It’s Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs time, people.
As MLS dips its toes back into the world of best-of-three series (Round One), there’s no shortage of playoff action coming our way before a champion is crowned on Dec. 9. With teams preparing for their second season – two Wild Card matches kick everything off Wednesday – who’s hot as they head into the postseason? And who’s, uh, not?
To help answer that question, we’re digging into the hottest (and coldest) teams in the 18-deep field.
Let’s start off with a couple of Wild Card teams, shall we? Thanks to some Decision Day shenanigans, both the New York Red Bulls (East) and Sporting Kansas City (West) snuck into the eight-seed in their respective conferences.
Did either team consistently secure big results this year? No. You don’t end up in a Wild Card game if you’ve consistently secured big results. Still, both RBNY and SKC are hot right now. Over the last six games, no team in MLS has collected more points than the Red Bulls (13, tied with Orlando City SC), while Sporting Kansas City are tied for third-most points in that same stretch of matches (12).
The Red Bulls’ strength of schedule certainly took a dip towards the end of the year, but their performance against Nashville SC in their Decision Day match speaks to their ability to hang around in games. SKC, for their part, have lost just four MLS games since July 1 and have looked like a completely different (and more capable) team when their key players are healthy.
Sitting third in the East, the Columbus Crew are in excellent form right now. They’re tied for third in MLS in both points from the last six games (12) and points from the last 12 games (21).
The biggest driver for Columbus’ success? It’s their Cucho Hernández-led attack. Now armed with a season’s worth of data, we can confidently say Wilfried Nancy’s attack is the best in the league. No team created more non-penalty xG than the Crew, according to FBref, and only Atlanta United come close for total goals scored (67 for Columbus, 66 for Atlanta). For those that enjoy some high-quality attack play – which, by my math, is just about everyone – Columbus and Atlanta's Round One Best-of-3 series will be a must-watch.
The Crew, already hot, look like favorites, especially with Thiago Almada’s red card on Decision Day forcing him to miss the series' first game.
It’s that time of year, folks. This season wasn’t the best in Seattle Sounders FC’s history by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re in excellent form heading into the playoffs. They’re undefeated in their last nine MLS games (4W-0L-5D) and got to sing a rousing chorus of Jingle Bells away to St. Louis CITY SC on Decision Day.
The attack is still a work in progress and unlikely to magically fix itself unless Nico Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz start moving backwards through time. Still, there’s enough talent there for Seattle to put up multiple goals. When you combine individual talent with a top-two defense, you’ve got a playoff contender on your hands.
Along with the Red Bulls, Orlando City sit atop the MLS table based on results from the last six matches. They’ve earned 13 points in that period as they move into the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the East.
OCSC have plenty of talent, but oddly they don’t jump off the spreadsheets for a team that finished with the second-most points in all of MLS. They had just the ninth-best xG differential in the East during the regular season.
How did they finish so high, then? Well, I’ll give you a hint: his name rhymes with Shrunken Require.
Rookie striker Duncan McGuire has been red-hot to close out the year, scoring 13 goals in 2023 off of only 5.3 xG. If the US U-23 international can stay hot, expect Orlando’s form to continue.
No team in the Western Conference playoff field has collected fewer points over the last six games than the San Jose Earthquakes (seven). Luchi Gonzalez’s team snagged the West nine-seed on Decision Day, but have struggled for results for most of the season after a strong start.
With just one win in their last 10 games, so much of the Quakes’ playoff hopes rest on Daniel in goal. The 29-year-old has been excellent this year and is fully capable of winning San Jose a couple of games – if they can make it past a tough Wild Card opponent in Sporting Kansas City.
Speaking of Nashville, no playoff team earned fewer points over their last six games than Gary Smith’s team, with just six. Outside of a positive blip against New England on the weekend before Decision Day, Nashville’s attack has been struggling. They’re hurting for quality chances and star attacker Hany Mukhtar has been out-of-sync with his teammates.
Now, Nashville do still have one thing going for them: their defense. In their last nine games, they’ve only once allowed more than one goal. Nashville have a top-three defense in MLS based on goals allowed and non-penalty xG allowed, and they’ll lean on that to carry them through a Round One meeting with Orlando City.
With just two wins in their last nine games and just three wins since Djordje Petrovic’s last game on July 15 before heading to Chelsea, the New England Revolution are in a tailspin right now. Where Petrovic gave New England massively above-average goalkeeping, Earl Edwards Jr. and Jacob Jackson have both struggled between the posts.
Suddenly, without an elite-level player holding things down in the back, New England look like a prime candidate for a Round One exit. That being said, you can never count a team out in the playoffs where the margins are thin and the variance is sky high: the Revs take on the Philadelphia Union, a team they topped 2-1 on Decision Day.
While there are a couple of playoff teams who have slightly worse records over the last handful of games, it’s worth spotlighting St. Louis here as the faltering Western Conference leaders.
Only six playoff teams across both conferences have earned fewer points over the last six games than Bradley Carnell’s team (just eight points), and a Decision Day home loss to the Sounders could be a sign of trouble coming if and when St. Louis meet a traditional power in the playoffs. Over the last six weeks, St. Louis have allowed more xG than all but five playoff teams and have created less xG than all but two playoff teams.
Now, none of those metrics will matter much at all if Roman Bürki saunters his way through the postseason like he did through the regular season. Still, the door is open for the rest of the West.