The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs bracket is set, meaning it's time to take stock of all the matchups.
The New England Revolution (Eastern Conference) and the Colorado Rapids (Western Conference) each have Round One byes after claiming the No. 1 seeds, but everyone else has opening fixtures to keep their seasons alive.
Here are some early thoughts on each of those Round One matchups, starting with the East and then heading West.
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 2:30 pm ET
WATCH: Univision, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & MLS App
RBNY finished the season by losing just one of their final 12 games, and they kept seven clean sheets during that stretch. I normally wouldn’t bet against a team in that kind of form, but I just love everything I’ve seen from Jim Curtin’s men in recent weeks and feel that they’ll have another gear that the Red Bulls won’t.
After a rocky start to the season, the Union began to look more like the well-rounded unit we came to expect with each passing week – especially at home. Winners of their last five home games, scoring 10 goals and conceding one, I expect to see a close game. But the extra quality Philly possess in the final third will make the difference and they should prevail.
WHEN: Sunday, Nov 21 at 3 pm ET
WATCH: ABC, ESPN Deportes
One team will be boasting the 2021 Golden Boot presented by Audi winner in NYCFC's Valentin Castellanos, while the other can call upon arguably the best pure forward in MLS history in Atlanta's Josef Martinez, but I still don’t see this game being a high-scoring affair. I hope I’m wrong, but I think we’ll be in for a really good spectacle that gets decided by a moment of magic.
And that’s why I sense an Atlanta win – nobody on the pitch is more magical than Martinez. Now that he looks fully fit and is surrounded by an exciting supporting cast, the stage is set for him to spoil NYCFC's season.
While I am a fan of NYCFC's style and love watching a few of their players, Gonzalo Pineda has improved Atlanta’s defense considerably. I suspect that his gameplan will neutralize NYCFC's attack, while leaving enough room for those like Ezequiel Barco, Luiz Araujo, Marcelino Moreno and Martinez to capitalize at the other end.
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 8 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, FOX Deportes
These clubs faced each other three times this season with each game ending in a draw, and only three points separated them over 34 games. This is going to be a game where every little advantage will count, and that’s why I am leaning towards Nashville since home-field advantage is massive in a single-elimination format.
For Orlando, they will go as far as Daryl Dike takes them. In the playoffs, you need your best players, especially your attacking ones, to be on song and he has been on fire since rejoining the squad. He can do absolutely everything you’d want from a modern No. 9. If they get contributions from DPs Nani and Mauricio Pereyra, they're even better positioned.
With that said, Nashville have made defensive organization and conceding very few goals a staple of their identity. I expect that defensive resilience to be enough to see them through, with those like Walker Zimmerman and Joe Willis leading the way. This game is going to be 1-0 or 2-1 – it may even be decided by a shootout – but it’ll swing Nashville’s way due to the boost from the home support and their defensive discipline.
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 5 pm ET
WATCH: UniMás, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & MLS App
A month ago I’d have had no problem picking Sporting KC to advance in this kind of game. But too often this season, when they had the chance to either leapfrog the Sounders, or really take hold of the West's top spot, they surprisingly fell short. They're obviously a formidable team and have been for some time, but the failure to find any real consistency in recent weeks makes this game extra intriguing.
Vancouver have been superb in recent weeks and it’s impossible not to fall in love with the infectious charisma of Vanni Sartini – the interim manager is always encouraging his players, living and breathing every moment with them. They’ve been as good as anyone in the past two months and they’ll feel they have a real chance at an upset in this one.
I hate to sit on the fence because I really can see this one going either way. But if I had to choose, my head would go with Sporting because they have Johnny Russell, the best player on the pitch. My heart, however, would go with Vancouver because I want Sartini to keep this magical turnaround going.
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 5:30 pm ET
WATCH: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
Since losing 6-2 to Seattle, Portland’s home form has been terrific as they only suffered one further defeat while racking up some impressive wins, including a 6-1 drubbing of RSL. Providence Park's rowdy atmosphere makes it hard for opponents to come in and play their game, so I definitely see the Timbers as favorites in this matchup. Add in the brilliant form of Sebastian Blanco – he’s a player who gets better every time I see him play – and it becomes a very tough game for Minnesota.
But that’s not to say that Adrian Heath’s men can’t win and advance. They can, and they might if all of the following occurs: they get the very best out of Emanuel Reynoso, Osvaldo Alonso continues to defy Father Time and they score at least three goals because the Timbers tend to find their scoring boots when playing at home.
This will be a high-scoring clash – 3-2, 4-3, or even 3-3 with a PK shootout. It’ll be nerve-racking for both sets of fans, and a blast for all neutral observers.
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 10:30 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, FOX Deportes
To put it kindly, the Sounders have stumbled in recent weeks. A six-game winless streak cost them the West's No. 1 seed and a Round One bye that would have provided much-needed extra time to get healthy. As it is, they’ll now face a dangerous RSL side that snuck into the playoffs in the most dramatic fashion.
RSL will pose a threat through Albert Rusnak and the ever-impressive Damir Kreilach. But I don’t think they'll be enough to advance, as I still have serious question marks about them defensively. While they scored two more goals than the Sounders this season, they conceded 21 more and ended the year with a +1 goal difference despite scoring over 50 goals.