Need an MLS Cup dark horse? These 6 could go the distance


When it comes to riveting sports moments, you can’t go wrong with a good underdog story.

The Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs are no different, as several of the 18 qualified teams are flying under the proverbial radar and riding momentum, vibes or whatever you want to call it into the postseason.

Here are six dark horse candidates – three from the Eastern Conference, three from the Western Conference – who could conceivably make a deep run and contend for MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9.

A completely transformed team under head coach Wilfried Nancy, Columbus are not only back in the playoffs after missing out in 2022, but they have all the makings of a possible title contender.

Nobody scored more goals this season than the Crew’s 67, led by the attacking trio of Cucho Hernández (16g/11a), Christian Ramírez (8g/4a) and Diego Rossi (3g/3a) – the latter a summer Designated Player signing who replaced outgoing club legend Lucas Zelarayán midseason.

Rossi’s seamless integration after just eight starts is further evidence of Nancy’s tactical smarts and ability to get the most out of a team that went undefeated over the last six games of the season (3W-0L-3D) to finish third in the overall league standings with 57 points, trailing only Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati (69) and Orlando City SC (63).

With so much going for them, how are the Crew just “dark horse” candidates rather than full-on favorites? The inability to finish off games over the course of the season revealed a clear weak spot for Columbus, who dropped 22 points from leading positions in 2023. That’s second-worst in all of MLS.

Another offensive powerhouse, Atlanta scored just one goal fewer (66) than the Crew in 2023 and boast one of the league’s most dangerous attacks.

It all revolves around Thiago Almada, their playmaking 2022 FIFA World Cup champion from Argentina who was constantly in the Landon Donovan MLS MVP conversation and led the league in assists (19) to go along with 11 goals. And speaking of end-of-season awards, offseason acquisition Giorgos Giakoumakis has to be in the Newcomer of the Year debate thanks to his 17 goals (all non-penalty) and three assists.

But president/CEO Garth Lagerwey and the Atlanta front office really got cooking with signings over the summer, bringing in Tristan Muyumba, Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva. All three have become key pieces to help solidify the Five Stripes' attack.

That said, Atlanta’s leaky defense gave up the third-most goals in the East this season (53). In terms of the postseason field, they’re the worst of every participating team in this category. Plus, they’ll be without Almada in Game 1 of their Round One Best-of-3 series against the Crew after the No. 10 got red-carded on Decision Day.

You can’t argue with history. The Red Bulls are playoff-bound for an MLS-record 14th straight season – a streak that’s also currently the longest in all of American men’s professional sports.

It’s rarely been pretty this year from New York, who underwent a coaching change in May while also losing several key strikers along the way to season-ending injuries. As a result, their top scorer was Omir Fernandez with 6g/4a.

And yet the Red Bulls remain in postseason contention, snatching a Wild Card spot via their last-gasp Decision Day win at Nashville SC. Plus, the underlying numbers love almost everything about them and their 39 goals against are top-five in the league (anchored by goalkeeper Carlos Coronel).

Let’s not forget they were as good as anybody in the league down the stretch, going 4W-1L-2D to end the season. They most notably earned an impressive road win at top-seeded Cincinnati – their potential Round One opponent, should they handle Charlotte FC in Wednesday's Wild Card game.

It's hard to call a club that’s already won a major trophy this year a “dark horse.” But the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs should be a completely different animal for Houston Dynamo FC compared to their US Open Cup-winning run.

For starters, the Dynamo are returning to the postseason for the first time since 2017 – the result of a quicker-than-expected turnaround under first-year head coach Ben Olsen. The former D.C. United boss (and Houston's front office) brought in 17 new signings this season, regaining a winning ethos that had sorely been lacking in The Bayou City.

The result has been a freewheeling, dynamic team capable of toppling any opponent – especially during the second half of the season (Houston had only one loss post-Leagues Cup). At the center of it all has been Mexican international Héctor Herrera (4g/17a), the leader of a formidable midfield quartet that also includes Coco Carrasquilla (3g/8a) as well as 2023 arrivals Amine Bassi (10g/4a) and Artur (2g/0a).

On second thought, maybe the Dynamo can repeat their US Open Cup success in the MLS playoffs.

His Decision Day blip aside, Ryan Gauld was arguably the most unheralded performer of 2023, posting 11g/12a and forming a fearsome striking duo with the equally underrated Brian White (15g/5a).

Another Vancouver player deserving of more recognition, veteran right back Richie Laryea, arrived over the summer along with fellow Canadian international Sam Adekugbe to help fuel the club's postseason return after missing out last year.

As the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed, the Whitecaps – who have proven their tournament mettle this season by winning a second-straight Canadian Championship – will spend most of the playoffs away from home should they make a run. Considering they recently impressed during a taxing seven-game road stretch (3W-2L-2D), they should be more than up for the challenge.

They’re also undefeated in the league this season against their Round One opponent, even beating LAFC 3-2 at BMO Stadium in late June.

However, before getting too excited about Vancouver’s chances, a reminder that the Black & Gold soared to a 6-0 aggregate scoreline in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals.

It’s fair to assume few people – captain Johnny Russell possibly among them – expected Sporting Kansas City to make the playoffs after a 10-game winless streak (0W-7L-3D) to start the year left the club flailing less than a third of the way into the season.

Against all odds, SKC pulled it off, going 12W-7L-5D in the remaining 24 games. Nobody in the Western Conference won more matches during that span.

And with club-record signing Alan Pulido (14g/3a) enjoying his best season in MLS, along with Erik Thommy and Dániel Sallói finding form, Sporting may be hitting their stride at the perfect moment.

They’ll first host San Jose in Wednesday’s Wild Card at Children’s Mercy Park – the sight of a lopsided 3-0 win over the Quakes in August. Should they then eliminate top-seeded St. Louis CITY SC (who took the season series 2W-1L-0D against their Midwest rival) in their Round One showdown, the sky could very well be the limit.