Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Can these MLS Cup Playoffs underdogs pull off a storybook ending?

RSL goal celebration

It’s Friday. The Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs start tomorrow with Round One games. I’m pretty jacked up about it, but I am in no mood to write a serious, soccer-only column.

Why strain myself when Matt Doyle already went and told you every team will win MLS Cup? And he did his usual playoff tiers, too? Overachiever.

Why dig through Second Spectrum and American Soccer Analysis data to better understand the playoff field when Joe Lowery already spent hours in the spreadsheets? The best work is work someone else did for you.

Why lay out how “bad” teams in 2021 became playoff teams in 2022 when Tom Bogert laid it all out in great detail two days ago? I’ll let him answer text messages from GMs and agents at all hours and reap the benefits of his reporting and insider knowledge on my own time.

No, you can get your smart analysis elsewhere until after Saturday’s games, at which time you’ll tune in to the MLSsoccer.com postgame show (and pregame before FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls get things started). Both games will be streamed live there and on the MLS app (full schedule).

This is a dumb matchmaker column about playoff underdogs (broadly defined as 5-7 seeds) and their mythical/biblical/pop culture equivalents. We’re going in order of Round One games. Be forewarned … some of these are better than others.

  • Underdog profile: Rocky
  • Seed: 5th in Eastern Conference

For three years (2019-21), FC Cincinnati were just another bum from the neighborhood. Spoon after Spoon after Spoon cemented their reputation as MLS’s perennial doormat.

That’s where they seemed destined to stay until Pat “Mickey Goldmill” Noonan (and before that Chris Albright) spotted something in a plucky squad that had more potential than it could see or realize itself. Rigorous training followed. There were some setbacks, but over time a fanbase (Adrian perhaps?) fell deeply in unconditional love.

Now it’s time to step in the ring against as many Apollo Creeds as possible before the bell rings. In so many ways, the result can’t tarnish the transformational success FC Cincinnati have experienced this year. They’re a changed club no matter what happens at Red Bull Arena or Suburu Park or perhaps even beyond. It’s time to step into the postseason ring for the first time and find out what they’ve got.

They’re going to take some punches. They might even get the #$%@ beat out of them. This is not a team that comes back to the corner without a cut or three. But they’re not going to stay on the mat, either, and they’ll do as much damage as they take, often doubly so. Lucho Acosta is the jab, constantly looking for an opening. Brenner is the hook, a surprise to everyone but the guy throwing the punch. Brandon Vazquez is the uppercut, powerful, yes, but not without technique. Cincy can put even the best fighters/teams on their back.

They may lose, admirably, in Round One. They may be MLS Cup champions. No matter what, they’re not bums anymore.

  • Underdog profile: Luke Skywalker
  • Seed: 5th in Western Conference

Did Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vader and end the Galactic Empire alone? Of course not. Could the Rebel Alliance have defeated Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire without Luke? Almost certainly not.

That seems like an apt comparison for Nashville SC. Everyone contributes. Walker Zimmerman is Han Solo. Dax McCarty is Yoda. You get the idea. Point is, the sum of the parts and motivational power of a shared mission makes them capable of knocking off even the most favored opponents – think LAFC on Decision Day, for example – but there’s no doubt who controls the Force among the Coyotes. That’d be, for my money, Hany Mukhtar, the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner.

If Hany is really feeling the Force, Nashville might just steal the plans to the Death Star and give their star man the opportunity to fire a couple of proton torpedoes down a thermal exhaust port or four. If he isn’t, the pressure is going to be on the rest of the squad to pick up the slack, and we know what happened on Hoth.

  • Underdog profile: The Spartans
  • Seed: 7th in Western Conference

Inspiration and comradery in the face of annihilation comes naturally to Pablo Mastroeni (Leonidas), and he’s not just a blood-and-guts motivator. There’s a sneaky tactician hiding behind some of those eyebrow-raising quotes.

This Real Salt Lake side isn’t about the individual. They stand together to embrace “impossible” odds. They relish holding the armies of Xerxes at bay. At their best, they’re direct, unbending and a little bit lucky (zero shots and a playoff win, c’mon!).

In the end, they may simply lack the numbers (of attacking difference makers) to attain ultimate victory, but you can’t help but admire their determination and belief in their cause.

  • Underdog profile: David
  • Seed: 7th in Eastern Conference

Sometimes all you need is one rock and a slingshot.

Sometimes it feels like that’s all Orlando City have to work with. Is Facundo Torres going to do something special against the run of play? Can Ercan Kara, Tesho Akindele or Benji Michel take their big chance? Will a goal come via a set piece?

One shot. One opportunity. To seize everything this fanbase has ever wanted in one moment. Will they capture it and KO a couple of goliaths? Or will it slip again, with US Open Cup consolation at least?

  • Underdog profile: Karate Kid
  • Seed: 6th in Eastern Conference

They were the new kid in town and got humbled a bit, some of that by their own doing. That wasn’t the end of their story, however. Some combination of Phil Neville and Gonzalo Higuain is Mr. Miyagi. I might be forcing that one, but so be it.

Mr. Miyagi has seen it all (and then some) while living in multiple cultures. He’s a master motivator and teacher who has an uncanny ability to inspire his pupils to believe in themselves (Neville). He is also a master at his craft, though in the waning moments of his career, who can still defeat the likes of John Kreese if pushed to the limit (Higuain).

Sanctions of their own doing left Miami to fight on one leg, but they’re still capable of a crane kick.

  • Underdog profile: Forrest Gump
  • Seed: 6th in Western Conference

I admit this is not the cleanest fit, but I think it works well enough if you ignore some key plot points…

It comes down to the fact that, for the Loons, the entire production revolves around one man: Emanuel Reynoso.

If Reynoso is in full flow, Minnesota could very well become a college football sensation at Alabama, a war hero, an international ping-pong champion, a shrimp boat captain, a billionaire and one of the most famous ultra-marathoners of all time. If he’s not, well, they’ll probably never leave Greenbow.