The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs field is set, which means it's again time for everyone to step onto that shaky autumn limb and fill out their bracket with brave predictions.
You all get to do that in private, but I'm not so lucky. I must again make my calls in public, a task that actually doesn't seem quite so scary after going a surprisingly uplifting 12-4 on the road leading to MLS Cup last fall. Of course, that probably means that this time around my picks will end up a flaming wreckage as if Deadpool lit the match with an edgy wisecrack.
There's only one way to find out if I can build on last year's fortune-telling success, so let's get started with the six Round One matchups slated to kick off on Nov. 20. Per usual, we'll begin in the East and then go West.
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 2:30 pm ET
WATCH: Univision, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & MLS App
I will admit it. I did not believe the Red Bulls could rally their way into the postseason. They proved me wrong, despite managing to score multiple goals just once in their final 11 matches. Gerhard Struber dialed their famous press back up to 11, stifling foes left and right until they squeaked into the postseason just ahead of D.C. United and reigning champs Columbus.
This may be a "glutton for punishment" situation, but I think the ride stops here. The Union's midfield might has made them more immune than most to the Red Bulls' methods in recent seasons and Jim Curtin's team will show up with a playoff chip on their shoulder. It will be tight until the final whistle, but a late insurance tally gives Philadelphia a 2-0 victory.
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 8 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, FOX Deportes
How do you separate a pair of clubs that have fought tooth and nail to draws in four of their last five meetings? If you ask Music City fans, the obvious answer is MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar. If you ask the folks down in Orlando, they'd likely point to power forward extraordinaire Daryl Dike.
If you ask me, I'd note the hosts actually have a defender (Walker Zimmerman) capable of matching up with Dike and that, due to injuries and other absences, the Lions have never quite fully regained maximum mojo in 2021. Orlando City, who've managed to be both good and disappointing this season, are also hoping peak Nani shows up in time for this one. Considering the fact Nashville haven't lost at home in a year, I'm not sure it matters. Nashville 2-1 in extras.
Eastern Conference Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs preview
WHEN: Sunday, Nov 21 at 3 pm ET
WATCH: ABC, ESPN Deportes
I could honestly have said this for five of the six games listed, but... this is a very tricky matchup. By analytic measures, the Cityzens have been one of the best teams in MLS again this year – only the results haven't faithfully matched their quality of play. Atlanta United have been in the solid-to-strong range for three whole months now – and yet they still finished the regular season with all of one victory (in 15 tries) against clubs in the playoff field. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a toughie.
No lie, I'm going with a wild-but-explainable hunch for this pick. The Five Stripes have a defender who can neutralize Valentin Castellanos in Miles Robinson, Luiz Araujo has now hit his stateside stride and (by rate) there are few MLS teams that Josef Martinez enjoys scoring on more. Atlanta United take it 2-1 to post the lone upset in this round.
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 10:30 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, FOX Deportes
On the face of it, this one probably seems straightforward. One would expect the Sounders to bang bodies, stifle incursion and bide time until Real Salt Lake get caught up, and then the hosts will get on their horse to gallop to victory. They've won 11 of the last 12 home meetings between these two teams, so the script is familiar.
There's just one problem: Despite the squad growing more complete than they have been all season, the Sounders haven't won in a month, going 0-3-3. Being that the Rave Green have made four of the past five MLS Cups, I'm going to assume the postseason (and a well-placed couple of weeks reintegrating Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz in training) can cure what ails them. Seattle win 3-1.
Western Conference Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs preview
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 5 pm ET
WATCH: UniMás, TUDN, MLSsoccer.com & MLS App
Though the Whitecaps usually suffer greatly in Kansas City, this one is deceptively tough to call. Vancouver have been one of the most consistent teams since mid-July, while Sporting limp into the postseason in a three-game losing streak that cost them the top seed, a Round One bye and 2022 Concacaf Champions League spot (for now). Potentially complicating matters further are Sporting KC's health woes. Attack aces Gadi Kinda, Johnny Russell and Alan Pulido are among several players hoping to get fit over the international break.
All in all, it would be very easy to pick the Whitecaps to spring an upset, even with Ryan Gauld and Brian White’s one-two punch, but this one still feels very much like a tense 120-minute deadlock. And we all know what tends to happen when Tim Melia takes part in a penalty shootout. Sporting KC advance on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 5:30 pm ET
WATCH: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
Here's yet another one I went back and forth on multiple times. We have two teams driven by star playmakers, veteran leadership, feisty midfield crews and emotional head coaches. To boot, each boasts a backline prone to untimely leaks, which is a big reason why they can both run hot and cold as a team.
We all know how difficult it can be for visitors to win in Portland, but that doesn't apply so much to Minnesota United. The Loons are 2-0-1 on their last three visits to Providence Park and haven't lost any sort of competitive match to Portland since April 2018. That series dominance notwithstanding, it's the Timbers' clear edge at forward that tips it in the end – and the Sebastian Blanco vs. Emanuel Reynoso battle is compelling as they come. I'm bucking the trend here: Portland take a wild one, 3-2.