Playoff hunt: What will define Eastern Conference bubble teams in 2023?


Ready or not, Decision Day (Oct. 21) looms. Most clubs only have 10 or so games left to finish above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line, increasing pressure on players and coaches to do whatever's necessary to reach the postseason.

With that in mind, here's one key to each Eastern Conference bubble team's playoff hopes. Spots 1-7 feel fairly secure, so we're spotlighting clubs 8-13 who are fighting for the Wild Card places.

Oh, and last-place Inter Miami CF get an honorary nod because they just blitzed through Leagues Cup. Hope springs eternal with Lionel Messi and Co. around.

Check out the 2023 playoff format here; the top three tiebreakers for table position are:

  1. Most wins
  2. Goal differential
  3. Goals scored
  • 8th place in East
  • 32 points (10W-12L-2D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Get the best out of Bryce Duke and Kwadwo Opoku

Eyebrows were raised when Montréal completed an early-season trade with Miami for Duke and Ariel Lassiter, all as Kamal Miller and $1.3 million in General Allocation Money went the other way. But Duke has shown he can make the game as a No. 10 for Montréal; he was probably the best player on the field when they played Liga MX’s Pumas in Leagues Cup. And the recently-acquired Opoku played a key role for LAFC as they won the MLS Cup-Supporters' Shield double in 2022.

Even though both players are just 22 years old, Montréal would be wise to feed them the rock and let magic happen. That would bode well not just for this season, but for the future as well.

  • 9th place in East
  • 32 points (8W-8L-8D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Stop giving up leads (and hope Ousmane Doumbia can stabilize their midfield)

The Fire have dropped 16 points (third-most in MLS) this season, with Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Orlando City SC the latest example. If they preserve just two more wins, they're well clear of this list and fighting for a home playoff game.

But ifs don’t get a team into the playoffs, and one major issue for Chicago this year is their midfield isn’t the most mobile, which makes protecting leads difficult.

Against Orlando, all three starting center mids were over 30, and Xherdan Shaqiri is more the type to attack than do the dirty work. In steps Doumbia, their newly-signed Designated Player and no-nonsense defensive midfielder. The 31-year-old led the Fire’s starters in recoveries and pass percentage in his league debut, an encouraging sign as Federico Navarro sees his minutes drop.

  • 10th place in East
  • 30 points (8W-11L-6D)
  • 9 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Let Mateusz Klich cook

With Taxi Fountas (mutual contract termination) and Lewis O’Brien (end of loan) no longer with the team, D.C. United’s playoff hopes might live or die on Klich’s foot. That’s no disrespect to DP striker Christian Benteke, who leads the team with eight goals and is incredible in the air, or on-loan midfielder Gabriel Pirani, who performed well in his club debut last Sunday against the Red Bulls, but neither holds the keys to D.C.’s offense like Klich.

Exhibit A: D.C.’s 0.15 xG performance against the RBNY without Klich in the lineup (red card suspension).

Exhibit B: Klich’s created 53 chances this year, and the next best mark for a D.C. player is Benteke’s 29.

Wayne Rooney needs to construct his team to get Klich the ball in the attacking half by any means necessary.

  • 11th place in East
  • 29 points (7W-9L-8D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Get healthy in the attack

It’s no stretch to say the Red Bulls have arguably the best defense in MLS (with apologies to Nashville SC). Not only have they given up the fourth-fewest goals in the league, but their 26 goals against is significantly lower than any other playoff-bubble team.

The problem is New York can’t score, and a lot of that boils down to their top goalscorer from 2022, Lewis Morgan, and their big-money offseason signing, Dante Vanzeir, playing less than 1,000 combined minutes this season. Both are currently recovering from injuries, but have a chance to return for the home stretch.

If Morgan and Vanzier can get healthy (or find quick form) in the final part of the season, the Red Bulls could become an extremely tough out. For now, their leading scorer is midfielder Frankie Amaya (four goals).

  • 12th place in East
  • 26 points (6W-9L-8D)
  • 11 games left

Key to making the playoffs: New signings, new season

Charlotte were quietly one of the busier teams in the Secondary Transfer Window, signing two players from Ligue 1 in France (Brecht Dejaegere and Jere Uronen) and one from the Scottish Premiership (Scott Arfield). Between center mids Dejaegere and Arfield and left back Uronen, the Crown will hope to assert more control over the pace and tempo of matches. As is, they've given up a league-worst 40 goals on the season, meaning even when their multi-faceted attack is clicking, wins are far from guaranteed.

If Charlotte can hit something of a reset button with fresh faces settling the team, then an attack that's seen solid contributions from up and down the depth chart (even 34-year-old Justin Meram has been a regular on the scoresheet) could flourish. That's doubly so if DP striker Enzo Copetti gets healthy and allows DP forward Karol Swiderski to play his best position (underneath the striker).

  • 13th place in East
  • 26 points (5W-9L-11D)
  • 9 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Have one of their two U22 Initiative forwards hit

Desperate for a No. 9, NYCFC turned to a U22 Initiative striker to help plug their hole up top: Mounsef Bakrar. And after transferring leading scorer Gabriel Pereira to the Qatari league for an undisclosed eight-figure fee, they brought in a replacement winger in U22 Initiative signing Julián Fernández.

Neither Bakrar nor Fernández have had much chance to shine yet, but if either summer signing can muster up a marginal amount of end product, it would go a long way. The Cityzens have scored just 25 goals this year, lacking efficiency in the final third (though they boosted their chance creation by reacquiring club legend Maxi Moralez, too).

  • 15th place in East
  • 18 points (5W-14L-3D)
  • 12 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Stay unbelievably healthy

Currently 14 points below the playoff line (but with two games in hand), Miami must be just about perfect in order to sneak into the postseason. The good news is their undefeated Leagues Cup run showed that's actually quite possible.

The catch: How much will Tata Martino rotate or rest his big three of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba? And the downside to having games in hand is schedule congestion. Miami will need their stars to be available and at full strength if they want to pull off a miracle run.