After a regular-season slog, the road to MLS Cup kicks off with 12 sides all looking to lift the trophy on Dec. 8.

By Avi Creditor
October 30, 2018

The dozen clubs still alive in MLS now all get to start from scratch.

The MLS playoffs don't always (or usually, really) reflect the regular season's outcome. Its format has been and can continue to be debated, and the use of away goals and its neutralizing factor against higher seeds perhaps should be reconsidered. But when it comes down to it, everybody knows what they're about to get into. 

"The thing about the playoffs is that it is a bit of a crapshoot. It's a cup competition," Atlanta United president Darren Eales told SI.com last week as his team was wrapping up one of the best seasons in league history. "We saw that last year when we'd had a great season, we played Columbus in a one-game knockout and the goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, had the game of his life, and we lost on a penalty shootout. So we're under no illusions it's going to be tough, but we're more rested this year, because we didn't get a back log of fixture schedules. Tata [Martino] and the players know what they need to do. So with a bit of luck and hopefully some good performances, you never know."

"You never know" is right. Every team still standing has a chance to lift the cup, but four will meet their demise soon, starting with Wednesday and Thursday's one-off wild card games. 

Here's how the playoff contenders stack up entering the postseason, where 12 trophy-hungry sides start anew following the regular-season slog:

1. New York Red Bulls

First place in the Eastern Conference (22-7-5); First-round bye

The Supporters' Shield winners completed the best regular season in the history of the league, compiling the most wins (22) and points (71) en route to a third Shield in six seasons. In Europe, that would be grounds for dynasty talk. In MLS, there's an asterisk attached unless you win MLS Cup. The Red Bulls have never done that, of course, and this bunch would be an unassuming kind, especially given that it's overcome the loss of manager Jesse Marsch in the middle of the season to enjoy the finish that it has. But there's balance, identity, sound defending and a star striker in place to lead the charge. Provided Bradley Wright-Phillips is fully aware of the yellow-card suspension rule (here's looking at you, 2014), this side will be as tough an out as there is.

2. Atlanta United

Second place in the Eastern Conference (21-7-6); First-round bye

The best team for much of the season has dreams of hosting an MLS Cup final in front of 70,000 fans, but it stumbled at the last hurdle and faces some serious questions entering the postseason. Is Tata Martino's forthcoming exit a distraction? Is Miguel Almiron fit, and is his pending exit abroad a distraction? Should Almiron miss more time, the onus would be on Ezequiel Barco to live up to the lofty expectations that come with a $15 million transfer fee and provide the spark to fill the void and help 31-goal scorer Josef Martinez rediscover his final touch after he tallied in just two of the club's final eight games. On paper, there's no team as talented, but its own club president knows that's not good enough.

3. Sporting Kansas City

First place in the Western Conference (18-8-8); First-round bye

This edition of Sporting Kansas City has more staying power than its predecessors. Peter Vermes's side went 9-2-2 to close the regular season and came alive after the calendar turned to August, a far cry from his past teams that appeared to wilt down the stretch. There are multiple attacking options–though not one go-to star to put the team on his back–typical bite and craft in the midfield and a healthy defensive unit in front of the 2017 Goalkeeper of the Year, Tim Melia. All year long Sporting KC has been showing its new facets and evolution, and after four straight years of elimination in the knockout round, it's at the very least guaranteed a two-game conference semifinal series. It went 2-2-2 combined this season against its three potential opponents, FC Dallas, Portland and Real Salt Lake.

4. Seattle Sounders

Second place in the Western Conference (18-11-5); First-round bye

Even when considering how bad it got for Seattle this season, with just three wins through 15 games, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised where it wound up given the club's ongoing trend of turning it on in the second half. Like the Red Bulls, the Sounders enter the playoffs on a five-game winning streak, but unlike the Red Bulls, they've done it before in the playoffs. Seattle has reached the last two MLS Cup finals, and you'd be hard-pressed to bet against Brian Schmetzer's side at this time of year. That they've transitioned seamlessly from Clint Dempsey's midseason retirement and eventually figured things out after Jordan Morris's preseason ACL tear is a testament to the structure in place.

5. D.C. United

Fourth place in the Western Conference (14-11-9); hosts Columbus Crew in the first round

Does anyone want to play this team? With Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta forming an unlikely lethal partnership, D.C. surged in the second half of the season, rising from last place to fourth in the east. It has a home game at Audi Field now, something that seemed like a pipe dream in early July, and the club enters the playoffs on a 10-game unbeaten run. Should the seeds hold in the east and NYCFC and D.C. advance, it would force United into a mouthwatering rivalry clash vs. the Red Bulls.

6. Los Angeles FC

Third place in Western Conference (16-9-9); hosts Real Salt Lake in the first round

Can Bob Bradley do it again? That's one of the most pressing questions entering the postseason, 20 years after Bradley took the expansion Chicago Fire to an MLS Cup title. Of course, things have changed over the last two decades in MLS, but Bradley's ability to mold his team into a successful one has remained a constant. LAFC sputtered a bit down the stretch, though, letting a chance at a first-round bye slip away. It overpowered Real Salt Lake in their two meetings this season and will be favored in their first-round bout, and winning would set up a monster conference semifinal showdown vs. Seattle. For what it's worth, LAFC beat the Sounders 1-0 on two occasions this season, but both came before May 1.

7. FC Dallas

Fourth place in Western Conference (16-9-9); hosts Portland Timbers in the first round

Is this another edition of FC Dallas burning out in time for the playoffs? Or can Oscar Pareja's team flip the switch? FCD was in line for the top seed in the west, only to lose its last three matches of the regular season and stumble into fourth, allowing old questions to follow a seemingly rejuvenated team. FCD and Portland drew twice this season, and they played an epic conference final series in 2015. And from the Maybe it Means Something, Maybe it Doesn't dept.: A Cascadia team has knocked FCD out of the playoffs in each of its last three postseason appearances.

8. Portland Timbers

Fifth place in Western Conference (15-10-9); at FC Dallas in the first round

Portland is as dangerous a sleeper as there is in the field, especially when everyone is healthy and clicking. There's no fluke when a team goes 15 unbeaten in the middle of the season, but when it's followed directly by a four-game losing streak, it certainly gives you pause. The Timbers rebounded to finish the season relatively well, but only six of their 15 wins came against teams in the playoffs (and two of those came against last-team-in RSL), and their inconsistency from August on cost them a home game, so they'll have to do things the hard way. Giovanni Savarese's side was just 4-8-5 away from Providence Park this season, whereas Dallas only dropped two matches at home, though the two have been known to play tightly contested matches.

9. NYCFC

Third place in Eastern Conference (16-10-8); vs. Philadelphia Union in the first round

NYCFC did not handle its midseason managerial transition from Patrick Vieira to Domenec Torrent all that well, and it won only three of its last 13 matches to close the season. That doesn't bode well for the playoffs, which is a shame given how much of a contender the club looked like in the opening few months of the campaign. David Villa appears fully fit, though, and he is one of the ultimate wild cards in the playoff field. Few can put a team on his back quite like the tournament-tested Spaniard, who scored against the Union in last weekend's Decision Day finale and will look to do the same on Wednesday.

10. Columbus Crew

Fifth place in Eastern Conference (14-11-9); at D.C. United in the first round

The biggest fear for the Crew, that their time in Columbus was up, appears to be allayed, with the pending sale of the team to local ownership. That doesn't mean all is well, though. A Decision Day slip-up could've knocked the club out of the playoff picture altogether, and with rumors swirling regarding coach Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men's national team, there's still an aura of uncertainty. Then there's the matter of its first-round opponent. D.C. has turned Audi Field into an immediate fortress, one Columbus didn't get to see given its earlier road match vs. United was held at Navy's stadium in Annapolis. With one win in its last four matches and an uphill battle to fight against an in-form team, it could mark an early end for the Crew. But that's better than a permanent end.

11. Philadelphia Union

Sixth place in Eastern Conference (15-14-5); at NYCFC in the first round

The Union limped to the finish line with a pair of losses to the New York teams, and while they didn't go into total shutdown mode after falling in the U.S. Open Cup final to the Houston Dynamo, they have a young defense that hasn't yet tasted the playoff stage. Their knockout match is a rematch of the regular-season finale, which it lost 3-1 at Yankee Stadium.

12. Real Salt Lake

Sixth place in Western Conference (14-13-7); at LAFC in the first round

RSL is in the playoffs because the Houston Dynamo came from 2-0 down to win at StubHub Center and prevent the LA Galaxy from seizing the sixth spot in the west. It won once in its final six matches. The red flags are abundant. Having said that, the pieces have been there all season, and amid all of the club's inconsistency were some downright fantastic performances. The problem is that none of them came against its first-round opponent, which toppled RSL twice by a combined 7-1 scoreline in the regular season.

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