As the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs begin, hope springs eternal for 18 clubs.
Yet, of course, only one team will lift the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Dec. 9 when MLS Cup presented by Audi is played.
So let's dive into one reason why every team will, or won't, enter the history books this year. Teams are listed in order of MLS Cup hosting priority (Supporters' Shield finish, essentially).
- Seed: 1st in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: New York Red Bulls
- Seed: 2nd in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: Nashville SC
Why they'll win: The Lions have lost just three games since early May, going 14W-3L-7D since then and collecting 49 points. That's best in MLS (second in points per game).
- Seed: 3rd in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: Atlanta United
Why they won't: Columbus play with fire. Head coach Wilfried Nancy's ball-dominant style can sacrifice defensive solidity for numbers in attack. In a do-or-die playoff game, that could be their undoing.
- Seed: 1st in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: Sporting Kansas City
Why they won't: At some point they'll come crashing back down to Earth, right? The margins are smaller in the postseason, and there's not much playoff experience across Bradley Carnell's squad.
- Seed: 4th in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: New England Revolution
Why they'll win: There's a ton of playoff know-how on this Union squad that was a Gareth Bale header (then PKs) away from winning MLS Cup last year. Goalkeeper Andre Blake, left back Kai Wagner, midfielder Dániel Gazdag and striker Julián Carranza are all match-winners.
Why they won't: Despite being in the trophy hunt, both domestic and international, this core's yet to win The Big Game. And Philadelphia aren't exactly soaring into the playoffs, going 1W-1L-6D across their last eight matches.
- Seed: 5th in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: Philadelphia Union
- Seed: 2nd in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: FC Dallas
Why they'll win: Can we write "It's the Sounders" and call it a day? To expand: Seattle have an MLS-best defense (32 goals against) and Brian Schmetzer's team is surging with confidence, going 4W-0L-5D to enter the playoffs. Cristian Roldan, their glue piece, is also back healthy and elevating those around him.
Why they won't: It's not always clear where the goals are going to come from. DP striker Raúl Ruidíaz, due to form and injury, has just one goal since mid-June. Jordan Morris, their leading scorer with 11 goals, has scored twice in league play since late May. Héber, acquired in an offseason trade (ostensibly as Ruidíaz's backup), has just two goals this season.
- Seed: 3rd in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Why they won't: This year's been an absolute slog for the Black & Gold, who would play at least 53 games this year (final number dependent on Round One series length) if they advance to MLS Cup. We've already seen the miles take their toll on Steve Cherundolo's squad in 2023. Can they find another gear while looking to become the first team to repeat since the LA Galaxy in 2011-12?
- Seed: 4th in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: Real Salt Lake
Why they'll win: Ben Olsen, back on the MLS coaching sidelines, turned the Houston Dynamo into FC Barcelona-lite.
Why they won't: As brilliant as Héctor Herrera has been, and the Mexican international midfielder's been elite with 4g/17a, there's no top-end No. 9 (all due respect to Corey Baird). That's usually a necessary ingredient for championship teams, and the player it was supposed to be (DP striker Sebastián Ferreira) is on loan at Brazilian club Vasco da Gama. Houston fans, understandably, will point to their US Open Cup title from earlier in the year. But the club might be one piece short in this faster-than-expected rebuild.
- Seed: 6th in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: Columbus Crew
Why they'll win: Thiago Almada is very good at soccer.
- Seed: 5th in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: Houston Dynamo FC
Why they'll win: Because doubting a Pablo Mastroeni-led team in the playoffs is foolish, by decree of the xDawg Gods.
- Seed: 7th in Eastern Conference
- Round One opponent: Orlando City SC
Why they'll win: Hany Mukhtar finds a playoff gear and, alongside a cadre of supplementary attackers (Sam Surridge, Jacob Shaffelburg, Fafa Picault, etc.), leads Nashville on another trophy pursuit. We all saw it during Leagues Cup, when only Lionel Messi's left foot got in their way.
Why they won't: We'll sound like a broken record, but… (and Mukhtar has just two goals in his last 12 games across all competitions).
- Seed: 6th in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: LAFC
Why they'll win: DP d-mid Andrés Cubas is reportedly returning to full fitness. Vancouver's one-two punch of Ryan Gauld and Brian White – with their combined 26 goals and 17 assists – gets most of the headlines. But the Paraguay international is also crucial to their trophy dreams.
Why they won't: The Whitecaps can be a roller-coaster, blending fun and frustration under head coach Vanni Sartini. There’s plenty to like on this roster, but they're not in that top tier of contenders.
- Seed: 7th in Western Conference
- Round One opponent: Seattle Sounders
Why they'll win: We've all seen playoff runs where a goalkeeper gets hot, and Maarten Paes might be the most underrated goalkeeper in MLS. He routinely does stuff like this:
- Seed: 8th in Western Conference
- Wild Card opponent: San Jose Earthquakes
Why they'll win: Sporting KC have been the Western Conference's best team since May, posting the most points (41), wins (12) and goals scored (45) over that span after beginning the season on a 10-game winless streak (0W-7L-3D). Yes, their start was bad. But this is a different team now – one that has Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell et al firing.
- Seed: 9th in Western Conference
- Wild Card opponent: Sporting Kansas City
Why they won't: They've won once in 10 games (1W-3L-6D). Those early-season vibes seem like a lifetime ago.
- Seed: 8th in Eastern Conference
- Wild Card opponent: Charlotte FC
Why they'll win: Troy Lesesne's message gets through and sparks the club's long-awaited MLS Cup breakthrough.
Why they won't: The Curse of Caricola. Click here for a history lesson.
- Seed: 9th in Eastern Conference
- Wild Card opponent: New York Red Bulls
Why they'll win: Sir Minty decreed it as such.
Why they won't: In all seriousness, the above happens if Charlotte find a way to hold onto leads. With an MLS-high 25 points dropped from a winning position this season, CLTFC fans know that's unlikely during the club's postseason debut.