We can all preview and pontificate about how the 2021 MLS regular season’s final stretch will unfold until we're blue in the face, but at some point the time comes to lay it on the line with prognostication.
That time is now, and we’ll start by picking the table finish for the Eastern Conference’s seven Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spots. Tomorrow we'll come back to do the same for the Western Conference.
Anything and everything was considered for making these calls, from remaining schedule to fitness status to intangibles like crunch time experience. In similar gamut fashion, I'd expect the responses to my picks to range from "No duh" to "Sure, I can see that" to "What on Earth are you thinking?"
That's enough preliminary prattle, let's get chips down on the table.
No gut hunch needed for this one. The Revs are already locked in as the East's top seed. All the pieces are in place for a title run, and with Bruce Arena in charge, the players are surely aware of how long New England fans have been waiting for the club to bring home an MLS Cup. This could be their best chance, with at least one major cog (Tajon Buchanan) heading abroad this offseason.
After flirting with spectacular for much of 2020, injuries and some playmaker slumping have forced the Lions to shoot for pragmatically steady this season. They've hit the mark more often than not, which is why the regular season runners-up slot is still within reach. Their remaining slate is tough, but also provides an opportunity to climb. With cobra head Daryl Dike back on form (and perhaps, Alexandre Pato fit enough to bring a second strike wave), I think they'll take it.
There’s also a strong case to be made for picking the Union to run second at the finish line. Kacper Przybylko has heated up, the midfield/wide backs can come at you in waves and there's always Andre Blake to clean up a breakdown. They're one of the hottest teams in the East these days, but things tend to go in cycles and Philly learned a lesson about peaking too soon last year. Perhaps they cool off just enough to hold position.
Truth be told, it would have been very easy to leave the Music City group in the second position they currently hold. Their defense is stifling, their midfield is sturdy and Hany Mukhtar is among the top offense creators in the league. This all makes them incredibly tough to beat. It's just that the attack has suddenly gone cold, which is making their struggles with closing the deal stand out. Nashville have drawn more than half their games, including four in a row. This all convinces foes that they can be leapfrogged in the standings.
The Five Stripes have won nine of 12, and one can almost see their recent heyday style trying to emerge. Josef Martinez (when healthy) looks like his old self, the defense is rounding into shape and the transition game is causing all sorts of problems for opponents. Atlanta United's remaining schedule is kinder than most, so they have a decent shot at breaching the top four to earn a home playoff game. I'm just not quite convinced it will happen due to the strength of the teams they're chasing.
Yes, it currently seems like NYCFC are doing everything in their power to miss the playoffs. They haven't scored a goal in 419 minutes, Ronny Delia is desperately shifting the team's shape back and forth, and heads are hanging low in the Bronx. Just remember what I said about cycles when they pull out of the nosedive. The injury loss of right back Anton Tinnerholm hurts like hell, but when it comes right down to it, I just trust this team's spine more than others. It also doesn't hurt that they have a relatively kind slate of games remaining.
This is very much an "out on the limb" call, but nobody should be too surprised. Gyasi Zardes is doing his thing again, Milton Valenzuela is back and vintage Darlington Nagbe is showing up. This is still a championship-caliber squad, and they finally seem to be getting past most of the season's injury misfortune. I'm sure many folks counted them out a while ago, but you won't catch me betting against this Crew just yet.