One thing is clear in the unpredictable minefield that is the MLS Cup playoffs: of the four teams remaining, there may be two distinct favorites, but there are no underdogs left—no matter how many times some coaches want to play that card.
The most prominent "underdog" of the bunch, Minnesota United, made that abundantly clear to complete the conference finals picture on Thursday night, blitzing top-seed Sporting Kansas City out of its own house with a 3-0 win. Its third such result by that score dating back to Decision Day was made possible by a pair of early goal-line clearances and then a first-half attacking masterclass authored by Emanuel "Bebelo" Reynoso (three assists) and Kevin Molino (two goals).
That leaves a pair of matchups to determine who will compete for the 2020 MLS Cup: the Columbus Crew hosting the New England Revolution on Sunday, and the reigning champion Seattle Sounders welcoming Minnesota to the newly named Lumen Field on Monday.
The hosts have the clear edge on paper, and a Sounders-Crew final in Columbus that would make the late Sigi Schmid smile would not be an unexpected outcome–but at this point, there isn't a final pairing that should come as a surprise.
All four have the common denominator of dynamic playmakers and complementary attacking pieces that benefit from them. Seattle's Nicolas Lodeiro-Jordan Morris-Raul Ruidiaz triumvirate is no stranger to the MLS Cup final stage and is vying to enter the conversation of the all-time greats in league history. Columbus's Lucas Zelarayan-Pedro Santos-Gyasi Zardes trio has been just as influential to the Crew's success. Minnesota's midseason addition of Reynoso was the jolt the Loons needed, with the Argentine assist machine bringing the best out of Molino and Robin Lod. And Carles Gil's timely return has certainly brought the missing dimension to the Revolution, with his play complementing that of fellow Designated Players Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa.
There are plenty of personal storylines to be found, with Ozzie Alonso's return to Seattle as the enemy being one on the West half, and the managerial showdown between Caleb Porter and Bruce Arena after their previous frosty sideline encounter (when Porter's Portland Timbers beat Arena's LA Galaxy) coloring the East half. But the underlying theme of this postseason has been the race to be the self-proclaimed biggest underdog.
Minnesota's Adrian Heath and Sporting KC's Peter Vermes went back and forth about it prior to Thursday night (Vermes, stewarding the conference's top seed, was more tongue-in-cheek, so it appeared), while Arena, too, has been playing the underdog card, going on about how the single-elimination format favors an underdog side such as his. The truth is, his team is an eight-seed, but at full capacity and with a player of Gil's caliber achieving top fitness and form, it's far more than that. Nobody's calling Seattle, which is vying for a fourth final appearance in five years and has made the playoffs 12 years running, an underdog, but the motivational method is a bit played at this juncture.
If there is an underdog element shining through in these playoffs, it's that they haven't been derailed. Despite logical fears that the pandemic would hamper plans for a postseason being carried out in home markets and not a bubble, MLS has made it more or less on schedule to its final four. The only exception was pushing the Sporting KC-Minnesota conference semifinal by a day to slide into the vacant slot on FOX after the NFL was forced to move Thursday Night Football (and subsequently pushing the Western Conference final by a day to account for that move). Uneven amounts of rest time and competitive balance concerns aside, it's hard to fault the league for jumping at the opportunity to feature in a better midweek primetime TV exposure window.
It's not as if there haven't been COVID-19 scares along the way. Columbus was hit rather hard with eight cases, advancing to the conference final despite being down seven players vs. Nashville SC in the most recent round. Things were deemed to be contained enough, however, and there have been no indications that the Crew's matchup vs. the Revs on Sunday is in peril.
With regular season points per game (and not total points, due to the schedule imbalances caused by pandemic-induced cancellations) being used to determine the MLS Cup host, the order of potential home teams for the Dec. 12 final is: Columbus, Seattle, Minnesota (New England, as the lowest remaining seed, cannot host). Regardless of who's hosting and who's competing for the trophy, there's very little to separate the deserved remaining squads.