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


Ready or not, Decision Day (Oct. 21) looms. Most clubs only have 10 or so games 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 Western Conference bubble team's playoff hopes. We're profiling clubs within five points of ninth place (currently sitting at Minnesota United FC's 31 points). Eastern Conference version drops soon.

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

  1. Most wins
  2. Goal differential
  3. Goals scored
  • 4th place in West
  • 36 points (10W-9L-6D)
  • 9 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Figure out the best use of Nico Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz

The Sounders' two attack-minded Designated Players have combined to contribute 2g/3a since May 7, which is not great for a club’s starting No. 9 and No. 10. Not surprisingly, they’ve only won four of 14 games over that stretch.

Both club legends are still capable of producing magic at a moment’s notice, but with the likes of Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, Léo Chú and Albert Rusnák all capable of playing in the team’s front four, the question becomes who should start, and who should become a super sub (assuming each player is healthy, which hasn’t often been the case).

If head coach Brian Schmetzer can figure out that jigsaw puzzle, then the Sounders, bolstered by one of the best defensive units in the league, are still capable of putting together a deep run.

  • 5th place in West
  • 35 points (9W-7L-8D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Stay the course

This may be a copout, but of all teams on this list, the Earthquakes feel like the closest thing to a lock, even amid rumors of a potential Cade Cowell transfer to Europe.

Talent, form and schedule are the leading factors here. Even if Cowell leaves, Cristian Espinoza, Jeremy Ebobisse, Jamiro Monteiro, Carlos Gruezo and Jackson Yueill should be enough to earn a playoff spot in a relatively weak Western Conference this year. Plus, the Quakes are coming off two massive wins against rivals from the West who are also on the bubble (Seattle and Vancouver).

Now, San Jose's schedule features only two teams in the top half of the Supporters’ Shield standings (Nashville and RSL) over their final 10 games.

  • 6th place in West
  • 32 points (9W-10L-5D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Keep it hot in Houston

The Dynamo are 8W-2L-2D at Shell Energy Stadium and have leaned all the way into their home motto, “Hell in the Shell.” And why not? The Timbers walked into their brutally hot and humid grounds last Sunday and immediately hit the soccer equivalent of a “nope,” giving up three goals to Houston in the first 15 minutes.

With metronomic midfielders Héctor Herrera, Adalberto Carrasquilla and Artur complementing dynamic attackers like Amine Bassi, Corey Baird and Nelson Quiñones, the Dynamo can put opponents in a stranglehold with their possession and deliver the killer blow via swift changes of pace – especially when their opponents are struggling to get out of second gear in the brutal heat.

If the Dynamo, in head coach Ben Olsen's first year, can maintain their home pace and steal just a few points on the road before the season’s end, they’ll make the playoffs.

  • 7th place in West
  • 32 points (9W-10L-5D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Get the new additions settled quickly

Neither of Austin’s summer acquisitions, Matt Hedges and Memo Rodríguez, pop off the page in terms of star quality. Hedges was one of MLS’ best defenders in the latter half of the 2010s, but the 33-year-old center back has only played more than 2,000 minutes in a season once since then. And Rodríguez has had productive seasons with Houston, but only put up one goal and one assist in his time with the LA Galaxy’s struggling attack this year.

Still, Austin will need solid contributions from both down the homestretch in order to make the playoffs. With center back Leo Väisänen not quite returned from his knee injury, ATX need as much defensive help as they can get; they’ve given up the most goals of any team currently occupying a Western Conference playoff spot. And with Austin dealing Diego Fagundez to LA – plus Emiliano Rigoni not living up to DP expectations – Rodríguez will surely need to play meaningful minutes on the wing in Austin’s final push.

Both started in the Verde & Black’s 6-3 loss to St. Louis CITY SC, so hopefully for Austin’s sake, that match was their mulligan.

  • 8th place in West
  • 31 points (8W-8L-7D)
  • 11 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Turn expected goals into actual goals

This issue has been the story all season for the Whitecaps, who lead the league in total xG despite playing only 23 games so far. (Though dealing chance-creation merchant Julian Gressel to Columbus in exchange for up to $850k in GAM could lead to a meaningful dip in that stat for the rest of the season).

Still, the Whitecaps have enough talent in the attack to produce goals, particularly with one of the league’s most underrated players, Ryan Gauld (7g/6a), leading the charge. New additions Richie Laryea (2g/3a) and Sam Adekugbe should provide some attacking burst from the fullback position as well. The real question is whether forwards Brian White and Sergio Córdova can get hot in the fall.

  • 9th place in West
  • 31 points (8W-8L-7D)
  • 11 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Keep Emanuel Reynoso cooking

With respect to the outstanding season Bongokuhle Hlongwane is having and the potential of new DP forward Teemu Pukki, the Loons’ postseason chances lie, as always, at the feet of their enigmatic No. 10, Emanuel Reynoso. The star playmaker missed the first half of 2023 while serving a suspension for failing to report to preseason but has been on fire since his return, averaging nearly a goal contribution per game across 11 starts between Leagues Cup and regular season play.

MNUFC’s offense has followed suit, averaging more than two goals per game in matches Reynoso starts – a desperately needed boost after the team started the year with a sluggish-at-best attack. As long as Reynoso keeps up his form, the Loons will make the playoffs.

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

Key to making the playoffs: Unlock Alan Velasco’s potential

We all know what Jesús Ferreira does for this team. With 10g/2a on the year, plus an outstanding 1g/4a output in Leagues Cup, the USMNT forward has quietly progressed this year – punishing teams with ruthlessness in the final third while still retaining his silky quality in build-up play.

But the X-factor for Dallas is young Argentine DP Alan Velasco, who posted a middling 2g/3a on the year before breaking out for an outstanding Leagues Cup campaign that earned the respect of fellow countryman Lionel Messi. If Velasco and Ferreira can start cooking at the same time, expect many more multi-goal Dallas performances to accompany a postseason berth.

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

Key to making the playoffs: Get the band back together

Defensively, Sporting KC probably are what they are, which is to say, not great. Their 36 goals conceded are the fourth most in the Western Conference.

But in the attack, Peter Vermes’ side still boast many of the talents that helped them finish first in the Western Conference in 2020: Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell, Dániel Sallói, Gadi Kinda, Felipe Gutiérrez (recently re-added in the summer transfer window) and Khiry Shelton, to name a few.

Four of those six players are over 30, and the club has had some trouble getting them all healthy at the same. But if that group can string together one last great run (and Erik Thommy/Willy Agada get hot), there’s enough talent to see them over the line.

  • 12th place in West
  • 26 points (6W-10L-8D)
  • 10 games left

Key to making the playoffs: Pray for a new-manager bounce

Things aren’t going great in Portland. Including Leagues Cup, the Timbers have won just three of their last 15 outings (3W-7L-5D).

But few moves have the potential to snap a team back into focus more than refreshing the manager – and thus the shoe dropped Monday evening when Portland parted ways with longtime boss Giovanni Savarese. Miles Joseph, previously an assistant coach, is now their interim manager.

Whether Portland’s future becomes brighter likely comes down to getting more out of attacking signings Evander and Franck Boli, both of whom have hovered somewhere in the awkward space between hit and miss. That leaky defense needs patching, too.