Why every MLS playoff team will (or won’t) win MLS Cup

On Saturday, the MLS Cup Playoffs kick off, ushering in the most exciting part of the season.

14 teams have qualified for the postseason after a grueling 34-match regular season. 12 will play this weekend, with LAFC and Philadelphia Union earning a bye to the conference semifinals. Seeds 2-7 in each conference will face off this weekend, with a pair of games on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. It’s truly the most wonderful time of the year.

Shop MLS Jerseys at MLSStore.com

MLSSoccer.com‘s Matt Doyle has broken his contenders down by tier, and I tend to agree with his ranking. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to list teams in order of their regular season finish, and look at why they will or won’t win MLS Cup. Let’s dive in.

1. Los Angeles FC

1st in West | 21W-4D-9L (67 pts) | +28 GD | +25.81 xGD

Why they’ll win

Simply put, LAFC can out-talent anyone in MLS. The amount of elite attacking options on their roster is staggering and unprecedented in MLS. Gareth Bale, Cristian Tello, José Cifuentes, Kwadwo Opoku… all four were on their bench last weekend.

While Carlos Vela has slowed down since 2019, when he put together the best individual season in league history, he’s still one of the top players around the league. Add to that Chicho Arango and new DP signing Denis Bouanga, and LAFC are simply lethel. That’s not even factoring their midfield and attacking fullbacks. Oh, yeah, they also finally have a good goalkeeper and some guy named Giorgio Chiellini playing center back…

Why they won’t win

While they have talent oozing from every roster spot, it hasn’t always produced. Gareth Bale still has just two goals, and has never looked like the biggest signing in league history he was billed as. They were absolutely dominant over the summer, but they’ve lost some questionable results down the stretch, proving that they’re not unbeatable by virtue of walking onto a pitch.

They’re the favorites out of the West, and rightfully so, but for a team that has shown cracks late in the season, a first-round bye maybe isn’t the blessing it’s hyped up to be.

2. Philadelphia Union

1st in East | 19W-10D-5L (67 pts) | +46 GD | +21.46 xGD

Why they’ll win

If they win MLS Cup, it’s because they’re the best and most cohesive team in the league. Jim Curtin’s project continues to level up. In 2022, they put together the best defense since the league switched to a 34-game schedule. Their 0.76 goals per game is the second-best mark in league history. Their +46 goal difference is also second-best ever.

Daniel Gazdag burst onto the scene in 2022. Playing at the tip of a midfield diamond, he notched a casual 22 goals and 10 assists this year. And with two strikers in Mikael Uhre and Julian Caranza, each with over 10 goals this season, they finally have a forward pairing that is more than passable. This team isn’t just good. They’re one of the best teams this league has seen.

Oh, yeah, and they’ll play at home all the way. They haven’t dropped points at Subaru Park since June 18. They scored 40 goals in the ensuing six games and allowed just five. That seems pretty good.

Why they won’t win

I’ll be honest. It’s hard to think of a compelling reason why they won’t win, other than the inherent chaos that is the MLS Cup Playoffs. There’s not a clear weakness on this team. If they get eliminated, count on the Union having a slow day, plus a season-best performance from whoever takes them down.

3. CF Montréal

2nd in East | 20W-5D-9L (65 pts) | +13 GD | +15.65 xGD

Why they’ll win

Wilfried Nancy has this team performing well above the sum of their parts. He was my pick for coach of the year, and the fact that his side have been so dominant with just a single Designated Player (Victor Wynyama, a holding midfielder) is truly remarkable. Montréal have been one of the stories of the season, finishing just two points behind Philadelphia and LAFC, with more wins than the former.

They’re defensively solid out of their back three system. Alistair Johnston has taken several steps forward from his time in Nashville, and was arguably the best right back in MLS this season. Djordje Mihailović is one of the league’s elite playmakers, and was in the MVP conversation before his mid-season injury.

Nancy has found production in the final third from Mihailović, Romel Quioto and Kei Kamara, and with a strong defense behind them, this side is elite.

Why they won’t win

Montréal are another really strong side, and again, it’s hard to think of compelling weaknesses. They’ve struggled with injuries; Quioto hasn’t played since the international break, and Mihailović hasn’t been the same since his injury. Without those two, there’s not an attacker who can necessarily take over a game and drag the team to a result.

Perhaps the biggest concern is that the path to MLS Cup likely runs through Philadelphia, who look like the only side in the East that are ahead of the Impact.

4. Austin FC

2nd in West | 16W-8D-10L (56 pts) | +16 GD | -6.43 xGD

Why they’ll win

In-form, Austin are one of the most exciting sides in MLS. They’re committed to breaking teams down with the ball, they have vertical threats all over the place, one of the best pressing forwards in MLS, a midfield that can create chances from possession and in transition. They also have Sebastián Driussi, the joint second-top scorer in MLS and an MVP favorite for the first part of the season.

Most of all, they’ll be playing at home in front of one of the best atmospheres in the league. Q2 Stadium sold out for their first playoff match in just six minutes, before the date or opponent was even announced. Playing at home in every match except for a potential conference final against LAFC will be a significant advantage.

Why they won’t win

The underlying metrics haven’t loved Austin all year. They overperformed their xG heavily to start the year, and the warning signs proved true when they tailed off heavily down the stretch. I don’t necessarily want to call them frauds, so I’ll let Kieran do it for me.

They’re a really good side. Don’t get me wrong. But the numbers they were pulling in the first half of the season weren’t sustainable, and the second half of the year proved it. They’ve come back to reality a bit, and while reality is still a good place for them to be, they’re not the juggernauts they seemed to be at first.

5. New York City FC

3rd in East | 16W-7D-11L (55 pts) | +16 GD | +18.81 xGD

Why they’ll win

Like Austin, NYCFC’s place in the table is largely because of their performances early in the season. Prior to Taty Castellanos’s departure, they were one of the elite sides in the league, and their underlying metrics backed that up. Before Castellanos left, NYCFC had the best xG difference in MLS. Only LAFC and Austin scored more per match.

Even with Castellanos gone, the roster is largely the same one that won MLS Cup in 2021. Keaton Parks is back in midfield after yet another blood clot in his leg, as are Maxime Chanot, Sean Johnson and Maxi Morales. Anton Tinnerholm is back healthy, even if his minutes have been limited since his August return.

Talles Magno has broken out across the last half of the season, playing sometimes as a winger and sometimes as a striker. He’s one of the most exciting attacking talents in MLS, and he’s just 20 years old.

Why they won’t win

Magno hobbled off injured in NYCFC’s Decision Day win over Atlanta with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. Their ceiling is significantly lower without him. Tayvon Gray also came off injured, and while he doesn’t have the same impact, they could be without their starting right back.

Since Castellanos left, their xG per match is 19th in MLS. Only New England Revolution and DC United are scoring less per match than the Pigeons. They’re still a talented side, but man… they haven’t been in form for a good three months.

Plus, they’ll be playing at Citi Field.

6. New York Red Bulls

4th in East | 15W-8D-11L (53 pts) | +9 GD | +9.4 xGD

Why they’ll win

When the Red Bulls can play how they want to play, they’re one of the toughest teams in the league to beat. They can press the hell out of you, put your players under constant pressure for 90 minutes, and smash you on set pieces.

Additionally, Red Bull Arena is often cited by players as the best playoff environment in MLS. It’s crazy what having an actual home stadium in New York can do for a team.

Why they won’t win

No team in the playoffs have a less appealing forward situation than the Red Bulls. Patryck Klimala, Tom Barlow and Elias Manoel have combined for just 11 goals in 3,091 minutes. They don’t have a consistent playmaker on the roster, despite spurts from Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas.

They’re still defensively strong, with the sixth-best defensive record in MLS. They can press and are more than comfortable in low-scoring matches, but their attack could be a hurdle too big to overcome.

7. FC Dallas

3rd in West | 14W-9D-11L (53 pts) | +11 GD | -3.69 xGD

Why they’ll win

Dallas have quietly put together the best defense in the West, allowing just 37 goals in 34 matches. They have a pair of US internationals on their frontline; Jesús Ferreira in particular has been impressive, scoring 18 goals after signing an unprecedented deal this offseason, the first homegrown player to become a Designated Player. 20-year-old Argentine youth international Alan Velasco rounds out their attacking trio, one that has combined for 34 goals and 20 assists this season.

They have a clear tactical identity under Nico Estevez, and their starting eleven is able to consistently perform the roles they’re asked to.

Why they won’t win

Velasco is exciting and dynamic, but he’s also streaky and inconsistent. At times it can feel like Ferreira and Arriola are the only two consistently reliable attackers. They’ve overperformed their xG difference all season, and the last couple months of the season has been up and down; a 1-0 win over Philadelphia, followed by a 4-0 loss to Nashville, followed by a draw to Salt Lake and wins over Minnesota and LAFC.

This team is hard to figure out. Maybe that’s a strength. I tend to think it’s not.

8. LA Galaxy

4th in West | 14W-8D-12L (50 pts) | +7 GD | +7.35 xGD

Why they’ll win

The Galaxy play really fun, attractive soccer. They are efficient with the ball, have effective patterns of play, and have difference makers all over the field. 2022 was Chicharito’s best in MLS, scoring 18 and assisting three. Since August, he’s scored 11 goals, willing the Galaxy to a top four finish in the West.

Unlike years past, he hasn’t had to do it all on his own. Gastón Brugman has been one of the best defensive midfielders in the league since his arrival this summer, scoring three goals in his 13 appearances and solidifying the team through the middle.

And of course, Riqui Puig has been one of the best signings in MLS. LA signed the 23-year-old in a huge coup from Barcelona (yes, that Barcelona), and has transformed the club on the field. He’s scored three and assisted four in 13 matches. Pre-Puig, the Galaxy had the 11th-best xG for in MLS. With Puig on the field, they’ve had the fifth-best xG tally.

Just one more stat to illustrate how good Puig has been. He has the second-best Goals Added score of any central midfielder in MLS this season. He played his first game for the Galaxy on August 19. He’s played just 913 minutes.

Why they won’t win

The Galaxy are incredibly vulnerable defensively. No playoff team in the West has allowed more than their 51 goals (1.5 per game), and they never really look comfortable defending a lead. They also have struggled to finish chances this season. Chicharito has become better at this as the season has gone on, but the rest of the attack still struggles.

Douglas Costa hasn’t been the impact signing they needed, with just four goals in 27 appearances. Efraín Álvarez is exciting but inconsistent, and has managed just over 1,300 minutes this year.

And Kévin Cabral… Cabral is the second-worst finisher in MLS, according to American Soccer Analysis‘s G-xG stat. He’s taken 25 shots with an xG of 5.17, and has just one goal. It’s even worse via the eye test, missing high quality chances consistently.

This is a talented team who can play really good soccer. But being vulnerable at one end and wasteful at the other isn’t a great recipe for winning silverware.

9. Nashville SC

5th in West | 13W-11D-10L (50 pts) | +11 GD | +10.99 xGD

Why they’ll win

The easy answer is Hany Mukhtar. The 2022 Golden Boot winner and presumptive Landon Donovan MLS MVP winner has been the most dominant attacker in the league, scoring a league-leading 41 goals and 23 assist in his last two seasons. He can single-handedly carry this team to wins, and has been matchup proof thus far.

While they haven’t been as good defensively as they were in 2021, they’ve still been solid, allowing just 41 goals in the regular season, the fifth-best defense in MLS. Dave Romney and Walker Zimmerman are quite a strong center back pairing, and the arrival of Shaq Moore in the summer has given them much more two-way punch on the right.

Most importantly, they’re great on the road. Their 26 points away from home are tied with LAFC for the most in the Western Conference. There’s a good argument that they’re more suited to playing on the road, with Mukhtar at his best on the break and a pair of midfielders in Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy who can punish you in transition. Strong defending, scoring from set pieces, and killing you on the break is always a good strategy for knockout games.

Why they won’t win

Outside of Mukhtar, they have… not a lot. C.J. Sapong, the presumptive starter at striker, hasn’t scored a goal since May 28. Teal Bunbury has been effective when healthy, but doesn’t have the same chemistry with Mukhtar that Sapong does.

After a slow start at home, they somehow clawed themselves back into position to host playoff games, and then coughed that away with a horrific loss to Houston Dynamo. Frustrating as that is for fans, they’ve been better on the road anyway. But they’ll either need Mukhtar to be at his very best, or they’ll need help from other attackers. They’ve been able to count on the former all season. The latter is their biggest weakness.

10. FC Cincinnati

5th in East | 12W-13D-9L (49 pts) | +8 GD | +9.70 xGD

Why they’ll win

I mean, what a story that would be, right? From three straight Wooden Spoons (technically, no spoon was awarded in 2020 by the powers that be, but who’s counting) to a playoff berth, a gorgeous stadium, a competent staff and one of the most dynamic attacks in MLS… things are better than ever in Cincinnati.

Brenner and Brandon Vázquez aren’t just the best forward duo in MLS this season; they’re one of the best ever.

With Lucho Acosta and his league-leading 19 assists behind them, this is one of the best attacks in the league. They’ve scored an insane 64 goals, the third-mist in MLS. They’re one of the most fun teams to watch in the league, which is just a wild thing to type after the last three years.

Why they won’t win

Perhaps the reason they’ve scored so much is because they’ve had to? While they’ve scored 64, they’ve allowed 56, the sixth-most in the league. They’ve won a lot of shootouts. That makes for entertaining matches, not necessarily playoff success.

They also have a bad habit of letting teams back into matches who should be dead an buried. In the playoffs, they could go on a tear, or they could lose 5-4 in their first game. It will be fun to watch either way.

Just a quick aside: Brandon Vázquez has been the best American forward in the USMNT pool this season. The fact that he never even got a look in a camp is criminally negligent from Gregg Berhalter and his staff, and at this point he seems all but set to miss the World Cup.

It’s a shame, both because the U.S. need a goal-scoring forward, and also because if Mexico get smart, they’ll bring him to Qatar instead.

11. Minnesota United

6th in West | 14W-6D-14L (48 pts) | -3 GD | +2.01 xGD

Why they’ll win

Emanuel Reynoso is probably the best pure playmaker in MLS. He can change the game with a single pass or shot. He doesn’t so much see space as he instinctively senses it, and he is adept at picking out the runs of his teammate. He’s been Minnesota’s lifeline for most of the year, and will have to be if they’re to do anything in the playoffs.

Dayne St. Clair is one of the best shot stoppers in MLS, and they have some reliable, if unspectacular pieces, like veteran midfielder Wil Trapp, defender Michael Boxall and forward Franco Fragapane. Utility man Robin Lod is the best player on the team at like three different positions, and midfielder Jonathan González can be a game changer once he finds his footing in MLS.

Why they won’t win

One of the hottest teams in MLS through the summer, they’ve been a shell of themselves since center back Bakaye Dibassi went down with a season-ending injury. They’ve looked incredibly, scarily vulnerable defensively; they’ve won just one game without him, and been outscored 14-4 in that stretch.

Reynoso is good. Really good. But it’s a lot to ask him to cover up all the defensive issues this team has had since August, and against the elite sides they’ll be facing, it’s probably too much.

12. Inter Miami CF

6th in East | 14W-6D-14L (48 pts) | -9 GD | -3.75 xGD

Why they’ll win

Head coach Phil Neville was almost my pick for coach of the year. It’s hard to overstate just how stunning it is that Miami are even in the postseason with the sanctions and penalties they’ve had to overcome (they’re not victims, to be clear – they broke roster rules and were punished).

Forward Gonzalo Higuaín has been absolutely resurgent in what will be his final season. He’s retiring once the year is over, but he’s not going out quietly. In six matches since the start of September, he’s scored six goals. Add to that Leo Campana’s 11 goals, a big impact from DeAndre Yedlin, and a really shrewd trade for 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP winner Alejandro Pozuelo, and this team blew expectations out of the water.

Why they won’t win

Like a ton of the teams on this list, they’ve been good going forward in large part because they have to. Their defensive is quite penetrable, conceding 56 goals, tied with Cincinnati for the most of any playoff team. They’ve been hard to beat at times, but they have never been hard to score against. Going on the road against a strong attacking team like NYCFC is a lot to ask of anyone, and it’s hard to picture a world in which their backline isn’t exploited.

13. Orlando City

7th in East | 14W-6D-14L (48 pts) | -9 GD | -6.65 xGD

Why they’ll win

Óscar Pareja is a great coach. Facundo Torres is a high-end destroyer in midfield who can also play a line-breaking pass. Pedro Gallese can stand on his head and win games.

Why they won’t win

For starters, Robin Jansson is hurt, and he’s their best center back. Alexandre Pato is also hurt, and he was a valuable-if-inconsistent attacker on a team that doesn’t have all that many high-end attackers. They’ve scored the eighth-fewest goals in all of MLS, which isn’t nearly enough to cover for conceding the 11th-most.

Orlando scraped into the playoffs, and it honestly seems like they put everything into winning U.S. Open Cup. That’s not the worst choice a team has made, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot left for the playoffs.

14. Real Salt Lake

7th in West | 12W-11D-11L (47 pts) | -2 GD | -0.73 xGD

Why they’ll win

If games were won on xDawg, Real Salt Lake would’ve taken home MLS Cup in April. Under Pablo Mastroeni, this team plays with unreal commitment, belying any roster deficiencies they have.

They don’t have much in the way of attacking talent or production. In fact, their 43 goals scored are the fewest of any playoff team. But they’ve somehow been able to keep games close, and conceded just 45 all year. This didn’t seem like a team that could do anything last year, and then they beat Seattle in Round One without taking a shot. Surely they can’t do it again… can they?

Why they won’t win

xDawg isn’t enough to win against elite teams. They don’t make many mistakes, but they struggle to create much for themselves against a good defense. Playing against a very dangerous Austin FC in front of a roaring Q2 Stadium is a daunting task for any team, and while they probably won’t back down, it’s a big ask for a group that have punched above their weight all season.

Crazier things have happened, but don’t bet on it.

Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs kicks off on Saturday. Here’s how you can watch.

New York Red Bulls vs FC Cincinnati

Saturday, October 15 | 11:00 am CT | UniMás, TUDN, MLSSoccer.com

LA Galaxy vs Nashville SC

Saturday, October 15 | 2:00 pm CT | Univision, TUDN, MLSSoccer.com

Austin FC vs Real Salt Lake

Sunday, October 16 | 2:00 pm CT | ABC, ESPN Deportes

CF Montreál vs Orlando City

Saturday, October 15 | 7:00 pm CT | ESPN, ESPN Deportes

New York City FC vs Inter Miami CF

Monday, October 17 | 6:00 pm CT | FS1, FOX Deportes

FC Dallas vs Minnesota United

Monday, October 17 | 8:30 pm CT | FS1, FOX Deportes

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

Leave a Reply