Everything comes down to this: the absurdly small sample size of a playoff tournament. No mind; the drama is real and if you try to pretend the playoffs don’t matter to you and your club because it isn’t the way they do it Europe, you are just lying to yourself. So let’s embrace the chaos and take a look at every single playoff team, what got them to this point, and why they may be the ones to lift the cup this year.
Regular Season: 1st in the East, 69 points, 20-5-9
Their Season In One Sentence: 2017 was a wildly successful year for Toronto FC, with the club earning both the Canadian Championship and Supporters’ Shield while tying the MLS record for most regular season wins (20) and breaking the 1998 LA Galaxy squad’s record for most regular season points.
Key Players: With 16 goals and 6 assists, Sebastian Giovinco has proven to be a playmaker. His 16th goal secured the draw at Atlanta Sunday, but what makes him dangerous to defenders is he loves to shoot: going into Decision Day he had taken 123 total shots, with more than a third of those (49) on goal. He also led the league with 7 goals from outside the box. His strike partner Jozy Altidore‘s vision for the net makes him tough to defend (at least in a Reds kit). He doesn’t waste a shot, scoring with more than half of his shots on goal (14 in 27 going into Atlanta ). He netted his 15th on Sunday and is poised to get many more for the Reds. Finally, Michael Bradley, like Altidore, enters the playoffs with a chip on his shoulder after that disastrous end to the MNT’s World Cup run. But Bradley has proven a dependable number six for the Reds. He’s quick in transition and typically a strong communicator in orchestrating the midfield.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: The sting of missing the 2018 World Cup will doubtlessly add to Altidore and Bradley’s hunger to take their club to the top. It was a whirlwind season for Toronto and, with strong strikers who show no signs of slowing down, a productive front line will see the Reds add the MLS Cup to their 2017 trophy case.
New York City FC
Regular Season: 2nd in the East, 57 points, 16-9-9
Their Season In One Sentence: Only stringing consecutive wins together three times this season, NYCFC was consistently decent but is cooling at the wrong time.
Key Players: David Villa, the reigning MLS MVP, is the team leader in goals, assists, shots, and shots on goal. He’s had injury concerns as of late and it’s hard to see NYCFC doing much damage in the playoffs if he’s absent. On the other end, goalkeeper Sean Johnson kept seven clean sheets as NYCFC’s defense allowed him to get peppered with 135 shots over the season. His performance will be key to the length of his team’s playoff run.
Why They’ll Lift The Cup: NYCFC players will be motivated to win one last trophy for Andrea Pirlo before he retires from soccer to star in Giorgio Armani fragrance ads. Seriously though, this team can beat anyone in the Western Conference if they can get to the Final.
Regular Season: 3rd in the East, 55 points, 16-11-7
Their Season In One Sentence: If you spend money on good players, your team will play good; Chicago has followed this controversial logical all the way to the playoffs.
Key Players: While the signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger (fun fact: Schweinsteiger is German for “pig climber,” which my friendly neighborhood native German-speaker assures me has exactly the double entendre implications that you think it does) and subsequent media speculation about whether the Chicago Fire could win the World Cup were the major headline grabbers in the Windy City, the real story has been striker Nemanja Nikoloć. This Hungarian international striker, picked up on a Designated Player contract from Legia Warsaw over the winter, is the league’s Golden Boot leader with 24 balls-in-nets for his regular season tally. Niko is ably assisted from a midfield that features David Accam and even former Bread Bowl stalwart Dax McCarty. Meanwhile, netminder Matt Lampson has performed admirably since starting betwixt the sticks in May, making 58 saves and pitching 8 shutouts across 24 games.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Mostly just to provide Jim Oliver with some emotional solace after learning that Triple Rock Club would be closing this week. But seriously, there’s a chance they could slip past Toronto in the East and then go on to best one of Those Fucking Cascadian Teams in the final.
Regular Season: 4th in the East, 55 points, 15-9-10
Their Season In One Sentence: The time to prod them about “building a team the right way” in their inaugural year has long since passed; this club is top-to-bottom good, from high profile stars to competent role players.
Key Players: Everyone knows that Atlanta spent its money extremely aggressively in assembling its squad, and it was mostly money well spent. Striker Josef Martinez has scored 18 goals, including three game winners, despite only making 20 appearances. However, he has cooled off a bit in October after maintaining a torrid pace in September, a month in which he scored nine times including back-to-back hat tricks against New England and Orlando. With 13 assists, including 4 game winners, and 9 goals of his own Paraguayan international Jose Almiron is another key component of Atlanta’s high octane offensive motor. Meanwhile, defender Greg Garza appears to be fading from Tata Martinez’s lineup, mostly sitting as an unused sub for after getting pulled at halftime during Atlanta’s 7-0 drubbing of New England on September 13.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Probably because Arthur Blank bought it. But seriously, if the road to an eastern conference championship does indeed run through Toronto’s frigid pitch, Atlanta’s going to have its hands full. However, the fact that Atlanta ground out a 2-2 draw in Toronto in early April (as well as a certain other cold weather victory on March 15 of which we shall not speak) show some rays of hope for ATLUTD. If they can miraculously take the East, a lucky barrage of their offensive firepower just might get them over one of the Cascadian teams whom I expect to emerge from the West.
Regular Season: 5th in the East, 54 points, 16-12-6
Their Season In One Sentence: Even a championship won’t make things better if the team is really moving to Austin.
Key Players: Averaging a goal every game and a half, Ola Kamara fired in 18 goals while featuring in every game this season. He needs to show up or Columbus will have to face their uncertain future a few weeks early. Now Federico Higuain: is he as good as his brother? No, but he’s pretty damn important to the Crew. Higuain set up 14 goals and scored nine of his own. The offense goes through this guy.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: The players and fans will be motivated to show why the team should stay in Columbus, or at the very least to give an MLS original the best possible sendoff. Zack Steffan adds to his impressive clean sheet total from the regular season to keep Columbus in the thick of things until the very end.
New York Red Bulls
Regular Season: 6th in the East, 50 points, 14-12-8
Their Season In One Sentence: After their 2016 postseason disappointment, 2017 was a rebuilding year with a new look and new tactics which, despite a slow start, paid big dividends for their returning fixtures.
Key Players: With 17 goals in 32 games, Bradley Wright-Phillips holds the keys to postseason success. BWP had a record-breaking fourth season with the Red Bulls, unlocking the club’s first Open Cup final berth since 2003 and joining Robbie Keane in an ultra exclusive club, recording over 15 goals for the fourth straight season. Sacha Kljestan seems also to have cemented his place in Jesse Marsch’s midfield. He has been fantastic behind Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer, recording 17 assists in the regular season.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: After a disappointing end to the 2016 season, the Red Bulls struggled early, but enter the postseason on a high note having lost just four matches since June. Don’t expect a repeat of last season. With three of their top five scorers (in BWP, Kljestan, and Daniel Royer) rested going into the playoffs, the Red Bulls are firing on all cylinders, with their sights set on redemption – and the Cup.
Their Season In One Sentence: Outside of San Jose this team gave up the most goals of any playoff team, but they also scored the most in the West; this team smashed and grabbed its way to the #1 seed.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Because if there is an opportunity for Merritt Paulson to make an ass of himself for the nation he will. Honestly, though, the only shot they have is to literally outshoot every single team, which is not completely implausible.
Regular Season: 2nd in the West, 53 points, 14-9-11
Their Season In One Sentence: In a season with expectations of silverware, the Sounders started slow but used a late summer surge to push themselves back amongst the top contenders in the Western Conference as they made the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.
Key Players: Christian Roldan has taken over the starting CDM position from team legend Ozzie Alonso. A Seattle local, young Roldan has even seen a couple games with the USMNT (God rest their souls). He is not only responsible for shielding some aging CBs, but also moving the ball forward in attack. Nico Lodeiro followed a scintillating second half of 2016 with a slow start to 2017 that coincided with the team’s play. A common thought is “as Nico goes, so go the Sounders.” His 2.9 key passes per game (per whoscored.com), puts him third in the league.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Seattle has the experience and star player to put them over the top. The center of their backline is aging, but they still have plenty of pace on the wings. If Lodeiro can unlock defenses like he has in the past, they will celebrate back to back MLS Cups.
Regular Season: 3rd in the West, 52 points, 15-12-7
Their Season In One Sentence: The team has run hot and cold, but that’s a damn sight better than just running straight cold, which is where most pundits had them at when the year started.
Key Players: The Couv came within an inch of winning the West despite really no having any performers who were consistently terrific. Early signing Fredy Montero made a triumphant-ish return to MLS and Cascadia with 13 goals and 9 assists in 26 games started. Behind him is a lot of guys who can show up on a given night and put in a great performance. Christian Bolanos is about as playmakery a playmaker as the team has, Cristian Techera enjoys a combination of pace and skill on the left, and of course there is 16-year-old wondersub Alphonso Davies who can injects some speed late in a game when needed.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Vancouver got hot at the end of the year to, at one point, grab a tight grip on the top of the Western Conference. Being hot at the right time is all it takes to win in the playoffs. It’s time to see just how much, or whether, they’ve really cooled off at all heading into the postseason.
Sporting Kansas City
Regular Season: 5th in the West, 49 points, 12-9-13
Their Season In One Sentence: The more things change, the more they stay the same for Sporting; after a hot start and trading their best known player in Dom Dwyer, SKC won the US Open Cup and are comfortably in the playoff picture.
Key Players: About that defense. Sporting KC has only allowed 29 (!) goals in 2017. The next closest is the aforementioned Sounders with 39. Jimmy Medranda, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, and Graham Zusi comprise the best unit in MLS. Goalkeeper Tim Melia may also be the GK of the year; obviously not good enough for the USMNT, but who’s keeping track? But as good as they are on defense, Kansas City lacks a strong goal scoring threat: their 39 goals are fourth worst in the league. Benny Feilhaber has the ability to play forwards like Latif Blessing and Gersho Fernandes in on goal, and they will need every opportunity they can get.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Defense, defense, and more defense will allow the artists formerly known as the Wizards to lift the cup. Don’t expect flowing and pretty games from this team, but they can definitely see out 1-0 or 2-1 wins.
San Jose Earthquakes
Regular Season: 6th in the West, 46 points, 13-14-7
Their Season In One Sentence: This team does not deserve to be in the playoffs.
Key Players: Although his national team days need to be behind him at this point, Chris Wondolowski is still a good MLS forward and has scored ten or more goals in each of the last eight seasons, the only player on such a run. The central midfield is a relative bright spot, with players like Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren able to connect the back to the front and, probably more importantly, clutter the midfield when the club is on defense.
Why They Will Lift The Cup: Because the same God that allows this club to be in the playoffs will also be presiding over the creation wherein these playoffs will be held. -21 goal differential, sub-.500 record on the season, and all that in the easy-as-hell Western Conference. There is no justice in this life.