A bandwagon fan's guide to the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs


The Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Round One Best-of-3 series begin this Saturday with the Philadelphia Union hosting the New England Revolution (5 pm ET | Apple TV - Free) and LAFC hosting Vancouver Whitecaps FC (8 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).

In total, 16 teams are left in the postseason field, which means 13 teams have already bitten the dust, leaving fan bases across the country without a clear rooting interest. Those who are new to the league and/or from a region without a clear home team may find themselves equally lost.

So what to do? Who to root for?

  1. Embrace the freedom. Every club has a unique story for 2023, and instead of being tied to one based on geographic location or prior history, you, the unattached fan, get to choose whichever narrative suits your personal ideals best.
  2. Read the bandwagon fan's guide below. Treat it like a horoscope, except you get to pick your sign based on vibes alone.
  3. Fully identify with your chosen team like your life depends on it. This is the most fun way to watch the playoffs. If your chosen team loses, pretend like it never happened and start over at step one.

We’re going conference by conference, top seed to bottom.

Eastern Conference

You love a rags-to-riches story

FC Cincinnati have been on a Count of Monte Cristo-level come-up all year. After finishing as “Wooden Spoon” winners (i.e. the worst team in the league) during their first three MLS seasons (2019-21), they’ve turned themselves into a juggernaut that more or less bulldozed the table en route to a Supporters’ Shield title and a tie for the fourth-most single-season points in league history (69).

Their revenge tour technically dates back a year prior to 2023 (last year saw them make their first-ever playoffs), but the speed of the club's turnaround has been remarkable nonetheless. Led by Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner Luciano Acosta, FC Cincinnati will look to solidify their impressive ascent with more silverware come December.

You are over-achieving and underappreciated

Orlando City SC head coach Oscar Pareja has been at this a long time, having coached three different MLS teams dating back to 2012. He’s also been very good at this for a long time, amassing a 191W-130L-98D record that translates to 1.60 points per game over his MLS head coaching career. That’s a playoff-level pace maintained for 10+ seasons, all for clubs (Orlando, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids) not traditionally known as top-level spenders.

In a parity-driven league, Pareja’s consistent success is remarkable, but because he’s yet to win an MLS Cup, his name is sometimes passed over in the pantheon of all-time greats. This season, Orlando have reflected their coach’s quiet pursuit of greatness, flying under the radar most of the way en route to the second-best record in the league.

The Lions do have some star power in Uruguayan international Facundo Torres and rookie phenom Duncan McGuire, but by and large, their results are earned via collective effort over individual flash.

Football is life, and life is beautiful

Columbus head coach Wilfried Nancy is part tactical savant, part philosopher. Something akin to Pep Guardiola or Arsene Wenger, he preaches the belief that core principles come first (in Columbus’ case, manipulating opponents with clever passing patterns) and results follow naturally.

On the field, that translates to a beautiful, if sometimes dangerous, brand of attacking soccer. The Crew scored more goals than any other club this year, fueled by striker Cucho Hernández and a bevy of complementary attacking pieces. Many of those goals were as aesthetically pleasing for viewers as they were psychologically devasting for opponents. The downside to Columbus’ wide-open style of play is they’ve conceded a ton of late goals, a bad habit to carry into the playoffs.

You always bring your “lunch pail” to work

The Union are the quintessential “blue-collar” club of MLS. They’ve built a perennial power by patiently mining their youth academy system for the better part of a decade and making shrewd signings for undervalued talent both at home and abroad. None of the names in their attacking “big three” – Dániel Gazdag, Julián Carranza, Mikael Uhre – jump off the page for star power, but their stats (132 combined goals + assists over the last two seasons) do.

Supporting that attack is a strong core of hardworking defenders and midfielders who’ve rarely seen a tackle they don’t like – especially d-mid José Martínez. Shaky results and public contract disputes of late have put a few cracks in their seemingly steel-wielded armor, but if any team can compartmentalize for the sake of getting a job done, it’s Philadelphia.

You embrace the "grindset"

Not to be confused with Philadelphia’s hard-hat brand built around consistency and effort, New England’s “always run towards the grind” vibe for 2023 is only for fans who like to take their time evaluating options in life… and then choose the absolute most-brutal path.

The club certainly didn’t start the season with the intention of turning MLS' difficulty settings up to 10, but injuries to key players (Dylan Borrero), summer transfers to Europe (Djordje Petrovic) and a late-season coaching carousel (Bruce Arena to Richie Williams to Clint Peay) have created that exact scenario.

The plus side of all the turnover is a new appreciation for game-changing players both old and new like Carles Gil, Noel Buck and Tomás Chancalay who’ve kept them afloat down the stretch. Maybe surviving the midseason blues will make the team stronger for playoffs.

Scoring goals is the only goal

Similar to Columbus (their Round One Best-of-3 series opponent), Atlanta can score goals seemingly for fun. But where Columbus play like a finely-tuned orchestra, Atlanta have more of a free-jazz energy. Yes, head coach Gonzalo Pineda likes a methodical buildup out of the midfield as much as anybody (Atlanta only trail Columbus for the highest share of possession per match in the league), but the sheer individual talent of his front four – Thiago Almada, Giorgos Giakoumakis, Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva – makes improvisation in the final third inevitable.

All that creative movement helped Atlanta nearly equal Columbus for goals scored on the year, but some of their devil-may-care attacking principles (including a perpetual green light for their fullbacks going forward) often left them exposed going the other way.

“Defense wins championships” is tattooed on your soul

Some people don’t see the charm of a defensive battle. But others know that winning trumps all, and, historically, great defenses win a lot – especially in tournament play. Exhibit A: Nashville SC, who dispatched a slew of giants (FC Cincinnati, Club América, CF Monterrey) en route to this year’s Leagues Cup Final that they narrowly lost to Inter Miami CF on PKs.

Beyond Leagues Cup, Nashville head coach Gary Smith has a history of winning in a defense-first way, having led a gritty Colorado Rapids team to lift MLS Cup 2010. With two-time MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman steering the back line and 2022 MLS MVP Hany Mukhtar still capable of orchestrating devastating counterattacks, Nashville are the perfect team for any pragmatist at heart.

You have an unshakeable sense of self

No team in MLS has a clearer identity than the New York Red Bulls, who, no matter the coach or roster, will press like crazy and go into every 50/50 duel like their lives depend on it. That level of commitment has led them to 14 straight playoff trips, the longest streak in league history.

Off the field, the Red Bulls commit to the bit just as hard, proudly claiming their "nobody likes us" persona. The latest player to pick up that mantle has been left-back John Tolkin, who, as a homegrown product out of New Jersey, has become something of a club talisman at 21 years old.

He called the Red Bulls' proverbial shot before Decision Day, when their playoff lives still hung in the balance, saying: "First of all, I think every single person here has commented on how they don't like Red Bull and how we play. [When] somebody has something smart to say to me, I guess all I can say is, they don't play in the postseason as much as us."

Since then, Tolkin's tallied 2g/2a in must-win Decision Day and Wild Card matches, setting the Red Bulls up for a Round One Best-of-3 against Cincinnati. Always speak your truth, young Tolkin.

Western Conference

You bow to no one

2023 expansion club St. Louis CITY SC were not “supposed” to be in the playoffs, let alone with a No. 1 seed. That’s partly because they’re an expansion club, and expansion clubs usually have to pay their dues with a few sub-par seasons before becoming true playoff threats. But more than that, it’s because St. Louis’ unorthodox roster build left pundits scratching their heads before the season. For example, their goalie, Roman Bürki, is the highest-paid player on the team (according to MLS Players Association data). That’s usually a no-go as far as MLS roster building goes.

But head coach Bradley Carnell and his team didn’t get the memo. Led by the aforementioned Bürki (a heavy favorite for Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year), St. Louis have run through the Western Conference this year with extreme no-cares-given energy. Whether they can continue to shock the league in the playoffs, where they’ll no longer be sneaking up on anybody, remains to be seen.

Sustainability is a way of life

Striving for sustainability doesn’t just apply to keeping Mother Nature happy in Seattle (though, most local residents will tell you that’s still a high priority). It applies to their soccer team, too.

The Sounders have made the playoffs in every season but one (2022) since they joined the league in 2009. The year they missed the playoffs, they won the Concacaf Champions League instead.

With only two head coaches in the club’s 15-year MLS tenure, structural stability has been an emphasis from the start, and the results have followed. Many of the team’s top players from when head coach Brian Schmetzer first took over in 2016 (like Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan) are still major figures on the roster today, and the Sounders have replenished their talent over the years with key signings (João Paulo, Léo Chú) and homegrowns (Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting) alike.

After a down regular season in 2022, the Sounders are back to where they pretty much always are come playoff time: near the top of the West, primed for a deep run.

You only think you’re better than everybody because you are

Between their bold color scheme, celebrity owners and insane MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi record (three winners, including Dénis Bouanga this season, in the last six years), LAFC have no issue living in the spotlight. But like other ultra-successful Los Angeles teams (the Lakers, the Dodgers and even the Galaxy circa 1996-2014), the Black & Gold back up their swagger with wins and trophies.

The sixth-year MLS club already have an MLS Cup and a Supporters’ Shield (x2) to their name and look primed to go on another playoff run in 2023. And although a draining season that included deep runs in CCL and Leagues Cup has left them looking depleted of late, star attackers Bouanga and Carlos Vela remain capable of delivering more Hollywood magic (and silverware).

“There’s no ‘I’ in team” is tattooed on your soul

Yes, Houston have a clear star player, both in profile and ability, in Mexico national team legend Héctor Herrera. The midfield maestro has worked his way into the Best XI presented by Continental Tire conversation with four goals and 17 assists on the year, and there’s no question who sets the tempo and standard on the pitch in Houston.

But it’s important to remember Herrera’s style of play is all about getting his teammates involved, and Houston’s box scores and general style of play reflect that. Herrera attempted the third-most passes in the league this year, and the result was a balanced attack that saw nine different players tally at least three goals on the season. Some of those goals would make any teamwork enthusiast's heart sore.

You prefer the road less traveled

Based on geography alone, it’s easy for Real Salt Lake to slip through the cracks in terms of national attention. But watching the likes of Chicho Arango, Danny Musovksi and Diego Luna ball out, one gets the sense they don’t mind too much. All three of those attacking talents have woven their careers in and out of MLS in unpredictable ways.

For Musovski and Luna, that’s meant sustained stints with USL Championship sides like Reno 1868 and El Paso Locomotive, and for Arango, a brief spell with Liga MX’s Pachuca between his time with LAFC and RSL (alongside a few other stops in his career). All three played major roles in Salt Lake’s "next man up"-style attack this year, and that diversity and depth of talent helped the team stay afloat after a season-ending injury for star midfielder Pablo Ruiz.

Arango (hamstring) remains questionable for the club’s Round One Best-of-3 series against Houston, but don’t be surprised if more RSL attackers spring forward to see them through.

You love Canada

It’s not fair to make one city the de-facto representative of a country as sprawling and diverse as Canada, but in the Whitecaps' case, the ties to their home nation run deeper than geography. Over the summer, Vancouver signed three Canada men’s national team regulars – Richie Laryea, Sam Adekugbe and Junior Hoilett – to their side, and all three became regular contributors, either in starting roles or off the bench. Shortly thereafter, the team rose above the playoff line with a remarkable run of form, particularly on the road, to close their season.

Any fan of the CanMNT will be hard-pressed to deny the pull of head coach Vanni Sartini’s side. And it shouldn’t hurt how star attackers Brian White and Ryan Gauld, while not Canadian, embody the humble, hard-working spirit of their local environment, quietly becoming one of the most effective duos in the league.

You procrastinate because you “do your best work under pressure”

Some people like to make sure their work is done well ahead of schedule so they can take the time to sit back, relax and enjoy the view. FC Dallas were not like those people in 2023.

Head coach Nico Estévez’s side didn’t exactly face plant across the finish line, but seven draws in their final nine games kept them from securing a playoff spot until Decision Day, when they brought their best stuff to run over the Galaxy 4-1 on the road. Led by two of the best young players in the league – back-to-back 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR No. 1s Jesús Ferreira and Alan Velasco – Dallas absolutely have the talent to go on a surprise run in the playoffs. They just need to harness the same desperate energy they had on Decision Day.

You don't give up the throne easily

After going winless the first 10 games of their season (0W-7L-3D), SKC supporters' group Kansas City Cauldron penned a letter to Kansas City ownership, front office, coaching staff and players airing their frustrations and saying they "expect change." But manager and sporting director Peter Vermes – the longest-tenured coach in MLS – maintained his role, stuck to the plan and eventually got his side over the playoff line and past the Wild Card round.

The club's crucial Decision Day and Wild Card wins now set up a derby playoff matchup against St. Louis CITY SC, the expansion side that's seized regional supremacy over SKC in dominant fashion this year.

The home team won all three matches between the two sides in 2023, with St. Louis cruising in the two fixtures at CITYPARK by an 8-1 aggregate score and Kansas City beating their rivals back 2-1 at Children's Mercy Park. If home teams hold serve again in the first two matches of the Round One Best-of-3 format, then the stage would be set for a winner-take-all finale on CITYPARK on Nov. 11. Given their recent history, STL holding home field for the potential decider looks bad for SKC. But if 2023 has shown us anything, it's that Peter Vermes and Co. don't give up easily.