By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 29, 2018) US Soccer Players – There’s one thing predictable when it comes to the MLS playoffs. It’s that anything can happen. The long regular season has finally come to an end and the competitive postseason is finally upon us. It’s the part of the season where they’re no assured winners and teams with the strongest records often find themselves going home early.
It is this backdrop that welcomes the playoffs. Decision Day on Sunday brought with it excitement and thrills, a four-hour window that determined the winners of the Supporters’ Shield along with allowing teams like the Columbus Crew to successfully sneak past the red line for that final playoff spot.
“Lately, we have been playing teams that have been disqualified from the playoffs” Atlanta United coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino told reporters going into Sunday’s games. “They still have given us difficult games though. We know we need to compete for 90 minutes. You can’t play mostly a good game, and then have lapses where you lose control of the game.”
Martino’s comments ring true not just for his team. It’s this unpredictable nature of MLS outcomes that means every team will need to stay focused in order to grab a win. This is especially true of teams like Atlanta that so dominated the regular season. Another common thread is the importance of coaches to motivate players and come up with the best game plan possible. With the MLS Cup Playoffs starting Wednesday night, here are five storylines to keep an eye on.
Can Atlanta win it all for Martino?
By any measure, Atlanta United has to be the favorite to win it all this year. This is a team that has it all: offensive firepower, a solid defense, and rabid fans. It also has a lame duck coach. That will be the main talking point this team has to deal with throughout the playoffs.
We don't know whether Martino’s exit will serve as a distraction, excuse, or extra motivator to give him a Cup-winning sendoff. It will all come down to several factors, including if striker Josef Martinez can continue his blistering scoring pace. Then there's midfielder Miguel Almiron, rumored to also be on his way out, can return after recently injuring his hamstring. If not, watch for Darlington Nagbe to step up and fill that role.
Atlanta United may be in just its second year of existence, but this is definitely the time to win a championship. This is a team that could very well need a rebuild this winter. This is a roster that has accomplished something special in a short amount of time. There’s nothing the league and this fanbase would like more than to see Atlanta hosting the MLS Cup Final on December 8.
The Red Bulls inability to win it all
The question over the years has been simple: “Can the Red Bulls win MLS Cup?” Strong in the regular season and flaming out in the playoffs over the last decade begs a different question. "Who knocks the Red Bulls out of the playoffs?"
That may be a cynical question to ask of the newly-crowned Supporters’ Shield winners, but the past has shown that the Red Bulls have faltered year after year. There are some things favoring New York as they head into the playoffs. The positives include: the team is surging at the right time, its mix of veterans and youth makes for a competitive roster, and they've found ways to win tough games.
These are all attributes that could give New York its first MLS Cup. Bradley Wright-Phillips is a proven scorer and has been clutch in big games. Defender Tyler Adams has blossomed into a fine player to become a US National Team regular. Nonetheless, we’ve seen great players and talent on this team before. The Red Bulls will need to overcome their history and deserved reputation. After getting a first-round bye, a potential conference semifinal against intra-city rivals NYCFC potentially awaits.
Will there be a first-time MLS Cup champion?
This is a point often made this time each year. Atlanta United FC and the New York Red Bulls represent potential first-time champions. Two more on the list of possible first-time MLS Cup winners are FC Dallas, an original league franchise, and the expansion Los Angeles FC.
Dallas and Los Angeles represent two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Let’s look at FC Dallas. This is a team that has been one of the best in the Western Conference in recent years thanks to offensive players such as Maxi Urutti and Roland Lamah. They've also done a wonderful job grooming youth and regularly signing them to Homegrown Player contracts. After a strong regular season, Dallas has a chance to replicate this in the playoffs.
LAFC, meanwhile, under coach Bob Bradley is aiming to become the second expansion club to win the title after the Chicago Fire did in 1998. Bradley was the coach of that team that also won the US Open Cup that season. This time around, he has Mexico international Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, two players who have consistently been able to score goals. This is no time to get cold.
Sizing up the dark horses
Bring on the Cinderella sides. Since the playoffs are so unpredictable, this could very well be the year a team no one expected in preseason to win it all. Two dark horses to keep an eye on are the Portland Timbers and DC United.
Here’s why the Timbers could make a run. Portland could be getting itself fitted for a glass slipper thanks to first-year coach Giovanni Savarese’s commitment and encouragement. Even after a poor start, the Timbers were able to come together and put together a strong season. Portland, another team with a great fan base, could very well get to the final. The last time that happened was in 2015 in a game they ended up winning.
DC United, another team very few expected much from at the start of the season, turned things around following the arrival of former Manchester United and England star Wayne Rooney. He was able to make everyone around him better as DC United surged up the table over the summer. Rooney was also able to silence critics with his amazing play. His recent decision not to leave for Europe in a winter loan spell is further proof of his commitment to win in MLS.
Those surging Sounders
Success in the playoffs is all about the momentum from the regular season. The Seattle Sounders may be the team with most of it this fall.
After struggling at the start of the season with just four wins from 17 games, Seattle had to make up ground. They did that over the summer, including a nine-game unbeaten run. They finished 2nd in the West, an unlikely turnaround for a team that had every excuse to miss the playoffs this season. Under the leadership of midfielders Will Bruin and Nicolas Lodeiro, this is a team that has the talent to go far. They'll need to focus on those positives to navigate the Western Conference bracket.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Is the MLS Homegrown Player system working?
- Soccer History: Chicago Sting
- What kind of a league is MLS?
- Q&A with Gyasi Zardes: "We have to just keep progressing as a team"
Photo by Howard C Smith - ISIPhotos.com