Things can change awfully quickly in the world of MLS single-elimination playoffs.
The Philadelphia Union found that out the hard way. Fresh off winning their first Supporters' Shield, they were set up nicely at home (where they hadn't dropped a point in nine games all season) and drew a team against whom it had gone 3-0-1 in the regular season and eliminated from the MLS Is Back tournament. Two New England goals in a four-minute span later, and the Union and their Shield-Cup double dreams are toast.
That's just the latest example of the MLS playoffs caring not about what occurred in the regular season. Only two of the last 10 Shield winners have won MLS Cup, though the Union do have the ignominy of being the first ever to fall in the first round. Regardless, regular-season success and good playoff fortunes are rarely linear.
The two clubs that had to survive the play-in round reserved for the Eastern Conference, Nashville and New England, both won their subsequent matches, turning that half of the bracket upside down. The West is a bit more chalky, though FC Dallas's late rally and penalty triumph in Portland make Luchi Gonzalez's side a potential spoiler.
Those who made it through the play-in and first rounds know quite well how drastically fortunes can change after a single performance, but here's how the league's final eight teams stack up entering the conference semifinals (to be played Nov. 29–Dec. 2):
1. Seattle Sounders
First round: Beat LAFC, 3–1
Conference semifinals: vs. FC Dallas, Dec. 1, 9:30 p.m. ET
After titles in 2016 and 2019, the Sounders are out to make it three titles in five seasons, and they've got the look of a team ready to do it. The Raul Ruidiaz–Nicolas Lodeiro–Jordan Morris trio is electric and firing on all cylinders, attempting to make a claim to the greatest postseason triumvirate the league has ever seen. The numbers build a compelling case, and a third MLS Cup (for Lodeiro and Morris; for Ruidiaz it would be his second) would only add to the claim. Only the original D.C. United and Beckham–Donovan–Keane LA Galaxy dynasties were more prolific, with each winning three titles in four seasons.
Those three stars will give FC Dallas all it can handle, but it's not as if Seattle's win over a severely shorthanded LAFC was entirely straightforward. Carlos Vela hit an awful penalty with a chance to pull even early, and Bob Bradley's side had a late goal taken off the board by VAR that could have set up a frenetic last few minutes. (On the flip side, Seattle hit the post twice and had Morris miss a sitter, which could have made things even more lopsided; such are the margins.)
Regardless, Seattle has been here before, isn't decimated by COVID-19-related absences and should be considered the favorite to lift another MLS Cup.
2. Sporting Kansas City
First round: Drew San Jose Earthquakes, 3–3 (advanced on PKs, 3–0)
Conference semifinals: vs. Minnesota United, Dec. 2, 9 p.m. ET
Tim Melia's immaculate penalty performance is the major takeaway from the first round, but three concessions in regulation—including an inexcusable equalizer deep into stoppage time—show a foundation with some cracks in it. San Jose has that way of making games go sideways, but Minnesota won't be shook by going on the road to face the top seed.
All eyes are on Alan Pulido and the star Mexican forward's knee injury. If he's able to return, he changes SKC's outlook considerably. Even so, Sporting KC has the slight edge here over MNUFC, especially with an 18% full Children's Mercy Park—and an even bigger one if the match proceeds to PKs.
By virtue of Philly being out and Sporting KC having the best regular-season mark entering the playoffs, the club is next in line to host MLS Cup should it get there.
3. Columbus Crew
First round: Beat New York Red Bulls, 3–2
Conference semifinals: vs. Nashville SC, Nov. 29, 8 p.m. ET
Columbus looked to be the Shield frontrunner before a 3-5-2 spell to end the season left it six points off the pace. Given that Cup success rarely follows a Shield, perhaps that's not a bad thing. There's no denying the pieces are in place for a run to the final, though, with Caleb Porter's side featuring a starting XI without any discernible weaknesses and a steady goalkeeper in Eloy Room who can pull off the spectacular save if called upon.
The difference vs. Nashville could come down to the two midfield engine rooms, and with Columbus having the benefit of some extra rest–and Nashville having taken Toronto to extra time Tuesday night—leg freshness in the final half hour or so on Sunday night could wind up becoming a factor.
4. Orlando City
First round: Drew NYCFC, 1–1 (advanced on PKs, 6–5)
Conference semifinals: vs. New England Revolution, Nov. 29, 3 p.m. ET
The Lions embodied "survive and advance" after the wackiest shootout in league history, and now they get to host the Revolution instead of going on the road to face the top seed. That's all nice and all, but they'll be without starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, after his sending-off-via-technicality on Saturday. An appeal was unsurprisingly unsuccessful given that the officials were just following the Laws of the Game in issuing the red card, but at the very least it'll be Brian Rowe in goal and not defender Rodrigo Schlegel. Starting right back Ruan is also out after seeing red vs. NYCFC.
When a club advances in such an exhilarating way, it can develop that "team of destiny" kind of aura, but it'll take more than that to quiet Bruce Arena's Revolution.
5. Minnesota United
First round: Beat Colorado Rapids, 3–0
Conference semifinals: at Sporting KC, Dec. 2, 9 p.m. ET
The Loons pose a dangerous threat to top-seeded SKC. All three of their meetings this season (two in the regular season, one on in the MLS Is Back group stage) were decided by one goal, but Emanuel "Bebelo" Reynoso's immediate impact (one goal, seven assists in 13 regular season games; three assists in the playoff opener) and growing influence give Minnesota a different dynamic going forward.
After getting a one-and-done taste of playoff life last season, Minnesota appears more prepared for this stage. It honed its knockout chops at MLS Is Back en route to the semifinals and is considerably more solid this time around.
6. New England Revolution
Play-in round: Beat Montreal Impact, 2–1
First round: Beat Philadelphia Union, 2–0
Conference semifinals: at Orlando City, Dec. 1, 3 p.m. ET
Underestimate an Arena-coached side in the playoffs at your own peril, though that alone is not why New England could go on a run. Much of the Revolution's resurgence has to do with the return of Carles Gil in the midfield, where the Spanish star has pulled the strings after missing the vast majority of the season. In Big Lebowski parlance, he's the rug that ties the room together.
Through a 2020-induced scheduling quirk, the Revs and Orlando City did not face each other this season, giving their nationally televised showdown on Sunday an added wrinkle.
7. FC Dallas
First round: Drew Portland Timbers, 1–1 (advanced on PKs, 8–7)
Conference semifinals: at Seattle Sounders, Dec. 1, 9:30 p.m. ET
Give it up for the kids. FC Dallas's homegrown brigade was the story of the survival in Portland, with 17-year-old Ricardo Pepi's late heroics forcing extra time and a clinical shootout performance sealing advancement.
Now comes another familiar hurdle in Seattle. The Sounders and FCD have played some memorable playoff games and series in recent years, including a 4–3, extra-time thriller in last season's first round; a 4–2, two-legged conference semifinal also won by Seattle in 2016; a two-legged conference semifinal won in PKs by Dallas a year before that; and a two-legged conference semifinal won by Seattle on away goals in 2014.
In order for Dallas to go through, it'll need its high-profile stars to show up and go toe-to-toe with Seattle's.
8. Nashville SC
Play-in round: Beat Inter Miami, 3–0
First round: Beat Toronto FC, 1–0, in extra time
Conference semifinals: at Columbus Crew, Nov. 29, 8 p.m. ET
A team that seemingly thrives on bulletin board material will have no problem appearing eighth out of eight here. No expansion team has run the table in MLS since the 1998 Chicago Fire, and Nashville isn't likely to—though that's exactly what Gary Smith & Co. want you to think.
The manager, who won it all with Colorado 10 years ago, guides a team that is simply solid. It was the lowest-scoring team in the 18-team playoff field, though, and operates with some quite fine margins. In the battle of the yellow-wearing clubs, Columbus is the clear favorite, though the all-USMNT battle between Walker Zimmerman and Gyasi Zardes bears watching as the marquee matchup.