The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are here. That means there's only four games this weekend but we're definitely going with quality over quantity from here on out. Every game has to have a winner, even if that means going to penalty kicks and even if that means Rodrigo Schlegel putting on the gloves to become MLS' unlikeliest hero.
Is it too much to expect another Schlegel-like moment in this year's Round One? Yeah, probably. But the utter wildness of the MLS postseason knows no bounds.
Here’s your cheat sheet for this weekend’s Round One games, two on Saturday and two on Sunday spanning both conferences.
*Note: In Canada, all games will be on TSN and TVA Sports.
- WHEN: Saturday, 2:30 pm ET
- WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & App
- BetMGM odds: Philadelphia +115, New York +240, Draw +220
You know those fights in movies where one of the combatants suddenly seems trapped until they yank a lamp out of the plug or a picture off the wall and slam it over the other combatant’s head? That’s this game, but both teams are simultaneously the combatant trapped and eyeing a scattered collection of pool cues, urns and landline telephones that just might come in handy over the next few moments.
We know New York’s whole deal by this point. But Philadelphia, even if they don’t put in quite the same amount of leg work on defense or direct play in possession, absolutely love to clatter into you. The Red Bulls are first in tackles completed, but Philadelphia are just a few away in third. The Red Bulls are first of course in total successful pressing actions, but Philadelphia aren’t far away in fourth. The Red Bulls are last in pass completion percentage, but Philadelphia aren’t far behind in third-to-last. The Union have absolutely no issue with a team trying to turn the game into a 10-car pileup in the middle of a circle-eight track enduro race.
It’s going to be a mess. And to get out of that mess, both teams are going to have to do whatever’s necessary. Score a goal after tripping over an untied shoelace and having a panicked defender kick the ball off your face? You take that all day in this one. Especially considering the fact that “scoring” hasn’t necessarily been “a thing” for either of these teams for a lot of the year.
Someone is going to have to find a match-winner. You take what you can in this one. This is not a fight for honor. It’s a fight for survival. Pull whatever you can off the wall and get to work.
- WHEN: Saturday, 5 pm ET
- WATCH ON: UniMas, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & App,
- BetMGM odds: Sporting -155, Vancouver +400, Draw +270
Vanni Sartini just came out and said it: “We’ll beat Kansas City.” That’s not taken out of context or anything. It’s not like he was straight up asked “Hey, you gonna win?” He said this in response to a team staff member noting who their playoff opponent would be. Just as sure as anything. He stated it with the confidence of someone answering the question “What’s the first letter of your name.” To him, it’s just a fact.
It’s hard not to believe him when he says it like that. Who am I to doubt the guy who just led Vancouver to the second-half turnaround of the season? Who am I to doubt a man who openly talks to the media about how he won’t be coherent in the morning after celebrating through the night? Who am I to doubt the single best late-season character addition in MLS history?
There’s no denying that Vancouver have done something special here. If they retain Sartini for 2022 – and how could you not at this point – and build on what’s already a solid core, they should be one of the West’s better teams next season without having to perform miracles in the season’s latter portions. But Sporting KC aren’t a team you can just say “Yeah, we’ve got that” with and have everyone else match your level of belief.
To Sartini’s credit, Vancouver did win the last meeting between the two. That occurred on Oct. 17 at BC Place, a 2-1 victory. But besides the shift to Children’s Mercy Park, this game should be altered pretty significantly by the presence of Pulido. All due respect to Khiry Shelton, but SKC are a far improved team with him in the lineup. Pulido, even with limited time on the field this year, is still one of the most threatening forwards in MLS. The Mexican international’s presence, in a substitute or starting role, could put a major dent in Sartini’s plans.
Heck, a whole bunch of other SKC players could do it as well. Russell has been on a heater for two months now and Salloi is coming off a Best XI-caliber regular season. I love you, Vanni. But I’m just not as confident in a Vancouver win.
What I am confident in is a back-and-forth game with plenty of chances. And with that kind of game, I’m not going to be that surprised if Vanni’s prophecy comes true. Just a little surprised.
- WHEN: Sunday 3 pm ET
- WATCH ON: ABC, ESPN Deportes
- BetMGM odds: New York City -145, Atlanta +375, Draw +270
There are so many questions to answer here. The biggest for Atlanta being what tweaks and what tactics do you take to Yankee Stadium. Joe Patrick from Dirty South Soccer covered those issues extensively. It is ... complicated. I’m partial to getting weird with it and playing Brooks Lennon in central midfield and starting Ronald Hernandez at right back, but I think I might just be kind of bored.
Whatever tweaks Gonzalo Pineda actually makes in his first playoff game will be fascinating though. In part due to the size of the pitch, in part due to facing a better team (and the best team in these playoffs by expected goal differential) and in part due to facing a better team that may not actually be better than considering the injury problems they’ve run into at the worst possible time.
NYCFC lost Anton Tinnerholm for the year in early October and now they’ve lost analytics and MLS nerd darling Keaton Parks. Parks is a crucial piece of NYCFC’s midfield and his absence is the biggest reason you should convince your friend to maybe think twice about sending NYCFC to MLS Cup in their Bracket Challenge.
But now, on top of that, they may be missing their best center back: Alexander Callens. Callens got injured while on international duty with Peru and NYCFC's backline takes a major step back without him. That could be especially costly considering how Atlanta’s Miles Robinson gamed the system and picked up a meaningless red card with the United States last week, only to get sent home to train in Atlanta while NYCFC’s James Sands joined the national team as a replacement.
NYCFC have been wildly unlucky all season in a soccer sense of the word. Now they’re finding injury bad luck in a way they largely avoided until now, and they’re finding it at the worst possible time. They certainly still have enough firepower to get past Atlanta. But you have to wonder how many losses they can take before they end up losing?
- WHEN: Sunday 5:30 pm ET
- WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
- BetMGM odds: Portland -115, Minnesota +270, Draw +270
I’m fascinated by this game. Not for the teams involved but for the players carrying those teams on their back.
Without Sebastian Blanco, Portland are 3W-7L-0D with a -8 goal differential. With him, they are 14W-6L-4D with a +12 goal differential. He’ll be ready to go in this one. The question is whether it will be enough to cover for a team that I’ve repeatedly had to mention as one of the worst teams in MLS by the underlying numbers.
Without Emanuel Reynoso, Minnesota United are 1W-3L-1D with a -6 goal differential. With him, they’re 12W-8L-9D with a +4 goal differential. He’s good to go in this one, but I think those numbers help illustrate how important he is to Minnesota. And if those numbers don’t do it, all you have to do is remember his absurd playoff performance last year to understand his ability to drag the Loons to places they’ve never been before.
So who wins out? It’s a pretty good bet that Portland do if Blanco is better on the day and Minnesota triumph if it’s Reynoso. Otherwise, someone else is going to have to step up. That’s a scary prospect for both teams.