (39) scored fewer goals than DC (42) during the regular season, while top scorer Wayne Rooney’s 11th and last goal came way back in July – the former England international has scored just five times from open play in 2019.

Wayne Rooney - DC United - MLS - Open play goals and assists

DC United have kept a league-record five consecutive clean sheets to end the regular season but if they can’t create and score more, they just won’t cut it in the play-offs.

Player to watch: Lucas Rodriguez has completed more dribbles (76) than any other DC United player in 2019.

New York Red Bulls

Regular season finish: 6th

“The good news, guys, is that we love this time of year and everyone’s counting us out. It’s all there for us. We just know that when that whistle blows in a few weeks, it is game on. And for me, that’s the beauty.”

That’s what Red Bulls boss Chris Armas told his players upon returning to training this week. Some team talk, right?

The Red Bulls have never won MLS Cup but have won Supporters’ Shield three times in the last seven years and are always a threat in the play-offs.

It’s taken them some time to adjust to Tyler Adams’ departure to RB Leipzig, while they’ve also had to open up some new avenues further forward as Bradley Wright-Phillips’ injuries and advancing years have finally caught up with him.

However, all over the pitch, there is quality enough to hurt any side in MLS on their day. Perhaps the big challenge will be getting past the Union away from home in their first match.

Player to watch: Daniel Royer has more goals (11) and assists (7) than any other Red Bulls player this season.

New England Revolution

Regular season finish: 7th

After scraping the barrel for most of the first half of the season under Brad Friedel, it’s a miracle that the Revs actually made the play-offs at all. Such is the effect Bruce Arena has had, they’ve now lost just four of their 23 matches in all competitions since he took full control in May.

Arena is steeped in play-off history, winning MLS Cup a record five times throughout his career, and the Revs will need to call upon all their experience if they’re to make a post-season splash in 2019.

They return to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to face their recent ‘Decision Day’ opponents Atlanta United in the first round and the chances are that’s where they will exit the play-offs. That said, the fact that they’re even here is quite simply remarkable and points to an incredibly exciting 2020 ahead.

Player to watch: Carles Gil has more goals (10) and assists (12) and has completed more dribbles (73) than any other Revs player in 2019.

MLS play-off fixtures list and UK kick-off times

Round One

Western Conference

Seattle Sounders vs FC Dallas

Date and kick-off: 19th October, 8.30 PM BST

Real Salt Lake vs Portland Timbers

Date and kick-off: 20th October, 3:00 AM BST

Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy*

Date and kick-off: 21st October, 1:30 AM BST

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United vs New England Revolution

Date and kick-off: 19th October, 6:00 PM BST

Toronto FC vs FC Dallas

Date and kick-off: 19th October, 11:00 PM BST

Philadelphia Union vs New York Red Bulls

Date and kick-off: 20th October, 8:00 PM BST

Conference semi-finals

24-25th October

Conference finals

29-30th October

MLS Cup

Sunday, 10th November, 8:00 PM BST

All MLS Cup play-off matches will be shown live in the UK on Sky Sports Football, while selected games (*) will also be broadcast on Freesports.

MLS Cup play-off predictions

Atlanta United – with their MLS Cup experience – and NYCFC – who have dominated the East – will prove to be extremely tough opposition in the play-offs, while Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers can never be written off, regardless of form.

However, LAFC have dismantled everyone placed before them, motoring through the regular season like a machine. Bradley has built, arguably, the greatest-ever side to watch in MLS history and if they don’t win MLS Cup, it really will be a travesty – but one we don’t see happening.