The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs format and schedule are finalized for November and December, bringing increased focus to which teams can stay above the postseason line and chase the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
That topic was debated on a bonus Extratime discussion, especially when evaluating who could secure the all-important Round One byes. And as co-host Matt Doyle sees it, the Supporters’ Shield-leading New England Revolution are essentially a lock for that spot – trending toward their first piece of MLS silverware and holding a 14-point lead atop the Eastern Conference standings.
But things get a bit more interesting in the follow-up pack for the single-elimination, straight-bracket format. The East's mix contains Orlando City SC, who Doyle’s particularly intrigued by since injuries and international call-ups have meant we’re yet to see the truest form of Oscar Pareja’s team. Last fall, the Lions snapped a five-year streak of playoff-less soccer since entering MLS as an expansion team in 2015.
“They’re one good week away from basically locking up their first-ever Supporters’ Shield,” Doyle said of New England. “It’s whether they’re going to threaten LAFC’s record for points in a season. They’re playing that well, and so then it does become an open question about two through four. And Nashville’s been excellent and just pounded NYCFC last weekend.
“Obviously Orlando City are in there. That is probably the team I’m most focused on because we haven’t seen the final form of Orlando City this year and I think Oscar Pareja’s done a really good job of rotating guys, trying to keep guys fresh, including and especially Nani, and now he’s got Daryl Dike back too. That poses some real problems. God, what a change in a year and a half for Orlando City compared to what they were before Pareja got there and the types of seasons he’s having this club put together back to back.”
Co-host David Gass took a slightly different approach when assessing the pack that’s forming behind New England. He points to Nashville SC, who are paced by a borderline MVP-quality season from attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar and lockdown play from center back Nashville SC center back Walker Zimmerman, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year.
The biggest obstacle Gary Smith’s team faces, according to Gass, is their road-heavy stretch run while fighting for a second straight playoff berth.
“We’ve seen Nashville of course make a playoff run last year in their first-ever year,” Gass said. “They’ve also really been an impressive home team this year, but it’s an away-loaded schedule down the stretch. Let’s see how they can manage that, but it feels like they’re getting healthy and [maximizing] that roster at the right time.”
But the defending Supporters’ Shield winners? Doyle’s less convinced by the Philadephia Union right now. And he’s not sure if Atlanta United and Inter Miami CF have enough consistency to push into a playoff spot, despite rescuing their seasons after rough patches over the summer.
"It’s actually last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners [Philadelphia] that are struggling the most of the teams above the playoff line and they have the added pressure of having that second leg of the CCL coming up in about a week here,” Doyle said. “So their schedule’s a bit more cramped, they’re not in great form.
“That said, I’m not sure anyone below the line in the Eastern Conference is playing well enough to push up above it. I know Atlanta are certainly playing better than they were at the start of the season, same for Inter Miami. But it’s not like they’re buzzsaws going out there. So I’m picking chalk in the Eastern Conference. I think the seven teams that are above the line are going to stay there.”
Whatever unfolds in the buildup to Decision Day on Nov. 7, there are bound to be twists and turns. That leaves Gass excited, knowing each game carries extra meaning this time of year and the margin for error is slim.
“The pressure is on,” Gass said. “We’ve seen coaches leave, we’ve seen coaches be let go from these teams fighting for the playoffs.”