Voices: Sam Jones

Bandwagon guide to the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs: Who to root for and why

Someone has to win MLS Cup on Dec. 11. There is a very strong chance it will not be your team.

If your team is eliminated, or from Texas and California, or even one of the other teams that didn’t make the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, you’ll need someone to root for the rest of the way.

We’re here to help, starting with the Eastern Conference's seven teams and then diving into the Western Conference's field.

  • Eastern Conference No. 1 seed

For fans of: Secretariat’s performance at the 1973 Belmont Stakes

You should hop on the wagon because: You’re the kind of person who demands others finish what they start. You solely care about the pursuit of greatness. The New England bandwagon has rockets attached to the back and a sign that says “Mars or bust.” There is only one good outcome here and the successful completion of the mission to reach that outcome will be truly historic. There is no “aim for Mars and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” here. This bandrocketwagonship is going to be burned to a crisp if it comes anywhere near a star. All you really care about is the chance to live vicariously through the remarkable feats of others. The good news is even if New England come up short, you’re prepared to jump immediately to the next favorite without remorse.

Or, I dunno, maybe you really like the pine tree flag. The pine tree flag is a damn good flag. Greatness comes in both soccer and vexillological forms.

  • Eastern Conference No. 2 seed

For fans of: Hoodies, successfully identifying opposing managers who can be described using words that rhyme with “bass bowl”, snake-men, lightning bolts, creating midfielders in a laboratory, friendly ghosts, A Flock of Seagulls (band), a flock of seagulls (literal)

You should hop on the wagon because: You ever throw a piece of bread into a bunch of seagulls? That reaction is the Philadelphia midfield going after a second ball. They’re awesome. And they just keep trotting them out. You’re going to jump on this bandwagon if you believe in the power of science because they’re creating these midfielders in a lab. Eventually, the entire team will become made of 11 midfielders with varying versions of the name Jaxten, but for now, you don’t have to worry about them crossing the threshold from “winning soccer games” to “acting beyond the reasonable constraints of humanity’s quest for survival.”

You can also jump on this wagon if you love personal growth. Last year this group won the Supporters’ Shield before flopping out of the playoffs in a loss to the Revs. This year, they have a chance to return that favor. They’ve already shown in Concacaf Champions League play they understand how to kill off games. And no team may have more “by any means necessary” dark arts shenanigans in their pocket than Philly.

Or you could just be about personal growth in terms of outward expression? Jim Curtin has elevated his style to another stratosphere this season.

  • Eastern Conference No. 3 seed

For fans of: Saluting, bathroom coyotes, quietly being more successful than your peers, the book of Exodus, linear progression, being so good at one thing everyone forgets you’ve actually gotten pretty good at the other thing, art school (because of all the drawing)

You should hop on the wagon because: You know how your first few weeks at a new place can determine how everyone perceives you? Get your arm stuck in a vending machine on day five and you’re “Arm Stuck in the Vending Machine Guy” forever.

Nashville decided to play defense well during their first season in the league and now everyone still thinks about them as the team that can’t score. They scored 55 times this year! That’s more goals than Colorado or Seattle, the West’s top two teams. It’s more or as many goals as nine different playoff teams. Hany Mukhtar alone had seven fewer goal contributions this season than the totality of Austin FC. This team can score. They also happen to still be very good defensively, but let’s ignore that because we’re talking about shedding narratives here.

If you’ve ever wanted to be recognized for something a little more, Nashville might just be your team.

  • Eastern Conference No. 4 seed

For fans of: Soccer analytics, winning awards on technicalities, hearing the same joke over and over, baseball, fashion, overcoming injuries, playing your guitar with a capo on the eighth fret

You should hop on the wagon because: You want the numbers to be right. You’ve spent all this time trying to explain expected goals to your friends and family and you’ve really gotten into goals added in a big way and you’re thinking about tweaking the variables of 538’s Soccer Power Index to create a better and more definitive measure of a team’s abilities in MLS without using Transfermarkt values which you tell anyone who will listen about how fake they are.

For almost the entirety of the season you’ve been saying, “Look here they come,” when NYCFC win a game. “Here they come, they’re regressing back to the mean.” And then you loudly shush anyone who asks if it should actually be “progressing back to the mean.”

NYCFC have been first or second in the league-wide expected goals numbers all this year. You’re ready and willing to ignore the fact LAFC finished first on that list to celebrate a triumph of analytics when NYCFC, the second-best team by expected goal differential, take MLS Cup. Either that or you are very prepared to explain why injuries to Alexander Callens and Keaton Parks, two of their best players by goals added this season, are what truly doomed this team.

  • Eastern Conference No. 5 seed

For fans of: Lone wolfs, flares, Seattle but in red, cities winning multiple championships in one year, learning about the positive effects of staying hydrated, American hero: Miles Robinson, Aberdeen, learning to love yourself again

You should hop on the wagon because: Miles Robinson exists for one. That’s a pretty big deal. And not only is he the best center back the US men’s national team has, but he’s also playing the game three steps ahead of everyone else. Not just in terms of reading a transition moment and cutting it off within a match. I’m talking about the larger game at hand.

Because Robinson earned a red card the other night against Mexico. That action had multiple effects. The first being that Robinson got sent home to Atlanta a few days early and with a few more days of rest to prepare for Atlanta’s Round One game with NYCFC. But where the real deviousness lies is in who got called in to replace him and pulled away from his own team’s playoff preparations: NYCFC’s James Sands.

Levels. This is a team to follow if you’re Wile E. Coyote.

Other than that, I don’t know. Luiz Araujo is extremely fun. Josef Martinez deserves a redemption arc. Maybe you think that it would be nice for the World Series trophy to have a friend to play with? Maybe you’ve always wanted to find out what it would be like for Atlanta to have multiple major trophies at one time, plus the No. 1 team in college football? I don’t know, Atlantans might be too powerful at that point. They already live in the greatest city in the world. Do they really need yet another trophy?

  • Eastern Conference No. 6 seed

For fans of: Getting an A+ on the test after not doing any homework, Prince, sunglasses, that kid on your little league team who was way bigger than everyone else, the Columbus Crew’s 2020 MLS Cup run

You should hop on the wagon because: Just gonna copy and paste something from last year right quick…

The Lions are here to appeal to those among us who have the ability to make something of themselves if they apply themselves but haven’t really worried about applying themselves just yet. They’ll show up when it matters. And now it matters. Live vicariously through them unmotivated brilliant people.

  • Eastern Conference No. 7 seed

For fans of: Royal Rumbles, clumsy bar fights, producer and auteur Michael Benjamin Bay, accidentally scoring in an 11-v-11 game of Rocket League, mullets, people hitting each other with rocks to settle arguments, fashion

You should hop on the wagon because: Gerhard Struber has this team playing the platonic ideal of Red Bulls soccer. There is a beauty and grace to watching a team run around screaming their demands that you give them the ball at the top of their lungs for 90 minutes and I really think it’s admirable that they’ve only scored more than one goal a game like three times this yeahahahahahahaha no, no I’m totally kidding.

The real reason is John Tolkin.

  • Western Conference No. 1 seed

For fans of: Poorly thought out coupon deals that actually allow you to get free food and maybe even make money, American fast food institution “Cook Out,” art made out of recyclable materials, picking the wrong syllable of someone’s name to turn into a nickname, Spud Webb, not knowing how to make any other reference to describe something small going against something big besides “David and Goliath”

You should hop on the wagon because: This is one of two bandwagons literally everyone should be on. If you’re not, are you kidding me? Like, how can you not root for the team with the lowest payroll in the league with players taken from the island of misfit toys who are coalescing into a sum so much larger than their individual parts? If your first team loses to the Rapids, your immediate response should be to thank them for letting you be a part of their story, then you ask politely if there’s any more room on the wagon. They might let you in if you’re lucky.

  • Western Conference No. 2 seed

For fans of: Finding it hard to not love Brian Schmetzer, Johnny Lawrence of the Cobra Kai dojo, spicy chicken teriyaki, the morning routine of Patrick Bateman, the plot lines of every Marvel movie, thinking Superman is cool, winning things

You should hop on the wagon because: I’m gonna level with you. If you’re picking Seattle as your bandwagon team, you’re a massive square. There’s no other way to put it. Do you think four MLS Cup appearances in five years wasn’t enough or something? I guess you could argue that you just like seeing “greatness in action” or whatever, but you can go do the same thing with New England and not be a massive square.

I’m just going to say it: If you pick Seattle as your bandwagon team you either hate Portland more than you love oxygen or you’re an energy vampire, ready to drain the excitement that comes with the variety we crave in the unfriendly confines of human experience. These are the facts.

And a tremendous compliment to Seattle as an organization. Can y’all maybe sit this one out and let someone else have some fun?

  • Western Conference No. 3 seed

For fans of: The high and tight haircut, the real Defender of the Year Andreu Fontas, having the best of year of your life just because you felt like it, parks that show mercy to children as opposed to ones that do not, saying things like “aren’t we all just the same city in two different states?”

You should hop on the wagon because: Somehow Andreu Fontas didn’t make it as a finalist for Defender of the Year. This is a crime.

Fontas led the league in goals added. THE ENTIRE. LEAGUE. AS A CENTER BACK.

And yet people didn’t vote him in enough to even be a finalist??? Sure he’s not the best defensive player of the group, but he’s outstanding on the ball. And it’s not like he’s bad defensively! He’s probably a top-10 defensive player in the league. Why are we punishing him for being so much better than his peers at the other side of soccer?

Everyone did a bad job and they should feel bad.

What were we talking about? Oh. Yeah. Cheer for Kansas City if you want to.

  • Western Conference No. 4 seed

For fans of: Making a bunch of analytics nerds look bad, punting on fourth down from the opponent’s 35, bunting in any situation, being Sebastian Blanco’s chiropractor, losing twice to Austin, green but not Austin green, the lovely city of Portland

You should hop on the wagon because: SOCCER. IS NOT. PLAYED. ON. A. SPREAD. SHEET. YOU. NERDS.

Sure Portland are right in between Dallas and Chicago when it comes to expected goal differential. Sure they outperformed their expected goal differential more than any other team. But that’s not where the real beautiful game happens. The real beautiful game happens on the field where Portland gave up more goals than any other playoff team. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is making sure everyone who tries to pigeonhole this sport with math is shown that they have no idea what they’re talking about if they haven’t played 15 years professionally. Sure, you haven’t either. But they haven’t more. Probably.

It’s either that or you just want to see how far Sebastian Blanco can carry an entire team. Which is, honestly, pretty far. To MLS Cup far? Maybe.

  • Western Conference No. 5 seed

For fans of: Tripping over the starting line and nearly breaking every bone in your body but finishing the race anyway, Ozzie Alonso’s playoff streak, being confused for a duck

You should hop on the wagon because: This wagon is for all the late bloomers out there. Sure you started out life as slowly as possible, but you eventually came around to metaphorically be one of the 14 best teams in MLS. Barely. By squeaking in on the last day. But hey, you’re in. And you didn’t let your past keep you down.

And, I don’t know, you watched the movie Fargo recently? Or something else to do with Minnesota? I’m at a loss here honestly. Emanuel Reynoso is very cool at least.

  • Western Conference No. 6 seed

For fans of: Friendship, magic, hope, love, peace, the beauty of human connection, a spiritual warmth found only in the purest of heart, The Never Ending Story, turning your life around in pursuit of the betterment of mankind, the feeling you get seeing two otters fall asleep holding hands, having a relationship end mutually not because of your flaws but because you both understand that your lives are moving forward and to keep the other from not being able to pursue their dream would be a detriment to you both

You should hop on the wagon because: You have a heartbeat and a soul.

  • Western Conference No. 7 seed

For fans of: Disney-style arcs where in Act III you get a chance to beat the character who wronged you in Act II, real salt lakes, ruining the hopes and dreams of the good people of Los Angeles, getting revenge on your old boss

You should hop on the wagon because: This wagon is for anyone who’s ever gotten overly invested in a professional wrestling plot.

Remember when RSL’s coach left midseason to go be an assistant at another team? Well, guess which team RSL are playing in Round One?

You couldn’t set it up any better. The Decision Day drama alone just to put them in this position is a good 20 minutes of movie time. Now they have a chance to complete the entire arc with a win or come up just short. Either way, they’re going to learn something. And we’re going to learn something about ourselves by following it.