Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

Predictions! Who could win Round One Best-of-3 series?

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Round One Best-of-3 series begin Saturday, and fans have expressed clear favorites in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Bracket Challenge.

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At the risk of providing bulletin-board material, we're giving quick-fire predictions on who will advance and who heads home – all building towards MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9.

A quick reminder on the format:

  • Hosting: Game 1 at the higher seed, Game 2 at the lower seed, Game 3 (if necessary) at the higher seed.
  • Win-only/PKs: There are no ties and no aggregate score. If teams are tied after regulation, penalty kicks decide the winner.
  • Best-of-3: The first team to win two matches advances. The loser's playoff journey ends.

Sixteen teams enter, but only eight reach the Conference Semifinals. Who's got the edge?

FC Cincinnati (1) vs. New York Red Bulls (8)
Eastern Conference

PREDICTION: Cincinnati in 2 games

There's added pressure with being the No. 1 overall seed. But Cincinnati maintain their dream of completing an MLS Cup-Supporters' Shield double (would be the ninth in league history).

John Tolkin, Luquinhas and Co. make it close, only for the Red Bulls' hot streak (four straight wins) to fizzle out. Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez, Matt Miazga, Obinna Nwobodo… there's too much quality and Cincy win several close games.

Orlando City SC (2) vs. Nashville SC (7)
Eastern Conference

PREDICTION: Orlando in 2 games

Maybe Nashville can find their Leagues Cup energy, when they stormed to the final before Lionel Messi's brilliant left foot got in the way. But that's hard to see happening, especially as their Hany Mukhtar-led attack slumps.

Orlando have lost just three games since early May, going 14W-3L-7D since then and collecting 49 points. That's best in MLS (second in points per game). Expect goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, winger Facundo Torres and striker Duncan McGuire to take care of business.

Columbus Crew (3) vs. Atlanta United (6)
Eastern Conference

PREDICTION: Atlanta in 3 games

Understandably, there's a spotlight on the Decision Day red card Thiago Almada received that will force him to miss Game 1. But we're choosing the optimistic route, meaning Atlanta get an Almada-sized boost (and full-health Giorgos Giakoumakis) after dropping Game 1 to rattle off back-to-back wins and advance.

Columbus, who play on the knife's edge in Wilfried Nancy's system, see their defensive risks exposed despite dynamic play from Cucho Hernández, Diego Rossi and more. It's ultimately beautiful soccer, but not MLS Cup-winning soccer.

Philadelphia Union (4) vs. New England Revolution (5)
Eastern Conference

PREDICTION: Philadelphia in 3 games

This seems like a series where both teams hold serve at home, much like we saw unfold in their regular-season battles. In 2023, Philadelphia won 3-0 at Subaru Park (May 20) before New England won 2-1 at Gillette Stadium (Oct. 21).

That balance means Philadelphia win Game 3, potentially in penalty kicks. Andre Blake gives the Union an edge in that department after the Revs transferred Djordje Petrovic to Chelsea (for nearly $20 million) in late August.

St. Louis CITY SC (1) vs. Sporting Kansas City (8)
Western Conference

PREDICTION: Kansas City in 3 games

I'll borrow a line from Matt Doyle: "This is the type of playoff series we’re potentially still referencing 25 years from now." This Midwest rivalry is about to hit 11 on the dial.

How does that manifest?

Sporting KC have been the West's best team since May and St. Louis lose a Game 3 heartbreaker at home. Bradley Carnell's group have a claim for being the best-ever expansion team, but we get more PK heroics from Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia and Alan Pulido has a monster series. Peter Vermes' playoff experience pays off, too.

Seattle Sounders FC (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Western Conference

PREDICTION: Seattle in 3 games

FC Dallas seem like a heavy underdog in this series, and I tend to agree. But Jesús Ferreira and Alan Velasco have playoff experience to fall back on, and they acquired ex-Real Madrid midfielder Asier Illarramendi in the summer for these moments.

That leaves Seattle pushed to the brink, where Brian Schmetzer's group settles things in Game 3. Nicolás Lodeiro, who's said he's not received a new contract for 2024 (or beyond), gets the game-winner to further stoke debate.

LAFC (3) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC (6)
Western Conference

PREDICTION: LAFC in 2 games

Dénis Bouanga isn't slowing down anytime soon. The 2023 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner has six goals in his last three games, and Carlos Vela (in the final year of his DP contract) wants another title.

That adds up to LAFC, despite Vancouver's trajectory and underrated one-two punch (Ryan Gauld and Brian White), pulling away across two games. The defending MLS Cup champions, looking to become the first back-to-back winner since the 2011-12 LA Galaxy, stay alive.

Houston Dynamo FC (4) vs. Real Salt Lake (5)
Western Conference

PREDICTION: Houston in 2 games

We may have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders, and we're not talking about never getting involved in a land war in Asia. It's to not question a Pablo Mastroeni-led team in the playoffs.

Sorry, RSL fans. There's just too much momentum and positivity around Houston, who have already shown championship bonafides en route to the 2023 US Open Cup title. Powered by their Héctor Herrera and Coco Carrasquilla-led midfield, the Dynamo ensure there's no Game 3 needed.