Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

MLS Cup: Why each playoff team will (and won't) win it all


And now, the postseason.

Let’s take a look at why each of the 14 teams that made it to the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs will win MLS Cup on Nov. 5 – and why they won’t.

In we go, sorted by the Supporters’ Shield standings finish:

Why they’ll win: They won the Shield, which is a pretty good indicator that they’re pretty good! And they’ve got the best PPG against the other playoff teams of anyone in the field, which is also a pretty good indicator that they’re pretty good.

Look at that roster on paper, and look at how they were playing up until mid-August, and you’ll likely come to the conclusion that they’re not actually pretty good. Rather, you’ll come to the conclusion that they’re one of the very best teams in league history.

There’s reason to think they can start playing like that again, especially after they got a month’s worth of bad luck out of their system in that Decision Day loss to Nashville.

Why they won’t win: Bad luck has a way of compounding for one, and for two, they’re clearly already feeling the pressure this postseason. “It doesn’t mean anything without MLS Cup” is what Carlos Vela said after winning the Shield and, well, 1) that’s wrong, and 2) something about that strikes me as unhealthy. Only three of the past 14 Shield winners have won MLS Cup, by the way. 

A stat that tells a story: Tournament soccer often comes down to limiting mistakes and capitalizing on restarts and boy howdy, that does not bode well for this bunch.

Let’s just focus in on the second part of that axiom: As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, LAFC’s set-piece defense was second-worst among playoff teams over the final two months of the season. That’s a giant red flag.

Why they’ll win: In most leagues they’d be the Shield champions, as in most leagues the first tiebreaker is goal differential (in MLS since 2013 the first tiebreaker has been wins, and if you want to know why that is, just look at the draw totals in the league from about 2008 to 2012).

So they’ll have the chip on their shoulder of a second-place club, but have performed like the best team in the league since June. Hell, for a solid two-month chunk they performed like the best MLS team of all time. Nobody’s gone thermonuclear the way Philly went thermonuclear this summer.

They’ll also have a chip on their shoulder from last year, when they lost in the Eastern Conference Final after most of their starters had to be entered into health & safety protocols in the days before that game. That’s two trophies the fates have denied them.

I don’t think they’ll be denied a third.

Why they won’t win: Tournament soccer is weird and anything can happen in a one-off. That’s the best reason I’ve got for why this team won’t win.

A stat that tells a story: Their goals against average (0.76) is the second-best in MLS history, behind only 2010 RSL (0.67). But bear in mind that RSL set that mark in a much lower-scoring environment, as the 2010 MLS season produced only 2.46 goals per game. In 2022, it was 20% higher at 2.96.

The Union are really, really good.

Why they’ll win: They’re as well-drilled as anybody in the league, and they’re more talented than people realize. Here’s a goal where both those things are on display:

This is a team that’s just utterly confident on the ball, which allows them to be ruthless when anybody lined up across from them gives them an inch of daylight. A healthy and fully in-form Djordje Mihailovic will turn that inch of daylight into a goal.

The reason, by the way, that they’re utterly confident on the ball is they almost always field 11 players who are very, very good on the ball, and thus never turn it over. You don’t see mistakes born of hesitancy from this side, which is important at this time of year.

Why they won’t win: Even with all of the above, Montréal weren’t great against playoff teams. From mid-May onwards they were just 2W-4L-3D against teams that made the postseason, and one of those two wins was on Decision Day against a Miami team that maaaaaaaybe was out celebrating a little too hard over the previous couple of days after punching their ticket midweek.

A stat that tells a story: As per TruMedia via StatsPerform they completed 27.8% of their crosses, which is the best mark in the league.

Why is that? Because they’re disciplined enough not to cross the ball from worthless spots, and skilled enough to work possession into the sides of the boxes for pullbacks like on the goal above.

Why they’ll win: Because the vibes are outstanding:

Austin aren’t just a vibes team, mind you – they use the ball well to create wide overloads, and are especially deadly in transition. Plus in Sebastian Driussi they have a guy who’s clearly not just “a” guy, he’s “the” guy. He’ll be the best player on the field in any game he plays until/unless he crosses paths with Hany Mukhtar or Riqui Puig.

Good vibes + a match-winning No. 10 + a match-winning goalkeeper is a workable formula.

Why they won’t win: A better formula is being an excellent team playing excellent soccer, and Verde aren’t that right now, nor have they been for a few months. Since mid-July they’re 4W-6L-4D with a -2 goal differential, and that’s right in line with their underlying numbers.

Now, bear in mind that xG isn’t as predictive in MLS as it is in the Big 5 European leagues – parity’s a hell of a drug. But I don’t think anyone can credibly argue that Austin are playing championship-caliber soccer these days.

A stat that tells a story: Austin have only hit six key passes following a successful 1v1 dribble all year long. For a team that spreads the field and overloads the flanks in that beautiful 4-2-3-1, that’s a weird Achilles’ heel to have.

Why they’ll win: Because they’re infinitely better with Keaton Parks running things at d-mid, and because I honestly think they’ll be better with Heber at center forward.

That’s not a knock on Talles Magno, by the way, but this goal…

…was just his second since taking over as the No. 9 when Taty Castellanos left for Girona midseason. Magno was maybe the best winger in the league in the first half of the year, and some day he might make the switch to center forward look like a good idea, but it didn’t happen this year.

Now, I’m assuming he’s out for at least Round One after leaving the Decision Day win at Atlanta with a nasty-looking shoulder injury, which opens the door for Heber to remind folks how good he is: dude had eight goals in 1000 minutes this year! He should’ve been starting as soon as Taty hit the door!

Why they won’t win: Since hoisting the Cup last autumn, Taty’s left for Girona, James Sands has left for Glasgow, Jesus Medina’s left for Moscow and Gudi Thorarinsson left for Greece. Two other starters from that win over the Timbers, right back Tayvon Gray and d-mid Alfredo Morales, limped off injured in Atlanta this past weekend.

They are nowhere near 100%.

A stat that tells a story: Under Ronny Deila, in the final 15 minutes of games NYCFC forced a turnover within five seconds of getting pressure to the ball in their defensive third 59.2% of the time, which was third in the league as per Second Spectrum.

Under Nick Cushing that number has dropped to 51.5%, which is 14th.

Why they’ll win: They dictate the terms of the encounter in almost every game they play, breaking their opponents’ game plans and brains and smash-banging them into turning things less into a game of soccer than into a midfield demolition derby.

They register almost 15% more pressures per game than anybody else in the league:

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(Shout out to Nate Gilman for that viz).

Why they won’t win: You need a guy to win MLS Cup, and unless Elias Manoel’s Decision Day performance means he’s morphed into 2013 Dom Dwyer, the Red Bulls don’t have a guy.

The simple fact is that teams play both harder and more conservatively in the postseason, so the great regular-season advantage of Energy Drink Soccer tends to disappear.

A stat that tells a story: RBNY hit only 5,117 successful second passes – i.e., the pass after an initially successful first pass. That’s almost 1500 fewer than the next-lowest team and just way, way under the great, Jesse Marsch-era Red Bull sides (their fewest in a season was 7,340 in 2018).

They are what they are and there ain’t anything else to it.

Why they’ll win: They’re like Montréal in a lot of ways – they’re clean on the ball, they play mistake-free soccer, they are really smart about where they take their risks so that they don’t get gashed off of live-ball turnovers, and they rarely get stretched out. It’s an unusual thing to see out of a team that’s so young.

Add that overall approach, which they execute upon very well, to a three-headed attack that’s really delivered, and you seem to have the type of team that could be a postseason darkhorse.

I also think that while the numbers aren’t really showing it quite yet, they’re playing better and more dynamic soccer down the stretch here than they had been at midseason. The more I think on this, the more I’m actually talking myself into Dallas here.

Why they won’t win: It really does come down to that three-headed monster of Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola and Alan Velasco in attack, though. Nobody else on the roster has more than three goals, and Sebastian Lletget’s goal on Decision Day was the first by a Dallas midfielder since June.

As that front line goes, so go los Toros.

A stat that tells a story: Dallas’s direct speed – the speed at which they advance the ball upfield – was second-slowest in the league at 1.2 meters per second.

This is by design. Everything about Nico Estevez’s system is about controlling where on the field the game is played, and at what tempo.

Why they’ll win: Between Riqui Puig and Chicharito, they might have the best midfielder and the best center forward in the league. Two guys that good can create chances out of moments that other players don’t even realize are moments:

That ability to break lines with a touch means the opposing midfield has always got to be selling out to get pressure to the ball, and the opposing defense has always got to be on their toes staying tight and reading gaps before the gaps appear. I’ve talked to players around the league who’ve faced the Galaxy over the past two months, and uniformly they say that it’s an absolute nightmare to go against them with Puig out there.

Why they won’t win it: They’ve missed more penalties than a bunch of teams have taken, they haven’t gotten much out of their wingers, and Jonathan Bond has been a subpar shot-stopper for the second straight year.

They can also be an absolute mess when they turn the ball over, which is why they’ve allowed more xG in transition, as per Second Spectrum, than any other team in the postseason.

A stat that tells a story: The Galaxy are the only team in the league with more than 900 line-breaking passes, and they’re the only team in the league to complete more than 50% of their attempts at line-breaking passes (52.8%).

They live for those through-balls, man.

Why they’ll win: They have the best player in the league (Hany Mukhtar), the best center back in the league (Walker Zimmerman), a veteran, playoff-tested goalkeeper (Joe Willis) and a playoff-tested center forward riding a hot streak (Teal Bunbury).

They also have two good fullbacks, savvy veteran central midfielders and wide midfielders who will run – unselfishly and on both sides of the ball – until they drop.

Plus they’ve made deep postseason runs twice in a row. Why not an even longer one this time, one that ends with a trophy?

Why they won’t win it: Teal’s played great soccer this year, but the first, second and third-best attackers on this team are all Hany Mukhtar. He does more chance creation, more finishing, and more pass-before-the-pass stuff than anyone, and so damn much of the burden falls on him that it doesn’t feel possible for him to carry it for four more games.

If Nashville actually win this thing it’ll be the greatest carry job since Carlos Ruiz in 2002.

A stat that tells a story: They hit 655 crosses, which is the second-most of anybody in the postseason. Right back Shaq Moore, in particular, is always looking to get forward and bend one into ye olde mixer.

Why they’ll win: Their trio of Brandon Vazquez, Brenner and Lucho Acosta doesn’t just give Cincy attacking power; they give Cincy attacking flexibility, as all three guys are equally adept at 1) pressing to win the ball back real high, 2) popping up in the right spots (and possessed of the right technique) to build competently via possession, and 3) filling essential roles when playing route 1 (Vazquez is the target with the other two guys playing off of him for knockdowns and flicks).

And oh yeah, they’re pretty good on the counter, too:

They are so much damn fun, and play with such reckless abandon that you’ll often see both wingbacks and central midfielder Obinna Nwobodo pushed up as well – all at the same time. It’s wild.

Why they won’t win it: They play with such reckless abandon that you’ll often see both wingbacks and central midfielder Obinna Nwobodo pushed up as well – all at the same time. It’s wild.

Cincy’s gotten much, much better defensively since the midseason additions of Nwobodo and center back Matt Miazga, mind you. But they allow a ton of room between their own lines, which means that opposing midfielders often find plenty of time to play the type of passes that can carve you up.

A stat that tells a story: Since the start of July, the Garys have allowed 856 progressive passes, and 433 line-breaking passes. Those are the worst marks of any playoff team over the second half of the year.

Why they’ll win: In Emanuel Reynoso they have maybe the league’s greatest floor-raiser – a ball-dominant No. 10 who is always brave about receiving the ball in the toughest parts on the pitch, and is often a wizard with what he then does with it. Reynoso’s whole raison d’etre is to create chances for everyone around him – just make the run, and he will play you the pass. As so:

He’s a man who can win a game all by himself.

Why they won’t win it: He’s a man who might have to win a game all by himself. You saw how that clip above ended, right?

The fact is, Minnesota haven’t done much to show they have the ability to use the space and the chances Bebelo creates. Things got particularly grim down the stretch with one win in their last seven, which undid a lot of the good work they’d managed this summer.

A stat that tells a story: Robin Lod started 11 games in central midfield for Minnesota this year. The Loons went 8W-1L-2D. They were 6W-13L-4D in all other games.

Adrian Heath’s got to make sure he doesn’t overthink this one.

Why they’ll win it: In Gonzalo Higuain they have the hottest striker in the league, and in Alejandro Pozuelo they have (if healthy) an MVP-caliber No. 10 and a proven playoff match-winner.

You could argue those two comprise the best 1-2 punch in MLS, and the numbers kind of agree as Miami have gone 8W-5L-2D since Pozuelo’s midseason arrival from Toronto – a stretch that not coincidentally also saw Higuain start playing his best soccer in years.

Miami also have the flexibility to toggle between a 4-4-2 diamond (provided Leo Campana is healthy, which as with Pozuelo is very much not a given) and a 4-2-3-1, which we saw them put to good use multiple times down the stretch as they pushed toward and finally above the playoff line.

Why they won’t win it: Two of their three best attackers are hurt, and everything else about them screams “mid-table team!” Including their place in the middle of the table.

The lowest-ranked team ever to win MLS Cup was the 2005 Galaxy, who finished ninth in the regular season. Miami are 12th. It’d be a huge ask even if they were healthy.

A stat that tells a story: Miami generated just 297 chances this year, dead last among playoff teams. Part of this has to do with their pace of play (Miami games tend to be slower because of the weather) and part of this has to do with their lack of a No. 10 until Pozuelo got there.

But still, it’s not great. And the inability to adjust their pace of play on the road is glaring.

Why they’ll win it: They’re blooded thanks to their title-winning US Open Cup performance, in which they had a habit of surviving the first half of games, then thriving and absolutely annihilating teams in the second half. That type of thing is not unusual to see from tournament-winning sides – the ability to adjust, be it tactically or emotionally or physically, is a massive asset.

They also have, in Facundo Torres, a young attacker who’s proved again and again that he will not shy away from the moment, and only seems to be getting stronger as the season wears on.

It would be truly wild to see them do it – wild to the point that even in MLS you could not say “stranger things have happened.” This would, in fact, be the strangest.

But hey, that’s what MLS is for.

Why they won’t win it: Robin Jansson isn’t just this team’s best center back; he’s their overall best player, and they badly miss his ability to carry possession upfield and move it to the highest-leverage spots:

There’s no replacing this.

A stat that tells a story: Orlando almost never switch the field of play – just 87 times on the year, which is super weird from a team that 1) likes to have possession, and 2) brings both fullbacks up to be attacking threats pretty often.

Why they’ll win it: xDAWG. They execute as hard as they possibly can for as long as they possibly can, then Pablo Mastroeni does a line change and the new guys come in and do the same damn thing.

That’s how you end up sealing the deal for yet another playoff appearance with a goal by your 20-year-old homegrown assisted by a fourth-round SuperDraft pick:

This is the modern version of everybody runs, everybody works and the team is the star. It’s how they’ve defied expectations all year long.

Why they won’t win it: During the “The team is the star” era, the actual star was Javier Morales. While Jefferson Savarino is great, he’s not JaviMo-level great. And while the whole team’s effort in their execution has been more than commendable all season long, we’re not at the part of the year where everyone’s going to be emptying the tank all game long. Their xDAWG advantage henceforth will be marginal at best.

A stat that tells a story: RSL hit more long-balls than anybody, and hit the fifth-most switches of play. They do everything in their power to make the field as big as possible as quickly as possible, and if you’re not prepared for that, then you just haven’t been paying attention.