Voices: Joseph Lowery

Does a playoff berth await your team? Here's who must step up

0928 Step Up Playoffs

We’re down to the wire, folks.

With just a couple of games left in the 2022 MLS regular season, it’s make-or-break time for teams on the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs bubble in both conferences.

As the league gets back into full swing after the September international break, we’re using data to examine one player who must step up for their team to secure a place above the playoff line (top seven places per conference).

So, who does your team need to deliver over the next two weeks, through Decision Day on Oct. 9? Let’s get into it.

Eastern Conference

Orlando City are pretty darn close to being playoff locks at this point. But a strong final three games from Facundo Torres would go a long way towards sealing the deal, wouldn’t it? 

Per Second Spectrum, the Uruguayan winger is in just the 52nd percentile for open-play expected goals per 90 minutes among midfielders and forwards with at least 1,000 minutes. Torres finding more dangerous scoring positions and shooting for double-digit goals this year would be huge for Orlando.

Defending is going to be key for Pat Noonan’s team as they close out 2022. According to Second Spectrum, Cincinnati allow the ninth-most goals in the league on a per-90-minute basis heading into the middle of August. 

Things have improved significantly since Matt Miazga joined the team from Chelsea at the close of the Secondary Transfer Window. Since Miazga’s debut, Cincy are allowing the third-fewest goals per 90. More of that, please.

Inter Miami are going to battle with some extremely dangerous attacks, including Toronto FC and CF Montréal, over the next two weeks. That means goalkeeper Drake Callender is going to be thrust into some difficult moments. Callender has allowed two more goals than expected this year, per FBref, so he may need to tighten his shot-stopping ahead of this weekend.

Don’t look now, but Cucho Hernandez has cooled off over the last month, only scoring one goal since August 21. That follows the Crew’s club-record signing and Colombian international scoring eight goals in his first eight appearances for the club.

Columbus are 14th in non-penalty goals per 90 and all the way down in 23rd in non-penalty xG per 90 this year, according to Second Spectrum. If Cucho gets hot and helps them boost those numbers, Columbus can hop above the playoff line.

Atlanta United have the attacking firepower to break teams down. They have the speed to beat you in transition. But do Atlanta have the midfield to deny opponents the chance to turn the tables and do those two things to them? 

I really don’t know. But Santiago Sosa has done some nice things on and off the ball, according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. A decisive, quick Sosa could go a long way for Gonzalo Pineda’s squad’s last-gasp hopes.

Look, Charlotte FC have a 4% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. The odds aren’t exactly stacked in the expansion club’s favor. 

Fresh off of scoring a UEFA Nations League game-winner for Poland against Wales, Karol Swiderski is going to need to go supernova if Charlotte plan to climb above the playoff line. Swiderski has 10 goals so far this year. He’ll need to make it 15 to give Charlotte postseason hope.

Western Conference

Okay, I lied about saying we were going to use stats for every single blurb. Nashville SC are basically playoff locks. They’re sitting at a 99% chance of making the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight. If Joe Willis just stands in the goal and occasionally waves his arms to make a save or two, Nashville are heading to the postseason.

Before Riqui Puig arrived in Los Angeles, the Galaxy were an okay attacking team. They were in the 46th percentile for non-penalty goals per 90, according to Second Spectrum. 

Now after a few hundred minutes of Puig, with his mid-August introduction from FC Barcelona, Greg Vanney’s team is in the 75th percentile. How’s that for a boost? If Puig keeps controlling the midfield like he has been, the Galaxy will finish above the line.

Few central midfielders in MLS can unbalance opposing defenses like Eryk Williamson. With Portland’s final two regular-season games coming against two very different opponents (LAFC and RSL), having Williamson firing on all cylinders will be key against the press and a lower defensive block. 

In over 1,000 minutes this year, Williamson is in the 94th percentile in expected assists (xA) and the 88th percentile in shot-creating actions among midfielders.

If Luis Amarilla is hot, Minnesota United are an absolutely brutal team to play against. Amarilla has nine goals this season, but just one goal in his last eight games. Adrian Heath and Co. have two very winnable games coming up against San Jose and Vancouver, but Minnesota will need their Paraguayan No. 9 to do some damage to help them put those teams away.

Real Salt Lake are fighting an uphill battle to end up in a playoff spot. If they’re going to get back into the West’s top seven, they’ll need their attack to produce. So far this year, RSL are in the 35th percentile for non-penalty goals per 90, according to Second Spectrum. Jefferson Savarino, who leads RSL with 11 combined goals and assists, is going to have to keep stepping up.

Vancouver’s goalkeeping has been, uh, not great in 2022. Per FBref, they have the second worst shot-stopping numbers in MLS this year on a per-90-minute basis.

Despite some major struggles of his own, Thomas Hasal has started most of the Caps’ recent matches. If the 23-year-old can summon muscle memory from the MLS is Back Tournament in 2020, the Whitecaps just might have a chance to make the playoffs.

It’s been a tough series of injuries that have led to this point, but Seattle’s season could come down to a 19-year-old homegrown’s performance in central midfield. With many of the players ahead of him on Brian Schmetzer’s central midfield depth chart out with various injuries, Leyva is responsible for patrolling the midfield. If he’s sharp in the middle, which he largely has been – at least based on the “interrupting” category from American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric – Seattle’s remarkably slight chances of making the playoffs get a bit better.