Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

MLS Cup Playoffs tiers: Favorites, underdogs & dark horses

Doyle playoff tiers - 10.23.23

And so, with the conclusion of Decision Day, the 28th regular season of Major League Soccer is in the books.

Let's do our usual thing: In place of my typical Sunday night column, following Decision Day we take a look at where everybody stands heading into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs (check out the bracket here).

For those teams that didn't make the postseason, post-mortems have been trickling out over the past month, with another big batch coming later this week. But here and now, into the playoffs we go:

Tier 1: The Favorites
  • Decision Day result: Drew 2-2 vs. Atlanta
  • Seed: 1st in Eastern Conference

About six weeks ago on Extratime, I said Cincy would go into the playoffs bigger favorites this year than LAFC were last season. I’m not sure I still believe that – the loss to Miami in the US Open Cup semis, some injuries and then some indifferent late-summer form that carried on, at least a little bit, into autumn put a slight damper on things. So did Aaron Boupendza’s ill-timed walkabout that got him suspended by the team for Decision Day. Bad vibes there.

But still, with this season we’re mostly talking degrees of excellence here. Cincy are worthy Supporters’ Shield winners by every metric – boxscore, eye test, xG differential, and all the underlying stuff has them as one of the two best teams in the league.

They don’t just have two match-winning forwards, they have two match-winning wingbacks, for god’s sake (provided Santi Arias can get healthy). The defense is very good, with Matt Miazga the likely MLS Defender of the Year and Obinna Nwobodo our Extratime d-mid of the year. Roman Celentano isn’t Djordje Petrovic back there, but he doesn’t make mistakes.

Lucho Acosta does stuff like this. He’s going to win Landon Donovan MLS MVP and should. By a mile.

They have accrued a ton of knock-out round experience over the past 18 months, and they will play every game but one in this postseason at TQL Stadium (which is a fortress). I fully expect that to include the final game of the year.

  • Decision Day result: Drew 1-1 at Vancouver
  • Seed: 3rd in Western Conference

It got maybe a little bit too easy to criticize LAFC in the middle of the year – to focus on their CCL final failure vs. Club León and subsequent faceplant in Leagues Cup to Monterrey, and to get hung up on all the roster shuffling and changes that hadn’t positively affected the wins column, and to lament the lack of dynamic ball movement through midfield.

Everything was fast and vertical, and the Black & Gold pretty clearly suffered anytime the game wasn’t going to script. The cadre of young players brought in not quite fitting was just as big a problem as the cadre of old players not quite being themselves.

All of that is valid, yet this is still the same LAFC team that put an excellent Philly side into a body bag in the CCL semis, and smashed their way through the first third of the season before their legs gave out from all the miles, and outplayed Tigres in Campeones Cup before losing in penalties.

There is clearly some sort of mental block when it comes to Liga MX sides, but that block is gone when it comes to beating MLS teams. They have the Golden Boot presented by Audi winner (Dénis Bouanga) and a half-dozen other very good attacking options, experience up the spine, and shockingly little pressure for a team trying to go back-to-back.

The underlying numbers love them, by the way. Most publicly available metrics have them neck-and-neck with Cincy as the two best teams in the league.

Tier 2: Serious Contenders
  • Decision Day result: Lost 2-1 at New England
  • Seed: 4th in Eastern Conference

Clearly they’ve been a step behind last year’s team, which was impossible form to carry over from one season to another. But they still made the CCL semis and Leagues Cup semis, still stayed in the East’s top three pretty much all season long, and were able to do so while head coach Jim Curtin shuffled lineups and formations to build a bit more depth and flexibility than they had going into the playoffs last season.

I’m not sure they have better health going into the playoffs this year – a bunch of guys are carrying knocks, including the previously indestructible Jakob Glesnes – but I wouldn’t be shocked if they were somehow fresher because of the squad rotation they saw.

The Union still have a big-game hump they’ve got to get over, but this team now has a metric ton of knockout round experience, and that includes experience imposing their smash-mouth style of play upon good teams. If they can make every game a Philadelphia Union game, they’ll be in very good shape.

By the way, we’ve all seen Major League, right?

Not exactly the same thing, but give a group of athletes a common cause to rally around, and that can turn into a tangible edge. We didn’t see that on Decision Day, but I bet we will in the playoffs.

  • Decision Day result: Won 2-0 at St. Louis
  • Seed: 2nd in Western Conference

If you’re not a basketball fan I apologize, but you’re just gonna have to bear with me here.

I keep thinking back to last year’s NBA season and subsequent playoffs. I’m a Celtics guy – the Celtics were very good to excellent – and it really only felt like the Bucks could beat us in the East. Then Giannis got hurt and Jimmy Butler went berserk and the Bucks were out and Boston had a clear shot back to the finals.

I mean, sure, the Heat beat the Bucks, but that was fluky. Miami had stunk most of the regular season, and they were almost eliminated by an entirely mediocre Bulls team in the play-in, and their best offensive players were a bit too old, and everything moved a bit too slow. Getting that first-round win was a fitting capstone to the Jimmy era, but the book on that Heat team being title contenders was really closed. Too many months of middling play. Too many flaws.

Nope. Turns out that if you’re going to bury a proud, veteran team with an extensive playoff history, you’re going to have to really, really earn it. Flaws and all, teams that know how to win the biggest games have a habit of winning the biggest games.

Does all of the above sound like anybody in Rave Green to you? Obviously they need Raúl Ruidíaz to get fit and find one last month of magic, but that’s the only real “if” I’m looking at with this team, one that has done amazing work defensively (by the underlying numbers they’re the best defensive team in the league, and by the boxscore numbers they’re tied at No. 1) and with pitch control. They also, because of the development of Léo Chú and Reed Baker-Whiting, have more attacking weapons than previous iterations of this team.

The Zombie Heat ruined my spring. The Zombie Sounders might be coming for your autumn. Don’t believe this group’s dead until you drive a stake into their heart.

That Decision Day win at St. Louis sure felt like a statement of intent.

  • Decision Day result: Won 2-1 vs. Montréal
  • Seed: 3rd in Eastern Conference

The traditional formula for making it through any knockout round tournament: limit xG allowed, have at least one match-winner in attack and know how to close up shop once you take a lead.

I don’t believe the Crew, with their personnel and their style of play, can really check that first box against the best teams. I know they’ve pitched some shutouts this year – their 3-0 Hell is Real win in mid-August is one of the best all-around games any MLS team has played in 2023 – but that’s not really who they are.

And they definitely can not check that third box, as their 22 points dropped from leading positions is second-worst in the league. We’ve seen them, time after time, take a lead and still manage to leave the door open.

I’ve got them as serious contenders anyway. Columbus are so good with the ball and so good in attack that, on their day, they can play anyone in the league off the field.

“When we dominate the game like this and we were close, it happened several times that we were close to finish the game and we didn't do it,” manager Wilfried Nancy said last month after his team beat the brakes off of Atlanta in Atlanta, but still came away with just a 1-1 draw. “Yeah, this is painful, but again, we are going to learn from that the hard way, but this is the way it is.”

What I hope they learned from that is to just be the Crew. Ten shots is good. Twenty shots is better. 60% possession is good. 65% is better.

Throw caution to the wind and attack. If they do that, I really do believe they can be the last team standing.

  • Decision Day result: Won 2-0 at Toronto
  • Seed: 2nd in Eastern Conference

The team with the lowest payroll in the league, as per the latest MLS PA release, has the second-best record. And Óscar Pareja still somehow does not get the respect he deserves.

The Lions are where they are in the standings not because they’re truly excellent at anything – I have trouble putting my finger on any one particular thing they do better than anybody else in the league – but because they’re bad at nothing. They can use the ball well when they’re forced to, but can suffer and play against it when they need to. They can hurt you on restarts, and crush you on the break. They will throw their fullbacks forward, or simply let them sit deep and defend.

There are no obvious flaws to exploit or weak spots to attack. This team goes about 16 deep and it feels like every single one of those players not only understands his role, but completely buys into it and is willing to sacrifice for the team.

That includes winger Facundo Torres, who probably needs to reprise last year’s US Open Cup heroics if Orlando are going to make a very deep run over the next six weeks. He’s certainly looked the part over the back half of the season, and with both World Cup qualifiers and a potential massive winter move to a big-spending European team coming, he’s got plenty of individual incentive piled on top of the team-wide incentive. The same goes for center forward Duncan McGuire, who, I mean…

God. Good luck.

Postseason success is the one thing that’s eluded Pareja. This is his best team since his 2016 FC Dallas side that I think would’ve done the domestic treble had Mauro Díaz not popped his Achilles’ in the second-to-last week of the season.

Maybe this is his year.

  • Decision Day result: Lost 2-0 to Seattle
  • Seed: 1st in Western Conference

I almost outsmarted myself and bumped St. Louis down a tier:

  • They give up too many good chances.
  • They don’t use the ball in midfield to take the starch out of games when sitting on a lead.
  • Their depth and liberal use of subs gave them an advantage during the congestion of the regular season, but with games more spaced out in the playoffs, I’m not sure that’ll be such a trump card.
  • Their forwards (Klauss, Niko Gioacchini and especially Sam Adeniran) have been unsustainably hot all year long.
  • Goalkeeper Roman Bürki has had a Matt Turner-esque season that is an outlier relative to his previous form.
  • They’ve won two games in the past two months and just got thumped by the Whitecaps and Sounders.

Those are all good reasons to doubt. But any time the bottom felt like it was going to drop out this season, Bradley Carnell found an answer. They finally have almost everybody healthy and they’ve got a ton of confidence. And why shouldn’t they? St. Louis’ reward for their excellent regular season is they get home-field advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, and they’ve lost just four games all year long at that cauldron of a stadium.

I think LAFC and Seattle could go there and get a win (not saying they’d be favorites, but I could see it happening). Any other West team and it’d be a shock.

Then once you get into MLS Cup itself… well, I was about to say “stranger things have happened,” but even in MLS I don’t think it’d get any stranger than this team winning MLS Cup in their expansion season.

They are playing for an unbelievable slice of history.

Tier 3: Need to catch some breaks
  • Decision Day result: Lost 1-0 to Red Bulls
  • Seed: 7th in Eastern Conference

This is the one I struggled with most. I’ve said a million times on Extratime how I think the real Nashville SC are the one we saw in Leagues Cup – the team that is entirely happy sitting deep against anyone, but also has the talent and technique to play out of any press, can carry possession for huge swathes of the game, and have an MVP No. 10, a traditional goal-dangerous No. 9 capable of making magic with his back to the goal, and a surfeit of lightning-fast two-way wingers.

As soon as Leagues Cup ended, though, that group disappeared into the ether. Hany Mukhtar looks out of gas, and while Sam Surridge came alive against the Revs on Matchday 37, it’s hard to know which version of him we’re going to get.

The good news is Dax McCarty (still absolutely essential) is going to be rested thanks to the international break and a Decision Day suspension. The bad news is Aníbal Godoy won’t be, and both Hany and Walker Zimmerman have looked worn down for months.

It still absolutely could happen. This group has made a deep playoff run before, they have more firepower than ever, and that Leagues Cup run didn’t feel fluky (well, maybe the Club América game). Even as I type this I have an urge to bump them up a tier.

But the fact they’re never going to have home-field advantage is enough for me to keep them in Tier 3.

  • Decision Day result: Won 3-1 at Portland
  • Seeding: 4th in Western Conference

This might be unfair to the Dynamo, who have already proved their knockout round bona fides by winning this year’s Open Cup*. And that wasn’t an outlier of a result – they’ve probably been the best team in the league post-Leagues Cup, crushing good teams at home like Vancouver and Columbus and getting good road results at RSL and Montréal, as well as that Open Cup final in Miami. That was all before they ended Portland’s season in real style on Decision Day.

(*) They beat Tampa Bay, Sporting KC, pre-Bebelo Minnesota, Chicago, post-Ruiz RSL, and Messi-less Miami to win the Open Cup. Just sayin’.

They have a lot of elements of what I talked about with the Crew above: get on the ball and be amazing with it. Houston scored a half-dozen goals like this so far this year:

The Dynamo were miles better than St. Louis in that game. But also, they only managed a 1-1 draw because the second goal never came, and they’re not quite good enough defensively to entirely shut things down a la the great Sounders teams of last decade, or (to keep it local), the great Dynamo teams under Dom Kinnear.

It feels like they’re one high-level attacking piece short. The Crew, of course, went out and got Diego Rossi. Houston stood pat.

  • Decision Day result: Drew 1-1 vs. LAFC
  • Seed: 6th in Western Conference

The underlying numbers and the eye test both love the ‘Caps.

First, the eye test: They are one of the most fun teams in the league, able to throw multiple runners forward but, thanks to that back three and DP d-mid Andrés Cubas, always have numbers back. That allows them to limit the damage they sustain in transition even if the initial counter-press (the defensive work of that front two, Ryan Gauld and Brian White, is elite and crucial) gets broken. It’s a system that fits the personnel.

Second, the underlying numbers: The ‘Caps are fifth in expected goals differential – just ahead of Seattle, and well ahead of teams like Philly, Houston, Orlando and St. Louis – and sixth in Goals Added differential (an advanced metric from American Soccer Analysis that measures all events-based data, not just shots).

That means they move the game to great spots on the field and limit your ability to do the same. That is the sign of a really good team.

And oh, by the way, they’ve got the best record in the Western Conference since late May, won a Canadian Championship along the way, and played really well in Leagues Cup against the CCL champs and the Campeones Cup champs (they lost to both León and Tigres in penalties).

So why Tier 3?

  1. They’ll have to do too much work on the road.
  2. Cubas is expected to be out for another month with a shoulder injury.
  3. Gauld and White are great, but are they postseason assassins? I have my doubts, and boy did that Decision Day result add fuel to that particular fire.
  • Decision Day result: Drew 2-2 at Cincinnati
  • Seed: 6th in Eastern Conference

They probably have more attacking firepower than anybody in the playoffs. By a lot of metrics Thiago Almada’s been better than Lucho this year, and on a per-90 basis Giorgos Giakoumakis has been the best No. 9 in MLS, and the two wingers they added this summer are both great, and they’re getting tons of contributions from their fullbacks, and Tristan Muyumba could be a Best XI presented by Continental Tire-level guy next season.

I now, officially, love watching this team play. They’ve been one of the most entertaining sides in the league since the end of Leagues Cup.

But I just have not seen anything to indicate that they’re going to be good enough defensively or in goal (Brad Guzan deserves credit for working his way back so quickly from last year’s Achilles’ injury, but he’s nowhere near the same guy he was before).

You can paper over a weak defense if you’ve got an outstanding goalkeeper, and you can hide a weak goalkeeper if you’ve got an outstanding defense. But if you’re weak at both spots, and you’re not particularly great at defending with the ball… I mean, this attack would have to go thermonuclear. And that’ll be tough considering Almada got one of the dumber red cards in recent memory on Decision Day, and then Giakoumakis came off with what looked like a decent knock.

There’s a world where they’re both good to go in Game 2 of that Best-of-3 against the Crew, and power to a win at home and then pull off a road upset. It really could happen.

I just have a tough time envisioning it.

Tier 4: Too many flaws
  • Decision Day result: Won 2-1 vs. Philadelphia
  • Seed: 5th in Eastern Conference

Obviously the wheels came off when Bruce Arena was first sidelined, and then resigned in late summer. Since then, both Richie Williams and now Clint Peay have tried to solve New England’s biggest problem – the defensive weakness in central midfield that has repeatedly cost them in high-leverage games over the past few years.

That’s led to shifting personnel, formations and even principles of play. I will gently suggest that going back to a narrow diamond with Matt Polster at the base, and then two of Noel Buck/Mark-Anthony Kaye/Ian Harkes as the shuttlers makes the most sense, since it worked so well to start the year.

That formation also keeps Carles Gil as the No. 10, gives goalscoring winger Tomás Chancalay freedom to pick his spots on and off the ball, and gives Gustavo Bou (the best of a center forward crop that needs some serious offseason examination) a running mate.

But it’s been many months since we’ve seen that from the Revs, and there’s no Djordje Petrovic back between the sticks to break all the shot-stopping models. So it’s very tough to see this Revs team making any noise, even if they start their run against a Philly team with plenty of flaws of their own.

  • Decision Day result: Won 1-0 at Colorado
  • Seed: 5th in Western Conference

The wheels came off when Pablo Ruiz got hurt against LAFC in Leagues Cup, and while Pablo Mastroeni has tried his damnedest to patch things together again – that includes moving to more of a 4-2-3-1 instead of the 4-4-2 with flying fullbacks and a million big switches, and then moving to a 3-5-2 for Decision Day – they don’t quite fit without the centerpiece of the puzzle.

Add in Chicho Arango’s hamstring injury and some uneven two-way commitment from DP No. 10 Jefferson Savarino, and you’ve got a stew going. A sad, bad stew.

They’ve conceded 10 chances from set pieces, by the way. That’s only 18th-best in the league, so that trick of dropping the line deep and defending for their lives (which they’ve used to good effect in previous postseasons under Mastroeni) doesn’t seem as likely to work this year.

  • Decision Day result: Won 4-1 at LA Galaxy
  • Seed: 7th in Western Conference

Dallas spent the entire year struggling to find the right balance between pitch control and attacking dynamism. It particularly eluded them in that home match against the Rapids with one week left in the season, an incredibly disappointing 1-1 draw that left los Toros Tejanos in need of three road points in order to clinch a playoff spot.

That desperation was what they needed to put forth their best attacking performance of the year. Want to see a team that understands the need to balance pitch control (can’t take on-ball risks in bad areas!) with attacking dynamism (never let an opportunity to attack a scrambled defense go to waste!)? Here ya go:

In the other goals it was the central midfielders getting forward, or the wingers once again attacking space, or just an immediate urge to push vertical off of turnovers. It was fun and good.

It was also the LA Galaxy. I am loathe to read too much into this one performance for that reason (and also because Bernard Kamungo came off injured just before the break). There are zero playoff teams as poor in rest defense as the Galaxy are, and as a matter of fact, Dallas’ Round One opponent – the Sounders – probably have the most well-schooled rest defense in MLS.

I think this is going to be a short postseason trip for Nico Estévez & Co.

  • Decision Day result: 1-0 win at Nashville SC
  • Seed: 8th in the Eastern Conference

By expected goals differential, RBNY were the fifth-best team in the league this year. By Goals Added, which is American Soccer Analysis’ all-in-one metric that attempts to measure more than just chance quality, but where on the field the game is played and who creates the most attacking threat (while conceding the least), RBNY were the very best.

And honest to god if you watched their games, that kind of makes sense: probably 90% of their matches this season looked like Red Bull games. It didn’t matter where they were playing or who they were playing against, they just turned it all into demolition derby pretty much all the time.

What they were missing – the reason I could see them losing* the Wild Card game to a Charlotte team that’s not very good – is attacking-third quality. There’s no Bradley Wright-Phillips or Sacha Kljestan or Daniel Royer or even a Mike Grella on this team. And without guys in that tier of attackers… well, you can rack up all the xG and expected threat you want. At some point, you need someone to put the ball into the back of the net.

(*) I do not think they’ll lose the Wild Card, but it wouldn’t shock me one bit if they did.

Red Bull fans know this. They’ve seen this team come up short in the postseason for this exact reason time after time after time.

It’ll be the same story this year. That is, of course, unless Tom Barlow decides to get hot and do the funniest thing ever.

  • Decision Day result: Beat Minnesota United 3-1
  • Seed: 8th in Western Conference

Here’s the simple argument: Sporting were unbearably bad the first 10 games of the year, going 0W-7L-3D and stapling themselves to the bottom of the West standings. They spent the rest of the year trying to dig themselves out and climb into the playoff picture.

They pulled it off by going 12W-7L-5D the rest of the way – never losing two in a row, never getting on some unsustainable eight-game winning streak or something like that. They just went out there and played their style of ball game after game after game, and in so doing collected 1.71 points per game over the final 24 regular-season games. That’d top the Western table over the course of a full season.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and forget how to coach” is what manager and sporting director Peter Vermes said after that big Decision Day win, and obviously he’s right: This year’s story for Sporting is the story of their personnel. Player quality matters a lot, and what happened after that first 10 games is their three DPs got mostly healthy, and goalkeeper Tim Melia got mostly healthy, and Colombian CB Dany Rosero got fully integrated.

So they upgraded about half their lineup and et voilà! They were a better team.

Good enough to pull off a Round One upset against their hated rivals across the state? Honestly, yeah. I don’t expect it but I wouldn’t be shocked.

What would shock me is if they made it all the way through that West bracket. Sporting are still just a little bit too loose defensively for me to see them as a team that could win four straight playoff encounters, with most of them coming on the road.

  • Decision Day result: 1-0 win vs. Inter Miami
  • Seed: 9th in Eastern Conference

The Crown don’t seem tough to beat, but they’ve managed to lose just three times in the past four months (regular season only, obviously). I think the focus for a lot of that stretch was understandably on how they kept dropping late points, turning wins into draws with awful defensive moments late in games, but even that kept them in the hunt.

And then on Decision Day they got their goal, Kristijan Kahlina made it stand up with some heroics in net, and into the playoffs they snuck. There were no dropped points, no late heartbreak. Instead they took 10 points from the last 12 on offer, and I don’t think that went according to anybody’s script.


Lots to be happy about. Making the playoffs is a tangible sign of progress in Year 2.

Now for a little bit of reality:

  • They have zero wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams in five-and-a-half months.
  • They will not, in any scenario, have home-field advantage against anyone in these playoffs, and have exactly one road win since late May.

Saturday night was this season’s happy ending for Charlotte. Story’s over soon.

  • Decision Day result: Drew 1-1 vs. Austin FC
  • Seed: 9th in Western Conference

That draw vs. the Verde & Black wasn’t enough – they needed to get some help from Houston, who went to Portland and pounded the Timbers right into the offseason.

In short: I find it hard to take seriously the postseason chances of a team that couldn’t beat Austin at home with a playoff berth in the balance.

The Quakes have become sort of a lesser version of the Sounders or FC Dallas – a team that’s focused on pitch control first and foremost, which comes at the expense of attacking dynamism. To that end, their 39 goals scored is the second-lowest total in the West.

The problem is, even with all the emphasis on structure, San Jose are nowhere near as good defensively as either Dallas (seventh-best xG allowed in MLS) or Seattle (the very best). Daniel will stand on his head more often than any ‘keeper in the league, but even that won’t be enough for an extended postseason stay.

The Quakes only have one win in the past two months, and only two road wins all year. They haven’t won in KC since 2015.