The list of MLS Cup hopefuls is officially down to 14 after Sunday's Decision Day sprint to the finish line, with the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas earning their way into the postseason. Now, it's a matter of who is primed to win a cup competition.
The new MLS playoff format leaves little room for error and opens the door to some sudden and abrupt deaths. Higher seeds will have home-field advantage as long as they're alive, which, in theory gives a proper edge to those teams who earned it during the regular season, but all it takes is one contentious call or referee decision (are those prevalent in MLS? Asking for some friends) to turn a playoff match on its head.
So with all of the evidence we have–34 regular-season games, healthy and injured players and a straightforward bracket–how do all 14 MLS Cup contenders stack up? Let's take a closer look:
2019 Record: 21-4-9, 72 points | First round: Bye
LAFC is the runaway favorite to win MLS Cup after a record-setting regular season, but there are several reasons for concern. Chief among them is the looming specter of facing the LA Galaxy in the second round. LAFC has never beaten the Galaxy in its two seasons and never seems to have an answer for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Galaxy need to win in Minnesota first, which is no simple task, but facing the crosstown rival so early is probably LAFC's worst-case scenario.
Then there's the matter of the club's own form. A 3-1 win over Colorado to cap the season will alleviate some of those worries, and it's not like the club was losing games en masse, but just two victories in the final eight games (yes, amid a Carlos Vela injury), raises an eyebrow. So, too, does the concussion suffered by Walker Zimmerman in the finale, and the two-sided coin of having such a long layoff. LAFC will go 17 or 18 days without playing a competitive match. Being rested is helpful, sure, but the rust question is raised every year around this time. If there's a manager to navigate it, it's Bob Bradley.
2. Atlanta United
2019 Record: 18-12-4, 58 points | First round: vs. New England Revolution
The defending champions have Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco healthy again and go into the playoffs after already winning one cup competition this season, the U.S. Open Cup.
This was not the season the Five Stripes anticipated, one that was beset by early questions about manager Frank de Boer, underperformance and in-house conflict involving star signing Pity Martinez and lackluster performances not characteristic of this two-year-old club. But Josef Martinez's 15-match scoring streak was the foundation for a resurgent run to the finish line. There's still considerably more doubt about this team than there was at this point last season, but on paper and in practice, there's no reason Atlanta can't get back to the final. And if it gets through the East and LAFC does not make it through the West, then it'll host for a second straight year.
2019 Record: 18-6-10, 64 points: First round: Bye
NYCFC first post-David-Villa year went superbly, with the club putting forth a more balanced attack and taking to manager Domenec Torrent's ways after a brutal run down the stretch last season.
Its home-field advantage could be reduced by complications involving the Yankees, though. As long as the Bronx Bombers remain in the playoffs–and based on their series lead vs. the Minnesota Twins, it could be a little bit–it's possible NYCFC is forced to play the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket at Citi Field.
Just because it's another baseball stadium in close proximity does not make it home. It's, of course, NYCFC's own doing that it's in this stadium conundrum four years into its existence.
In terms of actual soccer, having to potentially play Toronto FC in the second round is also a tricky proposition. Depending on Jozy Altidore's fitness level, TFC is one of the biggest wild cards in the playoff field and closed the season unbeaten in its last 10 games–including a 1-1 draw at NYCFC.
4. Seattle Sounders
2019 Record: 16-10-8, 56 points | First round vs. FC Dallas
First, let's take a second to acknowledge the 11th straight postseason appearance by the Sounders. That's remarkable consistency in a league where it's not always easy to achieve it. Even the best clubs have down years or periods.
Yet here is Seattle, sitting pretty on the bottom half of the Western Conference bracket with home-field advantage and Nicolas Lodeiro back from an injury layoff. Its biggest question–and it's been the case since Chad Marshall retired–remains in central defense, but posting clean sheets in three of the last four matches will alleviate some of those concerns.
5. Toronto FC
2019 Record: 13-10-11, 50 points | First round: vs. D.C. United
As stated above, Toronto is arguably the biggest wild card in the field, with its experience and star-laden roster and a hot streak to end the regular season. If Altidore can't go for the first-round game, TFC could struggle to score vs. a stout D.C. defense and find itself in early jeopardy. If Altidore is good to go, and he's combining with Alejandro Pozuelo to an explosive effect while U.S. veterans Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez ably do their jobs in the center of the field, then suddenly TFC has the look of a time primed to go on a run.
There isn't a single team in the East to which Toronto will feel inferior, and as flawed as TFC has been since winning it all in 2017, would it really surprise anyone to see the Reds contending for the Cup again?
6. LA Galaxy
2019 Record: 16-15-3, 51 points | First round: at Minnesota United
The Galaxy collapsed on Decision Day vs. Houston again, falling out of the top four seeds and settling for the fifth seed and a road date in Minnesota.
That 4-2 defeat encapsulated all that came with the Galaxy this season. Some attacking brilliance, spearheaded by Ibrahimovic and Carlos Pavon, some god-awful defending and a result that makes you wonder why this team, for all the resources committed to it, is not better.
The Galaxy will relish another chance to play LAFC, and if it can get by Minnesota, then you'd have to like its chances facing the league's best, because, for whatever reason, that's what seems to bring the best out of this team. Just why that is the case is the question that no amount of Targeted Allocation Money or DP dollars has been able to answer.
7. Philadelphia Union
2019 Record: 16-11-7, 55 points | First round: vs. New York Red Bulls
This is the Union's best chance at fielding a winner in its existence as a club, and credit goes to Jim Curtin for getting it mostly right after some head-scratching times. Philly has lost three of its last four games entering the playoffs, though, and you wonder if that's enough to plant some seeds of doubt for a club starved for any bit of postseason success.
Having to potentially play at Atlanta in the second round also puts a damper on the Union's hopes, even if they did earn a draw there in their March meeting.
8. Minnesota United
2019 Record: 15-11-8, 53 points | First round: vs. LA Galaxy
Minnesota did itself a disservice by falling on Decision Day at Seattle and throwing away the chance to finish with the No. 2 seed, which would have both set the stage for two home playoff games and kept LAFC on the other side of the bracket.
Instead, it has to tangle with Zlatan, and if it succeeds in taming the Lion, it still must go to LAFC in the second round. It's a shame that such an impressive and resurgent season for the Loons ultimately could have been determined by that one final result, but such is life. And that's not to say they're not capable of beating both LA teams to reach the conference final. They actually beat and drew LAFC in their two meetings (though Carlos Vela missed the defeat). Nevertheless, its road is a tough-looking one.
9. Portland Timbers
2019 Record: 14-13-7, 49 points | First round: at Real Salt Lake
The 2018 runners-up eked their way into the playoffs, but they've shown over the last four years their ability to navigate the postseason, making the final in 2015 and 2018. The Diego Valeri drama and apparent injury loom over this edition of this team (and so do off-field issues involving star striker Brian Fernandez), but having swept RSL in the regular season will give Portland plenty of confidence going into their first-round matchup, and there's nothing about Seattle or FC Dallas that will spook the Timbers should the reach the second round.
10. New York Red Bulls
2019 Record: 14-14-6, 48 points | First round: at Philadelphia Union
The Red Bulls have been rather mediocre down the stretch and haven't really instilled any belief that this, of all teams, will be the one to break their playoff curse. Dropping four of the last seven games–including a 3-0 defeat in Montreal to close the season–puts the target squarely on manager Chris Armas to at least advance a couple of rounds.
It split the season series against the Union and won't be scared of its opponent or playing environment given the familiarity between the two sides, but there's just been a lacking ingredient for this team this season.
11. D.C. United
2019 Record: 13-10-11, 50 points | First round: at Toronto FC
D.C. squandered a home playoff game by failing to beat nine-man(!) FC Cincinnati in a 0-0 draw on Decision Day. Yes, the same FC Cincinnati team that conceded a league-record 75 goals this season. D.C.'s attack is anemic at best, and, by the numbers, it's the worst among all playoff teams (42 goals scored).
Wayne Rooney will have motivation to get D.C. as far as he can before departing for Derby County, and D.C. may have caught a break in the first round depending on the severity of Altidore's injury. But there are complications that could even impact D.C.'s defense, which didn't concede a goal in five straight games to close the regular season.
It's tough to like D.C. when the bracket has it set up to face Toronto-NYCFC-Atlanta, three of the best and most dynamic teams, on paper, in the league.
12. Real Salt Lake
2019 Record: 16-13-5, 53 points | First round: vs. Portland Timbers
Yes, RSL is the No. 3 seed and it hosts its first-round game, but so little separates the teams in the West behind LAFC, that standing alone does not determine a club's outlook.
RSL hasn't won in its last five games against teams that made it to the playoffs (0-4-1). It went 5-11-4 altogether against teams that made it to the playoffs. It was swept by Portland in their two regular-season meetings. The evidence doesn't exactly point to an overwhelming first-round favorite.
RSL did post 12 home wins, which is tied for second-most in the league, but needing to, in theory, go vs. Portland-at Seattle-at LAFC if the seeds hold just to reach MLS Cup is a considerable task for a club that scored the second-fewest goals among all 14 playoff teams.
13. New England Revolution
2019 Record: 11-11-12, 45 points | First round: at Atlanta United
Credit Bruce Arena for turning the Revs' season around and reminding all that he's still one of the best MLS coaches to ever do it. Guiding the team from their May depths to the playoffs was an impressive job.
But going on the road to face Atlanta United after losing there on Decision Day should represent the end of the road. When it comes down to it, the Revs are a .500 team with a negative goal differential that won just twice in its last 11 games. That's not exactly a recipe for postseason success, but if there's any coach capable of conjuring a playoff run from nothing, it's Arena, and if there's a formula for pulling a stunner, it's potentially game-changing individual talent, which the Revs have in Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil.
14. FC Dallas
2019 Record: 13-12-9, 48 points | First round: at Seattle Sounders
Nobody in MLS is particularly good on the road, at least with any semblance of consistency. Only two of the 14 playoff teams (unsurprisingly top seeds LAFC and NYCFC) posted better than .500 marks away from home, for instance. But FCD is the worst of the bunch, at 3-11-3. Since winning at Sporting KC on July 20, FCD is 0-4-2 away from Frisco, and that's precisely where the club will have to play all of its matches (unless it advances to an unlikely MLS Cup showdown vs. the Revolution) this postseason.
The club is also lacking a go-to goal-scorer. Even after its 6-0 win over an already-dead SKC on Decision Day, the club doesn't have a double-digit, go-to talent up front, which isn't a recipe for success in do-or-die competition. Jesus Ferreira, 18, leads the team with eight goals, while Zdenek Ondrasek, who was supposed to fill that void, has seven–though they've all come in his last seven appearances. Only one came against a playoff team, though.