Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Three dark-horses to watch in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs

​​The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs start Saturday. Fourteen teams, 13 games and one champion. Lose and the journey is over before it even began. Win and your legend grows, maybe even becomes parade or statue worthy.

Depending on when you are reading this, Union-Red Bulls (2:30 pm ET) and Sporting KC-Whitecaps (5 pm ET) could kick things off tomorrow, today or maybe even right now. You don’t have to think too hard about how you’re going to watch. Both matches are streaming live on MLSsoccer.com and the MLS app, with the first also on Univision/TUDN and the second also on UniMas/TUDN. In Canada, all games will be on TSN and TVA Sports as well.

These tweets rolled in when we were prepping for the Extratime playoff preview, which you can listen to anywhere you get podcasts or watch on YouTube:

So MLS Cup dark horses it is, and I have three. But first a little fact check on Ethan’s factoid.

I went back and took a closer look at the last decade of playoff results. I granted dark horse status to teams who were seeded in the bottom half of their respective bracket. When the field was 10 teams total, that meant 4th and 5th seeds. When it was 12 teams total, 4 through 6. For the current field of 14 teams total, 5 through 7. For 2020’s expanded field, 6 through 10.

Here’s what I found…

– Nine “dark horse” teams advanced, at minimum, to a conference final

– Two “dark horse” teams went on to win MLS Cup (2012 LA, 2016 SEA), while two lost in the final (2012 HOU, 2018 POR)

– Only four of the nine “dark horse” teams that made a Conference Final or MLS Cup started their playoff journey on the road

  • 2012 Houston Dynamo (5th and final seed, lost in MLS Cup)
  • 2016 Montréal Impact (5th of six seeds, lost in ECF)
  • 2017 Columbus Crew (5th of six seeds, lost in ECF)
  • 2018 Portland Timbers (5th of six seeds, lost in MLS Cup)

– The 2020 New England Revolution (8th seed, won play-in game at home against Montréal) were the lowest overall seed to make a deep run

What I found is that the odds aren’t with the dark horse, as I defined it. Fewer than one-fourth (9/40) of conference finalists came from their ranks. That’s not particularly surprising. Neither was the fact that all four of the “dark horse” MLS Cup finalists can be described as talented/experienced teams that failed to meet expectations during the regular season but came alive in the playoffs when it mattered most.

Which brings us to my No. 1 dark horse pick for the 2021 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs…

  • West No. 5 seed

Look, I know I’m not being brave here, and I’m certainly not calling the Loons, all things considered, a “bad” playoff team. They are a good and sometimes great team that lost four times to open the season and couldn’t make up the gap in the standings.

Sorry Adrian, no bulletin-board material here. In fact, I’m going the opposite direction. Minnesota have all the makings of a potential MLS Cup finalist dark horse.

Namely, they’ve got playoff experience – did you already forget Minnesota had one foot in MLS Cup last year until the Sounders roared back with goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes? – and a stable of game-changers who can win games on their own or as a collective.

Yes, I am talking first and foremost about Emanuel Reynoso, who was the second-best No. 10 in the league this year behind the Revs’ Carles Gil, who I expect will win the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award.

What Reynoso does best is draw attention and use that attention to manipulate the spaces around him. His teammates always look for his feet, and the Argentine is impossible to get off the ball once he has it. If and when you attempt to close him down, he either eliminates defenders via the dribble thanks to his technical ability and strength (underrated quality) or finds the gaps for a killer combination or through ball to a teammate. He lures you in then breaks you.

The guys on the end of those balls are stars in their own right. Robin Lod. Franco Fragapane. Adrien Hunou. Ozzie Alonso can still be a midfield monster when he’s rested and fit (he is). Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy form one of the most underrated center backs in MLS. The fullbacks are menaces on both sides of the ball. Tyler Miller can keep the Loons in games, assuming the recent tendency toward howlers is out of his system.

Based on talent, they should be among the favorites. Luckily for Heath, dark horse seems to be the preferred role and they’ll have a chance to play it while avoiding both Sporting KC and the Seattle Sounders until the Western Conference Final.

  • West No. 6 seed

Two wins. That’s all it takes to get to a Conference Final. Vancouver have basically been playing playoff games since the summer. The stakes and razor-thin margins aren’t going to come as a surprise to Vanni Sartini’s team. They have an emotional edge.

The question is whether that edge will hold through the international break or if it can even be sustained. Sartini planted a seed before Decision Day was even over, claiming his ‘Caps would win in Kansas City.

That could really pay off … or it could backfire big time. That he said it anyway endears him to me and I am sure his players.

But it’s players who will have to do the job. In many ways, I think the matchup against Sporting is a best-case scenario. Vancouver are at their best in transition moments. Kansas City want the ball and are at their most vulnerable in transition moments. It’s up to Ryan Gauld, Cristian Dajome and Brian White to capitalize on the three or four breakout opportunities they get. It’s up to the rest of the team to somehow keep Sporting’s potent attack – now with Alan Pulido (!!!) off the board at home – from putting up multiple goals at home.

If they can do that, why can’t they go to Seattle (or even host Real Salt Lake) and make a conference final? They proved they’re capable of it this fall. Can they prove it again, with a trophy on the line?

  • East No. 7 seed

I left my lowest percentage dark horse for last. The Red Bulls can do something many can’t: force the game to be played on their terms no matter the conditions or the talent level on the other side.

What they don’t have is the attacking firepower to scare opponents. What they do have is a backline and goalkeeper (Carlos Coronel) that can punish you physically and don’t make many glaring mistakes. If they make a run, it will be via low-scoring matches. Why couldn’t they go to Philly and sneak one out? If they do that, I’d rather be in Orlando or Nashville than New England.

There’s a path here. The Red Bulls just might take it.