Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Ranking Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoff teams by tier as the regular season ends

And so with the conclusion of Decision Day, the 26th regular season of Major League Soccer is in the books.

Since there were seven games going on at the same time, and then six games going on at the same time, I will not pretend I'm going to give you a full blow-by-blow analysis and breakdown. Instead let's take a look at where everybody stands heading into the postseason.

For those teams that didn't make the postseason, post-mortems have been trickling out over the past month, with another big batch coming later this week. But here and now, into the playoffs we go:

Tier 1
The Favorites

New England Revolution

Decision Day Result: 1-0 loss vs. Miami

When you won the Supporters’ Shield with a record-breaking points total, and you have the likely Landon Donovan MVP Award winner and the likely Goalkeeper of the Year, and when your coach is the winningest coach in league history … yeah, you’re probably among the favorites. The only real question is whether they’d occupy a tier of their own.

I decided they do not. New England have been spectacular this year behind Carles Gil and Matt Turner, as well as Best XI-caliber seasons from the forward duo of Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou, and a whole host of fine seasons from everyone else (special shouts to Tajon Buchanan, Matt Polster and DeJuan Jones among that group). When there is a chance to punish, they are ruthless – and so they’ve spent much of the year playing from in front. That’s a good way to play.

They are not invincible. The Revs rarely dominate entire games; they often concede field position, possession and lots of chances. The bet is that their best players (Turner, Gil, et al) will be better on the day than your best players, and in the regular season that was a good bet as there were a lot of one-goal wins.

But I’m old enough to remember what the Crew did to them in last year’s playoffs, flooding central midfield with that 4-2-3-1, which overwhelmed New England’s 4-4-2. Columbus turned the most important real estate on the field into a pure numbers game, and dominated because of it.

I still think that’s the path to beating this team – just wrest the game away from them, use the ball and make them defend for 90 minutes. Easier said than done, of course.

One note of concern: Buksa missed the Decision Day loss with an unspecified foot injury. Bruce Arena says that he's not expected to miss any playoff time, but that's no guarantee he's going to be fully healthy.

Seattle Sounders

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw at Vancouver

Given the stretch-run belly flop Seattle have endured over the past month, I’m sure there are some folks who are surprised to see this team here. And I kind of get it – they’re in their worst form of the season right when you want to be rounding into your best form of the season. It’s concerning.

Still, I am not about to bet against a team that has made four of the past five MLS Cups and that racked up 60 regular-season points, and that did so mostly without Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, and partially without Raul Ruidiaz. The Sounders played 2021 on hard mode and came through it, in my opinion, with flying colors.

And now they’ve come to a point where all three of those guys are back. Two of them are starting, with one off the bench … I don’t think I’d want to face that any time over the coming month.

At the same time, the backline feels a touch worn out and error-prone in a way previous Sounders backlines have not been at this time of year. They’ve conceded some soft, sloppy goals over the past month.

If there’s a path past them in November – and to be clear: usually there is not! – that’s where it exists.

Tier 2
There’s a Strong Argument


Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw vs. Philly

Scan through most of the advanced numbers and you’ll find that basically all of them think that NYCFC are one of the two best teams in the league. They are among the league leaders in possession, chances created, big chances created, xG, goals, assists and everything else under the sun.

And if you pick the right film to watch – let’s say, their games against the Revs – you can see that the product on the pitch matched that in the spreadsheets. The Cityzens just took it to New England multiple times, getting on the ball and owning the game.

Of course, NYCFC only managed to win one of the teams’ three matchups, and that’s the rub with this team. On the day they can absolutely put in a dominant performance and walk away with a 3-1 win, but when playing the best teams in the East they were just as liable to turn those types of performances into a 2-1 loss.

Ronny Deila had to mix-and-match the backline a lot, which surely had something to do with it. The streakiest collection of finishers in the league – up to and including Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos – surely had something to do with it as well, as did Sean Johnson’s poor year (by his lofty standards).

Even when they play well you don’t know what you’re going to get, but when they do play well I’m not sure anybody in the league can play better.

That said, keep an eye out for Keaton Parks injury updates. He was badly missed in the season finale.

Sporting KC

Decision Day Result: 1-0 loss vs. RSL

In 2021 Sporting did what they’ve done for most the past decade under Peter Vermes: smother teams with the press, generate a lot of possession, score a good number of goals and be physical as hell throughout. They are a woodchipper.

The consistency with which they’ve ground teams into a pulp over Vermes’ decade in charge is beyond admirable, and this year’s squad is one of the best examples of how his side has evolved. Unlike the early days, the press is no longer about smash-bang-and-a-cross to the back post – now it’s much more about guiding the opponent’s attempts to play out into blind alleys where there’s a turnover and an opportunity to get immediately vertical through their two superb wingers, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell. If that’s not on, then they will cycle possession all the way to the backline until either Graham Zusi can hit a long diagonal to Salloi, or Andreu Fontas can pick out Russell.

It works really well, and will in theory function even better if Alan Pulido is healthy for the postseason. That said, he’s barely played in the second half of the year, which is a big concern.

Even bigger: As smothering as the press has been, there are times when teams have been able to play through it. When that happens – when the first line of pressure gets eliminated – Sporting’s midfield triangle can get pulled apart, and whoever the d-mid happens to be can get asked to cover too much ground.

The other obvious Achilles heel is that there is always space behind the fullbacks. Leave a winger high and hit a blind, first-time ball in that general direction any time there’s a midfield turnover, and you’re likely to create something.

Philadelphia Union

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw at NYCFC

The Union, over the bulk of the past decade under Jim Curtin, have improved year-over-year in an almost shockingly linear fashion. For the most part it’s come down to regular-season points, but in recent years it’s included trips to the playoffs, a home playoff game and a home playoff win.

What hasn’t happened yet is a deep and dangerous playoff run. In 2019 they made it to the second round before coming up short at Atlanta. In 2020, they were unceremoniously dumped on their collective ass by the Revs after having won the Supporters’ Shield. I bet that one still stings.

This Union team is similar to that one in a lot of ways; they are still a side that lives for transition moments and asks their center backs to do interesting things with the ball. But they are different in that they draw a lower line of confrontation in 2021, more a “pressing” team than a high pressing team, and in that they have seemed to be at their best playing in the old AC Milan Christmas Tree 4-3-2-1 than out of the 4-4-2 diamond.

A greater emphasis on midfield numbers and creativity, and slightly less on pure, immediate verticality is not a direction I thought this team would go in, and to be fair it was probably forced upon them by a rash of injuries to the frontline. But it’s shown lots of promise.

It doesn’t answer this question, though: In a big game against a good team, does Philly have anybody you’d trust to put their chances away? If you watched the Concacaf Champions League semifinals, I know what your answer is.

Colorado Rapids

Decision Day Result: 5-2 win over LAFC

I guess I’ll just reiterate the above question for the Rapids, who have put together their best regular-season in club history and have done so while Robin Fraser, who clearly has a black belt in weaponizing tactical minutiae, has wove his magic throughout one of the league’s least glamorous rosters.

Colorado’s lineup is composed almost entirely of guys who are in the top 10 in MLS in their respective positions, with a couple of them having arguments for the top five. It’s like one of those great, late-90s Serie A sides – there are zero weak links. Because there are no weak links, and because there is a very good (and underrated) goalkeeper, and because Fraser is a warlock, they have achieved a measure of tactical and formational malleability that is unmatched elsewhere in MLS.

So they are really good and borderline imperturbable, almost always having answers to tactical questions that are being asked. Sometimes it results in them putting the pedal down in an all-out, attacking 4-3-3, and other times it means they absorb pressure and counter out of a 3-4-3 (that looks more like a 5-4-1), and other times they knock the ball around crisply and control the game no matter what the formation, or where their line of confrontation is.

But yeah, back to that question: In the playoffs, where are the goals going to come from? Michael Barrios, Diego Rubio, Dom Badji and Jonathan Lewis, their four most goal-dangerous attackers, have a combined 25 seasons of experience in this league. Over the course of those 25 individual seasons, they have a combined two postseason goals.

None of them have ever been match-winners in the way they’re about to be asked to be match-winners.

The mitigating factor is that Colorado continue to be devastating on restarts. Who needs an alpha goalscorer when you’ve got Jack Price diming every corner kick directly onto Danny Wilson’s head?

Tier 3
If Their Playmaker Goes Supernova

Nashville SC

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw vs. RBNY

Even last year they were much more than just the grit ‘n’ grind team that they were frequently billed as, and they showed it in a memorable postseason run that only ended at the feet of the eventual champions after extra time. They were, in other words, really stinkin’ good by the end of 2020.

Nashville built on that in 2021. They spent most of their home games being a front-foot, ball-dominant side that was able to carve out chances the old fashioned way (lots of crosses and set pieces – Gary Smith is English), but also used the skill and savvy of Anibal Godoy and Dax McCarty, their central midfield double-pivot, to arrange and then rearrange the pieces on the table in what eventually became a default 3-5-2 formation that allowed them to create chances out of pure possession. There were also some very cool moments with Daniel Lovitz playing as an inverted wingback, and a few promising 3-4-2-1 looks.

No matter what, though, this team only played great soccer if Hany Mukhtar was cooking. If he was off or was missing, Nashville could still look like a good team, and the fact that they’ve lost only four games all year says plenty about just how tough they are to break down whether he’s on the field and feeling it or not.

But to reach the highest heights, Nashville had to rely on Mukhtar to an almost unhealthy extent. Smith basically said as much late in the season as he was juggling lineups to try to unlock different attacking combos, and trying to turn a few of the record-tying haul of ties into wins.

None of them really worked. Hany’s got to be up for it this month.

Portland Timbers

Decision Day Result: 3-0 win vs. Austin

I’m going to make this really simple: In last year’s MLS is Back Tournament, Sebastian Blanco was the best player in the league by a mile. He was just utterly dominant, and because of his dominance and both-sides-of-the-ball brilliance, Portland picked up the second significant piece of silverware of their MLS existence.

Blanco hasn’t quite been to that level this season as he’s still recovering from ACL surgery, but here are the Argentine No. 10’s on/off numbers:

  • Without him they are 3-7-0 with a -8 goal differential
  • With him they are 14-6-4 with a +12 goal differential

Portland, in their two-thirds of a season with Blanco, have picked up almost two points per game. That is better than anyone in MLS outside of New England.

There are other strengths here – the Chara Bros.; a deadly center forward tandem; an eternally underrated goalkeeper; Playoff Dairon – but Blanco’s been the one to tie the whole room together. He is great.

There are weaknesses too, of course. The big one is that both fullbacks are liable to lose their minds and go walkabout, and the center back corps isn’t quite good enough to cover for that. The other is the final 15 malaise where Portland often decide to protect a result by just sitting back, and in the process become way too passive. That approach hasn’t been as counterproductive as it was in 2020, but they can still lapse into it, and it can still cost them dearly.

Minnesota United FC

Decision Day Result: 3-3 draw at LA Galaxy

We saw it last year, right? Emanuel Reynoso walked into the league and did one of the best Marco Etcheverry impressions I’ve ever seen, gliding around midfield to get on the ball and carve huge gaps into opposing backlines with lovely, sweeping, left-footed through-balls. If you want to really get a feel for what watching South American soccer in the 1980s, ‘90s and early ‘00s was like, just watch Minnesota’s home stretch and glorious playoff run from 2020.

The good news: Bebelo has kept that energy into 2021, and has been at worst a top five playmaker in MLS this season. The guy is just a pure No. 10, a problem-solver who has genius vision and a gift for raising the performance of his teammates because of it.

The bad news: The rest of Minnesota’s roster did not keep that energy. This is by far the lowest-scoring Western Conference playoff team and it’s definitely not because Rey failed to hold up his end of the bargain.

So yeah, the finishing’s been woeful almost across the board. Beyond that, though, I think Minnesota’s just a touch less dynamic than they were in 2020, when Kevin Molino got red hot and became the fire to Reynoso’s ice. There are other good players on this year’s team but none of them – Molino’s direct replacement Franco Fragapane included – eliminates stranded defenders or is as goal-dangerous attacking scrambled defenses as Molino was.

Can Minnesota score those types of goals without that type of player? All season long, the answer’s been “not really.” And the defense is not good enough for them to win multiple playoff games if they're not scoring those types of goals.

Tier 4
If the Stars Align

New York Red Bulls

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw at Nashville

Dead and buried two months ago, and very much alive now. The Red Bulls are currently nothing like the team that went 2-7-4 in 14 games across basically the entirety of the summer. Since that stretch they’re 7-1-4 and have pulled off a truly great turnaround to make the postseason, extending their consecutive appearance streak to 12 years.

They did it in the exact way you think they did it: By pressing higher and harder and more viciously than anyone else in the league. This RBNY team under Gerhard Struber is a throwback to the heart of the Jesse Marsch years, when there was no mucking around with any inclination toward possession, and no thought of changing the way they play to adjust to the opponents. Plan A is “smash,” and Plan B is “bang.” Bring a helmet.

That is the greatest strength of the Red Bull brand of soccer: the way they play makes you adjust to them. And honestly, over the past two months, nobody’s quite managed it. RBNY have turned every single game they’ve played since mid-September into demolition derby, no matter if it’s been home vs. Miami or a road trip to Nashville.

The upshot of that is the games have been ultra-defensive, which suits a team that’s short of postseason-caliber firepower. How short? RBNY have scored more than one goal in a game just twice since August, a span of 19 games.

That is their path to MLS Cup, should there be one: a bunch of 1-0 wins in which whoever they’re playing gets ground to dust by the press and eventually gives up their own gameplan to try to beat the Red Bulls at their own game.

Orlando City SC

Decision Day Result: 2-0 win at Montréal

On paper, at the start of the year, I thought they had the type of team that could climb to the top of the table and probably stay there. They’d certainly played like it for good chunks of 2020, and that was without the benefit of having the entire, first-choice squad on hand. If they got healthy in 2021, got everyone on the field at the same time … they’d be a force, right?

Not really. Orlando City have been good – and I’d say that they’ve flirted with “very good” down the stretch here – but at no point in time have they been “a force.” They have been a team that scraps and scrapes, that stays compact and gets opportunistic, but they rarely dominate teams the way I thought their talent would allow them to.

Part of it is the fact that Oscar Pareja has repeatedly had to cobble together makeshift lineups basically all year long. The Lions weren’t whole until autumn.

But part of it is that even when they’re whole, they’re not actually whole because their best players haven’t been their best players. And by that I mean they need a lot, lot more from the DP duo of Mauricio Pereyra and Nani.

• Pereyra has just 1g/10a all year and none of either since September, a span of eight games.

• Nani, in his now typical fashion, wilted with the arrival of mid-summer. While in 2019 and 2020 it was more of a slow decline, in 2021 he just fell off a cliff, managing only 1g/2a over the season’s final three months. He’d posted 9g/6a in its first four.

Even with those guys sputtering Orlando were good enough over the final eight games to go 3-1-4 and push into the postseason. But it’s hard to see a path for them if their DPs don’t start playing like DPs.

Atlanta United

Decision Day Result: 2-1 win at FC Cincinnati

Atlanta made the playoffs, which is cause for celebration given how quickly and completely the season got off the rails under Gabriel Heinze, and what good work Rob Valentino and, eventually, Gonzalo Pineda did to turn things around.

And what they did to turn things around was to entirely scrap the methodical positional play scheme Heinze was trying to install in favor of a more transition-heavy approach. It looks like the idea is to become the Sounders of the East – OK in possession, tough as hell defensively and devastating when you let them run. It’s a good plan.

The issues, though, are that Atlanta are nowhere near as good as Seattle defensively, and are nowhere near as good at imposing those transition moments on truly good teams. And what I mean by that is this: Atlanta have just one win against a playoff team all year!!! They had 15 cracks at it under three different coaches and came away with just the one.

The Five Stripes, in the second half of the season, were really good at exploiting defensively disorganized teams. Those are, by definition, not the kinds of teams you meet in the playoffs.

They’ve spent a lot of money and have a lot of talent, but it’d be a hell of a thing to see them suddenly put it together against the best in the conference when they haven’t managed as much all year long.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw vs. Seattle

All hail Vanni Sartini! The Italian took over on an interim basis in late August and turned an unwatchably cautious side into an open, entertaining attacking group that constantly threw numbers forward – sometimes to their own detriment – and were going to do their damnedest to make it fun every single time out.

It was so unexpected. The ‘Caps, in their MLS history, have never been an aesthetically pleasing team to watch. They are now, and in DP playmaker Ryan Gauld and cast-off center forward Brian White, they have found two guys who sure do appear to be high-level match-winners.

And so they’ve gone 7-2-5 since Sartini took over. For a team that’s juggled a ton of backline injuries and had, by the numbers, the toughest schedule in MLS in recent months, that is quite a run. They did not back into this spot.

Their bread and butter is long switches to the wingbacks (they play a 3-4-2-1) to open up the game horizontally while putting vertical pressure on the center backs, which in turn gives Gauld plenty of room to work in the half spaces and White his pick of lanes to run into. Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.

Can they hold up defensively? I have my doubts. They're not great defending in their own 18, they can be dodgy on set pieces and when they throw numbers forward you can find space against them in transition. I kind of feel like a good team that studies a lot of film will figure them out.

But even if it happens that way, it's OK. Nobody really expected the 'Caps to be here, so now they're playing with house money.

Real Salt Lake

Decision Day Result: 1-0 win at Sporting KC


What is there to say about a team that makes the playoffs on their final kick of the season? What is there to say about a team that can lose 4-3 at home to the Quakes one week, then go on the road and beat Sporting 1-0 on a goal like that the next?

Um, OK, I’ll try the basics: RSL play a 3-5-2, and are prone to getting absolutely shredded in transition. They take a ton of chances, and like the ‘Caps, they make it fun. Interim manager Pablo Mastroeni is not the coach he was during his Rapids years, and that’s a good thing.

I don’t know if they have enough – in fact, I sincerely doubt that they do.

But I doubted that on Sunday night as well, and we all saw what just happened. That’s one of the most dramatic goals in MLS regular-season history, and now the Claret-and-Cobalt will try to carry that magic with them into the playoffs.