The playoffs of the MLS Cup 2020 are just around the corner. The games start this Friday. 18 clubs compete for the chance to get the most valuable cutlery. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle and Austin Lindberg have broken down the biggest storylines for this postseason and analyzed each matchup.
Jump to: Testing Team Depth | The extended field
Matchup Analysis: New England vs. Montreal | Nashville versus Miami | Orlando versus NYCFC | Columbus versus Red Bulls | Sporting versus San Jose | Minnesota versus Colorado | Portland versus Dallas | Seattle versus LAFC
Playoffs put the depth of the teams to the test
Almost every season, the MLS Cup playoffs witness all kinds of chaos. In the past 10 years only two top conference seeds have made it to the MLS Cup. This dynamic continued even when the league switched to a single-game format, with higher seeds being used for each round in 2019.
But 2020 has proven to be a campaign unparalleled in the history of the league. The COVID-19 pandemic and the compressed schedule it created for the regular season have strained teams’ resources until they drop. For some suspected forces – like the LA Galaxy and Atlanta United FC – these stressors went beyond the breaking point and resulted in them not qualifying for the postseason.
For those teams that have qualified, managers must take the depth of their rosters to a higher level in order to be successful. In the past few years, a head coach’s starting line-up was pretty much geared towards the postseason. That’s still true to some extent, but the aforementioned dual challenges of COVID and a tight schedule play a big role.
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A team that reaches the MLS Cup is likely to have the prospect of playing four games in 21 days. At first glance, this pace seems manageable, but the last three games will be played in up to 14 days and in just 12 days. Last season in the MLS Cup, Seattle played its last three games in 19 days. Because of this, managers will face the prospect of switching players – or at least rationing minutes – more than would otherwise be expected in the playoffs. Availability or lack of same day travel could also weigh on players.
The pandemic will already have an impact through no fault of the league. The international window just completed saw three members of the LAFC test positive for COVID-19 while on international service, a group that includes Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. (They along with their teammate Brian Rodriguez, who did not test positive but dated Rossi and Uruguay during the break, will miss the game against Seattle on November 24th.) That is in addition to the 42 players who were about the league Have tested positive test protocol since the end of August.
The majority of them have since recovered and are back on the field, but seven players tested positive in the final week of the regular season, according to the MLS, evidence of the virus’ s ongoing effect on the season.
On the positive side, the managers have been digging deep into their squads for most of this season, especially after the teams have resumed in their home markets, which has given young players valuable experience that would not have been there in a normal season. But the playoffs have their own special pressures, a stress that is seldom repeated during the league campaign. That stress will mean a premium for the right balance between youth and experience, though given the injury error – and the viral one – that is never far away, some managers may have no choice but to throw young players to the Playoff Wolves. Health seems to be even more important than it is in the postseason. – Jeff Carlisle
Will the extended field spring surprise?
Another unique – some would say too generous – aspect of this year’s playoffs will be the expanded field. A total of 18 teams will take part, four more than ever in an MLS postseason. Ten are from the Eastern Conference and eight are from the West.
Could this create the conditions for even more resentment? In a pandemic-ridden season with heavily regionalized schedules, it is difficult to get a feel for the size of the gap between suspected owners and non-owners. In this case, it’s tempting to see which teams ended the regular season the strongest – like New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, and Sporting Kansas City – and favorite them, but there are other factors as well.
Last season MLS chose a single-elimination format. This was done primarily to reward higher-ranking teams and to bring home advantage more to the fore. But with fans limited in most venues and totally banned in others, playing in a home stadium is not as beneficial as it is in a normal postseason.
Regardless, the playoffs should meet their usual dramas. In the middle of a pandemic, the MLS Cup will be the greatest win of all. – Jeff Carlisle
Play-in: New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact | Friday, 6:30 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: New England 2-0 Montreal
Few coaches in MLS make headlines like Bruce Arena and Thierry Henry. Their teams finishing eighth and ninth respectively at the Eastern Conference will disappoint both men, not to mention the owners, who have invested heavily in their ability to build a competitive team.
After Henry’s Impact defeated the Revs on the opening day of the season, Arena prevailed against his opponent in the following three games between his teams. With Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou both fit for New England, Henry must find a way to help destroyer Victor Wanyama patrol midfield and protect a line of defense from a fluid and eclectic Revs attack. – Austin Lindberg
Recording: Nashville SC versus Inter Miami CF | Friday, 9 p.m. ET (live stream on ESPN2)
OUR PICK: Nashville 1-0 Inter Miami
The last time two expansion clubs qualified for the playoffs in their inaugural season was in 1998, when the Miami Fusion were knocked out in the Eastern Conference semi-finals and Chicago Fire FC won the MLS Cup. Before the 2020 campaign, few would have predicted that both Nashville and Miami would hit the postseason. Even less would have imagined David Beckham’s outfit on South Beach as an outsider of the two.
Despite Miami’s star power in attack, neither team is as successful, but Nashville’s defense has been strong averaging 0.88 goals in the last 17 games. While Gonzalo Higuain has remained largely calm since joining MLS in September and has only scored once in eight games, Walker Zimmerman is being tested for organizing a backline that must take into account the former Juventus star and teammate-designate Rodolfo Pizarro. – Austin Lindberg
First round: Orlando City SC versus New York City FC | Saturday, 12 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Orlando 1-2 NYCFC
Another meeting of the expansion cousins in the east, but while NYCFC has been here – every season since 2016 – this is the first time Orlando has qualified for the playoffs.
The appearance of Daryl Dike and the maturation of Chris Mueller alongside Captain Nani have formed an attacking triumvirate that can create opportunities from close teamwork, balls in the back and flanks from the wings. You will be testing a sturdy Bronx backline from James Sands, Alexander Callens, Maxime Chanot and Anton Tinnerholm.
At the other end of the field, 2020 was going to be a hit or miss for NYCFC. After Heber lost to a torn ACL and Alexandru Mitrita was loaned out to Al-Ahli, the Cityzens have relied on Maximiliano Moralez, Jesus Medina and Valentin Castellanos to achieve the goals they can reach from virtually anywhere. No 6 Oriol Rosell in particular will have to go after Moralez as he floats between the lines while full-backs Joao Moutinho and Ruan will have to keep Medina and Castellanos from creating chances from afar. – Austin Lindberg
First round: Columbus Crew SC versus New York Red Bulls | Saturday, 3 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Columbus 2-0 Red Bulls
The last time these two met it was different. It was in the MLS is back bubble in Orlando, with the crew being the league’s toast to start with and Chris Armas in charge of the Red Bulls.
Results haven’t improved noticeably under interim boss Bradley Carnell at the Red Bull Arena after the club split from Armas, but they stabilized enough to make it into the postseason for the eleventh consecutive year. Things are very different in Ohio, however, where Columbus has only won three of its last ten games to end the campaign.
If Jonathan Mensah can get back to the shape of the first half of the season, when the crew only allowed 0.25 goals per game, they should be able to keep the Red Bulls at bay. If he’s the player who appeared in the second half of the season and whose number of goals per game has risen to 1.6, then don’t expect an unsatisfactory end to Caleb Porter’s second responsible season. – Austin Lindberg
Sporting Kansas City versus San Jose Earthquakes | Sunday, 4 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Sporting KC 2-1 San Jose
This is not a typical matchup between # 1 and # 8. To be very clear, Sporting Kansas City is certainly number one. They have been the most consistent team in the Western Conference over a difficult season. SKC’s attack has been different but the availability of striker Alan Pulido makes a huge difference as he can connect with teammates. Combined with winger Johnny Russell’s ability to cut inward and Gadi Kinda’s runs from central midfield, Kansas City has more than enough attack thrust to injure teams. Defensive SKC have become more solid over the season, with center-back Roberto Puncec constantly present.
What makes this game so fascinating are the quakes. They just don’t know which side of San Jose will show up on any given day. Will it be the chaotic Ball Hawking team that teams will be forgotten? Or will it be the defensively fragile side that concedes soft goals? San Jose have shown comeback skills this season but need to be sharp defensively – especially in set pieces – to score a win. The timeless Chris Wondolowski remains a feel-good story even after he announced that he will be returning for another season.
One point to look out for: Kansas City averaged the highest number of hits per game (0.56) among playoff teams, while San Jose let in the most (0.55). – Jeff Carlisle
Minnesota United FC v Colorado Rapids | Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET (live streamed on ESPN)
OUR PICK: Minnesota 2-1 Colorado
The Loons, like any team, benefited from the league’s decision to use charter flights to bring players back from international service. At one point, Minnesota thought it would be four starters. Now Jan Gregus, Kei Kamara, Romaine Metanire and Robin Lod seem to be returning in time. Combined with Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino, the Loons attack should take place in full. You can also bet that Kamara will be very motivated against his (youngest) old club.
Taylor Twellman is joined by Susannah Collins and Matt Doyle from MLSsoccer.com to identify the best goals for 2020.
The Rapids ended the season with three straight wins after a COVID-19 outbreak knocked them out for a month. If you had to pick a sleeper team in the west, it could be Colorado. Robin Fraser & Co. are very adept at set-pieces thanks to Jack Price’s service, who averages the second most set-pieces per game behind Kansas City, even though Minnesota has defended them strongly. Cole Bassett has emerged as an attacking option in midfield, with Price and Kellyn Acosta covering his back. – Jeff Carlisle
Portland Timbers v FC Dallas | Sunday, 10 p.m. ET (live stream on ESPN)
OUR PICK: Portland 3-1 FC Dallas
Portland’s win at the MLS is Back Tournament seems like eons ago, but it will give the Timbers confidence that they can prevail in a knockout tournament. Portland’s attack this season has been excellent, with 46 goals second only to LAFC’s 47th. While striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda is out with a torn ACL, the Timbers have an even attack under the leadership of club legend Diego Valeri. Yimmi Chara found his form in the final months of the season, scoring four goals and adding seven assists since September 16. Brother Diego Chara remains the team’s defensive foundation, though Portland has 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 to be as adept at preventing attacks as they are at launching them. Where this team confuses is at the offensive end, where there seems to be little of consistency, especially when it comes to finishing – the team averaged 1.27 goals per game compared to expected goals per game of 1.64. Lately, Ryan Hollingshead and Brian Reynolds have been Dallas’s top creators, which is good news and bad news. Overall, the attack has to do well above average to prevail against the Timbers. – Jeff Carlisle
Seattle Sounders FC v LAFC | Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET (live streamed on ESPN)
OUR PICK: Seattle 3-2 LAFC
This match is remarkable for who won’t be there as often as who. The most recent international window saw three LAFC players – Diego Palacios, Jose Cifuentes, and Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi – all tested positive for COVID-19.
The loss of Rossi in particular is a major blow. Hope remains in the form of Carlos Vela, however, who appears fitter at this point than any other time this season. Bradley Wright-Phillips has shown himself to be smart with eight goals and six assists. They must be at their peak given the inconsistency shown by the LAFC’s defense, especially in transition, despite the fact that Jesus’ recent takeover helped David Murillo.
Seattle didn’t look good on the track, going 2-2-3 in their last seven games. A 4-1 win over San Jose on the final day indicated things were coming together. But Seattle’s lead lies in its attack, where Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and striker Raul Ruidiaz have shown themselves to be strong throughout the season, scoring 29 goals and 22 assists. – Jeff Carlisle