SI Staff
Monday October 27th, 2014

The MLS Playoffs can be exciting, frustrating, or bizarre, but if past years have taught us anything, it's that they will always be unpredictable.

Not that that's going to stop us. Planet Fútbol got together and decided to try and predict the outcome of this 10-team dance anyway, from conference champions, to MLS Cup winners, to what retiring U.S. legend Landon Donovan's final act will be as a player.

In the interest of accountability, we'll also look back on our predictions made ahead of the regular season and look at what we got right, and what we got waaaay wrong. 

Check out the MLS postseason schedule here, and our predictions below. 

GRANT WAHL

​Preseason prediction gone wrong

Which international star will sign with MLS after the World Cup?

"Jozy Altidore. He may not be an "international superstar" yet, but Altidore fits the profile of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey as a U.S. national team starter who's not in a good club situation and can get a big payday by returning to MLS." 

Preseason prediction come to fruition

The team nobody is talking about but certainly should be is…

"New England. The Revolution was the league’s most entertaining team by the end of last season, and with so many good young attacking players the Revs will be even better this season."

Who will win the East?

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New England. When I went out on a limb before the season and predicted the Revolution would win MLS Cup, I couldn’t have known that Jermaine Jones would be heading there by the end of the season. But Jones was the final piece New England needed to take the title: A midfield enforcer/ball-winner with a motor that doesn’t stop. Lee Nguyen has turned into an elite MLS player, and in a tightly-packed East I like the Revs to nose out surging Columbus and then a revived D.C. United for the crown.

New England and D.C. played one of the greatest games in MLS history when United won the 2004 East final on penalties after a wild 3-3 tie. But look for the Revs to get some redemption here, not least because New England has a slight edge in firepower and defensive steel. The Revs’ balance makes this a more formidable team than you might realize.

Who will win the West?

Los Angeles. The West is truly stacked this season, and any of Seattle, L.A. and Salt Lake could get to the MLS Cup final. Seattle served notice that it wouldn’t be a pushover for the Galaxy anymore by taking four points from their home-and-home to end the regular season. But there’s a reason why L.A. had the second-best goal-difference in MLS history (+32), and when the Galaxy is clicking nobody can touch Bruce Arena’s outfit. You get the sense L.A.’s stars (Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan) have another gear to reach in the postseason, and while L.A.-Salt Lake will be a battle royale I see just enough slippage from RSL from previous seasons to lean (barely) toward the Galaxy.

A West final between L.A. and Seattle would be a fantastic match-up of teams that clearly don’t like each other, and one hopes the games would be more like the free-flowing awesomeness of the 2-2 tie they had in L.A. two weeks ago and less like the chippy, foul-tempered 2-0 Seattle win last weekend. Not having Omar Gonzalez for that game was a big problem for L.A., and he’ll be back this time around.

Who will win MLS Cup?

New England. You don’t think I’m going to back down from my preseason pick now, do you? It’s no small task beating L.A. in a final at the StubHub Center, but the scenario I imagine would be one in which it’s a low-scoring game and L.A. goalkeeper Jaime Penedo (who hasn’t been good lately) has some sort of blunder that goes down in the MLS history books. Jermaine Jones dominates the midfield, and New England finally wins its first MLS Cup final after losing in four previous attempts. Owner Jonathan Kraft pops a bottle of Champagne in the locker room and leads a raucous chant of “BLIND DRAW! BLIND DRAW! BLIND DRAW!”

Landon Donovan's final moment as a player will be: 

Playing in a final on his home field. The best player in MLS history bids a tearful farewell to the Galaxy faithful, who give him a standing ovation.​

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

BRIAN STRAUS

​Preseason prediction gone wrong

How will Toronto FC fare after its offseason splash?

"With great expenditure comes greater expectations, and Toronto will have to make the playoffs to validate the path Tim Leiweke has set it on. And I think they will…this team surely is good enough to finish third, fourth or fifth in the East. Finally." 

Preseason prediction come to fruition

Which international star will sign with MLS after the World Cup?

"Orlando City will strike a deal with Kaká. He'll tear up USL Pro.

Kidding. He'll play somewhere else until next winter, when City makes the jump."

Who will win the East?

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The Eastern playoffs will have an old-school feel. Each of the five contenders is an MLS original and former conference champ (New York’s crown came in 2000, one of three years the title was decided in the regular season). The East’s two most decorated clubs, D.C. (five titles) and New England (four) are the favorites, and there’s a good chance the trophy will be lifted inside venerable RFK Stadium.

Ben Olsen and Jay Heaps faced each other in a pair of memorable conference finals (D.C. advanced in 2004 and the Revs won two years later) and they now manage the East’s two best teams. Of course, we all know that the MLS Cup playoffs are unpredictable and unfair to higher seeds (especially with this year’s misguided implementation of the away goals tiebreaker), but odds are United (17-9-8) and New England (17-13-4) will decide the conference title next month. Both are balanced and both are on a roll. The razor-thin difference lies in central midfield. The Revs are 8-1-1 since Jermaine Jones joined up and Lee Nguyen has proven to be MLS’ most clutch performer. In addition, Heaps’ squad earned valuable postseason experience during last year’s loss to Sporting Kansas City. D.C. has had an excellent season, but New England is due.

Who will win the West?

Seattle’s 2-0 win over L.A. on Saturday may have clinched the Supporters Shield, but it was the 2-2 draw the prior weekend that set the tone for this potential conference final matchup. The Galaxy fielded a first-choice lineup that day and took a two-goal lead before wilting under the Sounders’ second-half onslaught. This Seattle team has the confidence and chemistry its predecessors lacked, which is why it’s poised to advance to its first MLS Cup final.

While the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake compete in this year’s toughest conference semifinal series, the rested Sounders shouldn’t have too much difficulty with either FC Dallas or the Vancouver Whitecaps. Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey are in from, Seattle’s midfield is talented and versatile and Chad Marshall is a frontrunner for the league’s Defender of the Year award. That’s not an honor the Sounders were a threat to win in recent seasons, and it’s part of the reason they’re on the verge of a bigger and more elusive prize.

Who will win MLS Cup?

If Seattle can get through either L.A. or RSL, it’s not going to fall short in front of nearly 70,000 people at CenturyLink Field. MLS wanted its clubs to compete for home-field advantage in the final and the Sounders will most definitely have one. Imagining New England losing a fifth MLS Cup final is almost cruel, but this is Seattle’s year. The U.S. Open Cup and Supporters Shield have been secured. Now history beckons.

Landon Donovan's final moment as a player will be:

Taking a quick glance over his shoulder as he heads back into the locker room one last time. He’ll see the Sounders joyously lifting the Western Conference trophy and tens of thousands of fans celebrating along with them. It’ll be quite the scene. And while Donovan certainly doesn’t warrant credit for the way Seattle has embraced its soccer team, he has plenty to do with the size of the stage on which it plays. Donovan’s commitment and consistent excellence helped MLS put down roots. He’s part of the reason the league matters. He’s part of the reason an MLS title is something worth winning.

When asked following his U.S. national team farewell what element of his career made him most proud, he gestured toward the fans inside Rentschler Field and said, “Honestly, I’m proudest of this, of what we’ve built.” He’s won plenty of awards and medals, including five MLS Cups. On his last night as a pro, perhaps he’ll look past the short-term disappointment and get a glimpse of his deeper impact.

Getty Images

ALEXANDER ABNOS

​Preseason prediction gone wrong

Which international star will sign with MLS after the World Cup? 

"Barcelona captain Carles Puyol" (Puyol retired from soccer two months after making this prediction)

Preseason prediction come to fruition

Which MLS coach will be the first one fired? 

"Nobody, Colorado Rapids...Personality-less and devoid of any kind of knowledge (tactical or otherwise), the biggest shock is that Nobody has even managed to hold on to the [Rapids] job for this long. Look for Special Assistant to the Technical Director Pablo Mastroeni to take the reins from Nobody sooner rather than later." (Mastroeni was finally officially hired as head coach one day after this [very easy] prediction was made).

Who will win the East? 

It's a tough call to pick who will come out of this wide-open conference, where each team balances undeniable strengths with major flaws that could prove fatal over the course of a playoff series. Sporting Kansas City are the defending champions, but injuries, fatigue, and its current run of bad form will usher them out at the hands of New York. Columbus' squad has grown into itself over this season, but inexperience in the playoffs will cost them against the Revolution. 

D.C. United are a Frankenstein's monster of hard-nosed players tailor-made for grinding out results and stepping up when needed. That should be enough to see them overcome the loss of 11-goal scorer Luis Silva to injury and top the Red Bulls in the conference semifinals, before stymying the Revolution's multifaceted attack in the conference final. 

Who will win the West?

Like the East, the West is hard to predict, but unlike the East, that's due to to abundance of good teams vying for a spot. FC Dallas will take care of Vancouver in the knockout round, and will give Seattle a tough home-and-home series that will be much closer than many would think. However, Seattle will come out on top thanks to its massive home field advantage and the lethal partnership of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. 

The other conference semi will be one for the ages, but Bruce Arena has a knack for getting the most out of his teams at just the right time, and that should be enough for the Galaxy to get past Real Salt Lake. A Seattle-Los Angeles conference final will also be close, but Seattle is clearly on a mission heading into the playoffs and should get enough of a boost from its home crowd to earn a berth in the MLS Cup final.

Who will win MLS Cup?

D.C. United. In a league that is becoming increasingly defined by rapid expansion, big-name signings, and shiny new stadiums, it will be an amusing bit of asymmetry when MLS Cup will be lifted by one of its charter members with no world-renowned names on its roster that plays in a crumbling ex-NFL venue. And that team will deserve it, because for all the increases in investment, MLS games are still won with grit, physicality, and defense, all of which D.C. has in abundance. 

Landon Donovan's final moment as a player will be:

Burying a penalty kick after his signature routine in a shootout at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, then subsequently being serenaded by everyone in attendance at the final whistle. 

Rick Bowmer/AP

LIVIU BIRD

Preseason prediction gone wrong

Who will win MLS MVP?

"With the pieces in place around him and his astronomical ascent over the last three years, this could finally be the season Darlington Nagbe gets the recognition he deserves."

Preseason prediction come to fruition

The team nobody is talking about but certainly should be is...

"Pareja’s return to FC Dallas could see them making a push to the playoffs again in 2014. The improvements he made in two years in Colorado were drastic and impressive, and we could see the groundwork for another good team laid this season."

Who will win the East?

The New England Revolution is the hottest team in the league leading into the playoffs. My MVP vote went to Lee Nguyen, one of the smartest players in the league who has been on a tear through most of the season in central midfield. Pair him as the creator with Jermaine Jones as a destroyer, Diego Fagúndez and Kelyn Rowe alongside them, and I can't really see another team coming out of the East.

D.C. finished first in the conference, and Columbus has some dynamic attackers as well, but those teams don't strike me as being as well-rounded as the Revs. I expect New York to come through the knockout round and give D.C. a good match in the conference semifinal before New England ultimately makes it to the MLS Cup final.

Who will win the West?

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​ The LA Galaxy and Bruce Arena live for the playoffs. No matter where they finish the regular season, they always seem to make a run at it, as we saw a couple years ago when they won after finishing fourth in the West. Arena didn't have to rest Robbie Keane for the Supporters' Shield showdown against Seattle, but he had other goals in mind besides finishing first in the table.

For its part, Seattle keeps surprising me. I thought the Sounders were in trouble about a month ago, but they kept finding a way to win. The Sounders and Galaxy should square off in another head-to-head battle for the Western Conference title, but Real Salt Lake always likes its chances against big-city rival LA. I expect Vancouver to win the knockout round and the Galaxy to defeat Seattle in a closely contested conference final.

Who will win MLS Cup?

It's hard to look past Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy, which has proven to be the best overall team this season. It had a slow start, not helped by CONCACAF Champions League and some sporadic scheduling from MLS, but especially in the last three months, the Galaxy has made lifting the trophy again look inevitable.

There's a reason LA finished with the best goal difference in the league by a wide margin, and it's because it has the best balance between attack and defense. Omar Gonzalez continues to excel in a physical-based league that plays exactly to his strongest attributes, and the combinations through the middle with Marcelo Sarvas, Juninho, Donovan and Keane are unstoppable when they bust out the flowing passing game.

Landon Donovan's final moment as a player will be:

Lifting the MLS Cup, just as he wants it to be. The last month of the season has been an absolute circus filled with sheet cakes and long-winded goodbyes, but in the playoffs, it's all about what happens on the field. Donovan admitted to slipping into a bit of a funk after being left off the World Cup squad — as anybody would have — but he's since regained his mojo and, along with his superb supporting cast, has picked up again dominating the league he helped build.

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