Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

MLS Cup Playoffs tiers: Favorites, underdogs & dark horses


And so with the conclusion of Decision Day, the 27th regular season of Major League Soccer is in the books.

Since seven games were going on at the same time, and then seven more games were going on at the same time, and since I was on a live stream trying to keep y’all (and my cats) entertained, I will not pretend to give you a full blow-by-blow analysis and breakdown. There just wasn’t enough time to keep an eye on everything and digest what was happening.

Instead, let's do our usual thing: In place of my typical Sunday night column, following Decision Day we take a look at where everybody stands heading into the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs (check out the bracket here).

For those teams that didn't make the postseason, post-mortems have been trickling out over the past month, with another big batch coming later this week. But here and now, into the playoffs we go:

Tier 1: The Favorites
  • Decision Day result: Beat Toronto FC 4-0
  • Seed: 1st in Eastern Conference

They’ve got the best goalkeeper in the playoffs, the best center-back duo in the league, one of the best d-mids in the league, and some of the best fullbacks in the league. They also have a defined style and system of play, one that gives them clarity of purpose and vision when they take the field. It’s easy to empty the tank and go all-out if you know with certainty you are executing properly, and the guys next to you are going to be doing the same.

They also quite simply have more attacking talent than previous Union playoff teams. None of Julián Carranza, Mikael Uhre or Dániel Gazdag are quite Best XI-caliber, but none of the three is far off. Cory Burke is one of the best super-subs in the league – a true game-changer with his hold-up ability and physicality, and Jack McGlynn’s development means they can vary their attacking tempo and principles coming out of midfield. For this version of the Union, it doesn’t always have to be full throttle.

Will they be putting up 6-0s or 7-0s like they were in late summer, or a 4-0 like they did on Decision Day? Absolutely not. Those games came against the league’s weakest sides, which by definition aren’t around anymore. But they were 7W-2L-7D against playoff teams, which isn’t quite as good as LAFC’s overall mark, but is significantly better than anyone else in the postseason.

I think they’re pretty clear favorites in the East, and honestly, I think they’re the overall favorites as well. I know LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield, but is anybody really going to argue they’ve been as good as Philly over the past two months?

  • Decision Day result: Lost 1-0 to Nashville SC
  • Seed: 1st in Western Conference

How you feel about LAFC’s status as favorites depends largely upon how you feel about that one-win-in-six stretch they had in late summer, a month that ultimately didn’t cost them the Shield, but did cost them the single-season points record.

If you think it was a blip brought about by some dislocation in their chemistry after a summer filled with high-profile additions and a few subtractions, as well as the fact that five games in six were on the road*, then you’re probably pretty comfortable with them leading off this category.

(*) Remember, they’re home for the rest of the year now.

LAFC, after all, check a ton of boxes: multiple match-winners in attack; a deep and flexible midfield composed mainly of players in their respective primes; a rugged backline capable of playing against the ball, but even better at initiating attacks with it. Almost every advanced metric I’ve seen suggests, just as the standings say, they were the best team in the league this year. And maybe the best thing about them is when they take the lead, they keep it: they’ve dropped just three points from winning positions all year long.

If, however, you think that six-game summer stretch wasn’t a blip, but was in fact a case of some fatal flaws being exposed, then you might have other thoughts about them leading off this section. Maxime Crépeau, for example, hasn’t been great, and new DPs attackers Dénis Bouanga and Cristian Tello have combined for 1g/0a in 600ish minutes (to be fair it was the Shield-clinching goal). Gareth Bale’s been more productive with two goals in his 350 minutes, but he has mostly underwhelmed. The new defense remains unsettled – I’m not sure what the starting CB pairing will be for the playoffs, and I don’t think Steve Cherundolo’s sure, either. And Carlos Vela limped off hurt on Decision Day (Cherundolo said it was precautionary).

I think I come down on the second answer there, as I straight-up do not think this team’s as good as it was in July. Though if they play as they did on Decision Day…

As the tweet says: If they play that well, I’m pretty sure they’ll be fine.

It’s a big “if,” though, and LAFC seem to have picked up a little postseason curse already. On top of that there’s the fact that, while the Black & Gold were dominant against playoff teams overall, they’re just 3W-5L-0D against the four teams directly behind them in the West standings. That’s not exactly overwhelming.

Tier 2: Strong Contenders
  • Decision Day result: Won 3-1 at Miami
  • Seed: 2nd in Eastern Conference

They’ve been so good that I almost put them in Tier 1. But they’re here instead because they’ve feasted upon the bottom half of the standings and had much more trouble with playoff teams than either LAFC or Philly – since May they have only two wins against playoff teams.

Irrespective of that, I think this team’s structure and approach makes them the type of side that could be even better in the postseason than they were during a very, very good regular season. For a group that is possession dominant (which is the best way to be a good defensive team), they simply do not turn the ball over in bad spots (which is the second-best way to be a good defensive team). And when they do turn it over, Wilfried Nancy’s always got two guys out there in central midfield (Victor Wanyama and either Sam Piette or Ismaël Koné) who are really good at getting immediate pressure and putting the whole team in position to win it back (which is the third-best way to be a good defensive team).

They also play with three center backs, all of whom have been very good this year, and their wingbacks aren’t particularly aggressive, which means they don’t get exposed. In goal, James Pantemis has been pretty reliable since winning the job from Sebastian Breza. Teams that get numbers around the ball in the middle of the park and don’t beat themselves tend to do well in the playoffs (helloooo, Nashville and Seattle!).

A caveat here is health and sharpness from Djordje Mihailovic and Romell Quioto. Great Decision Day goal/assist aside, Djordje hasn’t been as effective in the second half of the season following the knock he picked up in spring. Quioto, meanwhile, picked up a knock of his own on international duty for Honduras last month and hasn’t played since.

Those guys both need to cook if Montréal’s going to make a deep run. Each of them is capable of being a match-winner at this stage of the season – each of them is capable of being, essentially, the postseason MVP.

When you have a team that’s this well-drilled…

… if you can get Best XI-caliber individual performances out of multiple attackers on top of that, a trophy is very much in play.

  • Decision Day result: Beat LAFC 1-0
  • Seed: 5th in Western Conference

Feels like a reach to have the fifth-place team in the West up in Tier 2, right? Nashville underwhelmed almost the entire regular season, save for a four-game stretch in late summer when they took a flamethrower to whoever they were lining up across from. The biggest knock, obviously, is that center forward C.J. Sapong hasn’t scored since May – though it now looks like Teal Bunbury has become the starter. The next-biggest knock is the defense hasn’t been quite as lockdown as they were the past two years.

But Nashville’s got four big things going for them:

  1. The whole group is playoff proven. They’ve done this before, and should be able to amp up the intensity now that they’re in the postseason.
  2. With Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy healthy and ready to go, they’ll be able to move the ball more quickly and dangerously than they have all season, both in transition and simple possession.
  3. Joe Willis can win you a game, just as he did for them on Decision Day. He’s done it before in the postseason, too.
  4. They’ll have the best player on the field in every single game they play.

Yeah, Hany Mukhtar has hit that level this year. I don’t care if he’s staring across the midfield stripe at Carlos Vela or Riqui Puig or Sebastián Driussi – it’s Hany who’s got the conch.

I don’t need to say something like “A veteran team that knows how to make you miserable defensively, generates goals off of set pieces* and has a Prime Giovinco-level attacking hub is a great postseason bet” because it’s self-evident. After all, we’ve seen for the past two years that Nashville are, in fact, a great postseason bet.

(*) It’s fair to still be worried about their weird lapses defending set pieces. They’re not as bad as they were at the start of the year, but they’re not particularly good. If they go out in a disappointing fashion, my guess is restarts will be the culprit.

Tier 3: They’ve got an argument
  • Decision Day result: Won 2-1 at Atlanta
  • Seed: 3rd in Eastern Conference

By the advanced numbers they belong in the top tier – most metrics have the defending champions just behind LAFC and with a bit of breathing room ahead of Philly and Montréal.

But we know that those metrics account for a whole season’s worth of performance, and NYCFC are very different now than they were in the spring, back when they were regularly dropping three or four goals a game and posting long strings of zeroes. In the second half of the season, after the departures of star No. 9 Taty Castellanos and head coach Ronny Deila, the Pigeons have essentially been a mid-table team.

Then there’s the injury issue. Even with Alex Callens back in the XI (now as a sort of hybrid LB/LCB) they’re still not at full health, Anton Tinnerholm hasn’t played a full 90 since August and Keaton Parks hasn’t done it since May, and Alfredo Morales just got on the field for the first time in two months before getting re-injured. That means their best center back is playing somewhat out of position, their two best deep-lying midfielders are less than 100% match sharp, and the same goes for their irreplaceable overlapping attacking threat. And oh yeah, starting No. 9 Talles Magno left Sunday’s win with what looked like a very nasty shoulder injury.

It’s a less-than-ideal way to enter the postseason. You’d be forgiven for expecting a one-and-done showing here, especially given the fact they will not be playing at Yankee Stadium (Red Bull Arena for Round One it is).

But look at those names again. Callens, Parks, Tinnerholm and Morales will, in fact, be on the field (health permitting), as will guys like Maxi Moralez, Santi Rodríguez, Thiago Andrade, Sean Johnson, Héber and Maxime Chanot.

There’s a lot of talent and a lot of championship equity in that bunch.

  • Decision Day result: Drew 1-1 vs. Colorado
  • Seeding: 2nd in Western Conference

Remember that 4-1 win the Verde posted over LAFC in late August, a result that seemed to signal Austin were legit, apex contenders ready to jam down the gas pedal and fly into the finish?

Yeah, we all got the wrong read off of that one, because they won just once more in their subsequent seven games, fading well off the pace and looking like the team the underlying metrics (which have never been high on them) have said they are: defensively gappy and unable to create danger off the dribble. As center forward Maxi Urruti faded and then picked up a knock, they got gappier (the impact of Urruti’s defense is vastly underrated), and even with the addition of new DP Emiliano Rigoni, nobody in the attack can beat anybody with the ball and create danger.

But you know what they do have? A defined style of play, and a pair of match-winners in Sebastián Driussi (No. 2 on my MVP ballot) and goalkeeper Brad Stuver.

Driussi has been the league’s second-best player behind Mukhtar, an obvious match-winner who doesn’t precisely conduct the game (Alex Ring and the very, very underrated Danny Pereira handle that part of it), but is brilliant at popping up in the biggest moments to put the ball in the back of the net.

And as I wrote about with the Union, having a defined style of play can work wonders when it comes to a team’s ability to empty the tank and just play hard as hell, and in concert with your teammates. It is an advantage baked into every well-coached team.

Even with all of that, though, Stuver’s going to have to be big, because el Verde give up chances. He’s answered the bell all year long, but this is his first trip to the postseason. It’s a massive test.

  • Decision Day result: Beat Charlotte 2-0
  • Seed: 4th in Eastern Conference

I’m flailing a little bit here because there are so many reasons to drop this team down at least one tier, and maybe even two:

  • Elias Manoel’s Decision Day brace notwithstanding, they have by far the worst forward situation of anybody in the playoffs.
  • Cristian Casseres Jr. is less than 100% fit.
  • It’s not clear what their actual best XI is.
  • Luquinhas has registered 0g/1a since June.
  • Carlos Coronel has been something of a disappointment after a stellar 2021.
  • They’re super young (young teams tend not to do great in the playoffs).

This is all without mentioning the baggage that this particular club has – 27 years worth of it – in the postseason.

And yet in Energy Drink Soccer they have the great equalizer and so the Red Bulls, at their best, have been really, really good at just ruining the game. They do not try to outplay whoever they’re lined up against; they try to break their brains and convince them this is less a game of soccer than an almost infinite series of high-speed crashes. When that happens, RBNY’s really tough to beat.

Understand that nobody is immune to this. Montréal are as well-coached as any team in the league, and were in the best regular-season form in their club’s history during the second half of this season. They lost just once, and guess what? It was 1-0 at home against these Red Bulls. Montréal managed just a single shot on goal while generating less than 1 xG and getting sucked into nearly 100 duels.

That is not their game. That is the Red Bulls’ game. Play the Red Bulls’ game, and you’re playing to lose no matter what sort of talent advantage you might have.

I know I sound like a broken record here, but the complete commitment to a given style of play is such an advantage for teams because it allows the players to work in concert. Soccer is the ultimate team game, after all.

The Red Bulls, for good chunks of this year, have had that.

  • Decision Day result: Won 3-1 at Houston
  • Seed: 4th in Western Conference

Short version: This is a team that did/does almost everything at a high level, but just goes to pieces in front of goal. If the Galaxy finished their chances at just an average level, with no overperformance, they’d have 10 more points and we’d probably have them solidly in Tier 2 here.

In general the thing I look at most when determining whether or not a team is good is whether they show the ability to repeatedly create high-level scoring chances with coordinated movement of and off the ball. Even the most ardent Galaxy hater has to admit this side does that. All but the most ardent Galaxy enjoyers have to admit it’s hilarious how often they do that, and still fail in front of the net.

But even with those repeated failures, it’s clear the Galaxy do the main thing basically every good team does. And so by virtue of that, they themselves are a good team.

Over the past two months, they’ve now become a good team that’s getting better thanks to two massive midfield additions. Gastón Brugman is a top-10 d-mid in MLS, but the important thing is he is actually a real d-mid, a guy who’s at his best holding and orchestrating from in front of the backline. He fits. Puig, meanwhile, is a genius:

Chicharito finishes those chances, obviously. Will anybody else? Will it matter?

The other thing to bear in mind is the Galaxy are a cut or two below the true contenders defensively. That issue is partially personnel-related, but it’s also structural as LA’s rest defense is still really poor – they’re often super disorganized any time they turn the ball over. Brugman has helped in that regard (Puig definitely has not), but there is a vulnerability in transition moments most of the teams in Tier 3 and above don’t really show.

Tier 4: Somebody’s got to go supernova for it to happen
  • Decision Day result: Beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1
  • Seed: 3rd in Western Conference

Dallas are kind of the opposite of the Galaxy in they’re super-well structured in terms of where they want to take risks and where they absolutely do not want to lose the ball, and in that they’ve actually overperformed their expected goals total. That’s a really good combination if you want to become a team that’s tough to beat, which was, I think, Nico Estevez’s first order of business this season.

It was the right choice. Dallas have the best defense in the West, one they rode to a pretty businesslike and un-dramatic regular-season performance capped by a well-earned return to postseason play.

But while their ability to keep the ball out of their own net (via both possession and their quality defensive structure) remains very good, they haven’t really been able to add new dimensions to the attack over the course of the season. The acquisition of Sebastian Lletget has helped, as has putting Paxton Pomykal on the right side of that midfield three, but if this team’s going to put the ball into the back of the net it basically has to come from that front three of Jesús Ferreira, Paul Arriola and Alan Velasco.

Those guys are all very good, but none of them is “carry a team deep into the playoffs” good at this point. So if there’s a path to an MLS Cup appearance, it’s a bunch of 1-0 wins.

Teams have done that in the past, but it feels like it’s a year too soon to ask that out of los Toros.

  • Decision Day result: Lost to Montréal 3-1
  • Seed: 6th in Eastern Conference

The hottest attacker in MLS right now is none other than Gonzalo Higuaín, who’s got himself 14g/2a in his past 16 regular-season games. That’s one really important building block, and the other is Higuaín’s No. 10 partner Alejandro Pozuelo. Since the Spaniard’s arrival in mid-season via highway robbery of Toronto FC, Inter Miami are 7W-3L-2D when he starts, and score nearly two goals a game. That’s why I’m writing this blurb today rather than a regular-season post-mortem last week. There’s no way they’re in the playoffs without him.

So the Herons, provided Pozuelo can get fit over the course of this week, have two MVP-caliber stars who can take over and win a game single-handed, and also have the added fuel of Higuaín’s retirement (the announcement of which was perfectly timed to give both himself and the rest of the team a late burst of energy, and yes, I assume they’ve still got chunks of Orlando City’s midfield stuck in their cleats). It feels like if the Soccer Gods are going to smile and bestow karma upon anyone in the playoffs – if there is, in fact, a team of destiny – Miami’s it.

But there are some big, bright red flags. One is that while they score nearly two goals per game with Pozuelo in the lineup, they also concede nearly two goals per game with him out there. Both he and Higuaín are net negatives defensively, and that means it’s pretty easy for quality opponents to build possession right into the heart of that Miami midfield and start pulling them apart, making the whole team scramble.

Which brings us to another big red flag: they don’t scramble particularly well, and have asked a ton of goalkeeper Drake Callender since he won the starting job. For most of these teams, “somebody has to go supernova” means one of the attackers; for Miami I’m not actually worried about the attack, but there’s no real path to the promised land unless Callender stands on his head a bunch. His performance on Decision Day did not instill confidence.

And the final red flag: Miami were excellent at home, but were just 4W-10L-3D on the road. That’s where they’ll be, most likely for the entire duration of their postseason stay.

  • Decision Day result: Won 5-2 at D.C. United
  • Seed: 5th in Eastern Conference

Only three teams in the entire league have scored more than Cincinnati’s 64 goals. Only five teams have allowed more than their 56 conceded. Sometimes numbers lie. In Cincy’s case, they’re telling absolute truths.

And the absolute truth is this team plays some brilliant, wide-open, high-octane soccer that can often border on an absolute catastrophe. Only the Revs dropped more points from winning positions this year than the Garys managed, and while their Decision Day trip to D.C. ultimately had a happy ending, we still got a good look at that defensive frailty. Cincy roared out to a commanding 3-0 lead… and then let Ravel Morrison walk uncontested into a 25-yard piledriver to make it 3-1 and give D.C. life.

Cincy, being Cincy, threw numbers forward again and pushed it to 4-1. And then they sleepwalked out of the locker room at halftime and watched D.C. make it 4-2 less than 60 seconds into the second half.

A two-goal lead is not safe for this team. They made D.C.’s attack look dangerous. Imagine what could happen in the playoffs.

The flip side, obviously, is their attack is potent enough to make playing such wide-open soccer the obvious choice. They’ve dropped four on NYCFC and Miami, dropped six on Montréal across two games (while conceding eight!), and hung a three-spot on the Union. The front three of Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, it turns out, work pretty damn well together:

Acosta, who led the league in assists (19) this year, is a wizard at creating with the ball out of midfield. Vazquez is a one-man outlet who always allows Cincy an escape valve over the top. Brenner has proved to be a perfect complement for each, able to toggle between functioning as Vazquez’s strike partner or as a secondary playmaker to take the burden off Acosta. All three are lethal and unselfish in and around the box.

It’s another truth told by the numbers, as the three of them combined for 46 goals and 33 assists. They’ll have to keep cooking, though, because I don’t think Cincy can shut out anyone who’s still left standing.

  • Decision Day result: Beat Vancouver 2-0
  • Seed: 6th in Western Conference

For a good long while there they looked like the second-best team in the West, as they came out of the June international date on a roll and just started tearing through their schedule.

But they came crashing down to earth in late August. That Decision Day win over Vancouver snapped a six-game winless skid and finally punched their playoff ticket. They made it by the skin of their teeth.

The issue is without center back Bakaye Dibassy, who suffered a season-ending injury just before that winless skid started (yes, those two things are related), they can’t really pull their backline up at all. Whenever they try to do that now they get absolutely gashed in transition.

“Ok then, just sit and counter” is the obvious solution, but the Loons haven’t been great at defending in their own box this year, either with Dibassy or without. Dayne St. Clair papered over that particular shortcoming during the first three months of the season, but as he’s come back to earth, Minnesota’s had less and less margin for error.

Emanuel Reynoso’s presence in the lineup means they always have a chance, of course. But it feels like he’d have to play even better than he did in 2020, back when he almost carried this team all the way to MLS Cup. And bear in mind there’s no Kevin Molino in this bunch – no secondary attacking threat who can reliably turn Reynoso’s magic into goals.

  • Decision Day result: Beat Columbus 2-1
  • Seed: 7th in Eastern Conference

I didn’t think Orlando City played great on Decision Day, and I can’t put my finger on one particular thing they do extraordinarily well. Maybe if Robin Jansson, their best center back and one of the very best at that position in the league, was healthy, I’d feel differently. But he’s not, so I don’t.

And thus what we’re left with is a team that just, in the biggest moments, seems to have a knack for getting it done. That was the story of the second half of their Decision Day win – in which they were greatly aided by Columbus’s propensity for self-destruction, it must be said – just as it was the story of their US Open Cup triumph. The big moment arrived and the Lions showed up.

Now it’s all big moments from here on out, and Orlando will be the underdogs literally every time they take the field. That’s a dangerous combination.

  • Decision Day result: Beat Portland 3-1
  • Seed: 7th in Western Conference

Look, I’ve joked all year about how RSL are impossible to analyze in large part because no team that concedes this many high-quality chances could possibly be in the playoff hunt. But the hunt’s over – the postseason’s here, and RSL are in it.

What I’ll say is there are three main principles to how the Claret-and-Cobalt have played:

  1. If the switch is on, hit it.
  2. Once you get the wide overload, work your patterns to get into the primary assist zone for a pullback.
  3. Always get multiple runners in the box.

Like this:

It’s simple stuff, but simple stuff works, and RSL have punished teams by relentlessly executing simple stuff all year long. At its very core, that’s what xDAWG actually is.

Is that enough to produce a playoff run of any sort? It shouldn’t be. RSL don’t have enough firepower, and even Austin won’t allow as many holes to exploit as Portland did this weekend.

But then again, it shouldn’t have been enough last year, either, and last year they made it all the way to the West finals. So whether their success this year is inexplicable or not… if you let this RSL team sneak up on you, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.