Preseason 2.0 – that’s the term I used last year for this short lull between the end of the regular season and the start of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Well, we’re back there again.
The playoff field and matchups are set – and Round One will kick off on Saturday afternoon. The gap between the regular season and the start of the playoffs is filled with hope. Right now, your team (if you’re fortunate enough to be a fan of a playoff team) can do anything. That’s why the Preseason 2.0 framework works well.
With only a few days between us and playoff soccer, I’m using data to tell us more about the playoff field. Who has the edge? And who might be flying under the radar right now? Let’s talk about that.
This one is pretty straightforward. According to FiveThirtyEight, LAFC and the Philadelphia Union have a combined 65% chance of winning MLS Cup on Nov. 5. LAFC are the biggest favorites (35%), but Philly aren’t far behind (30%). There’s only one other postseason team with a double-digit chance of winning MLS Cup, per FiveThirtyEight: CF Montréal (10%).
Now, LAFC and Philadelphia’s numbers are pretty well juiced because of their Round One byes. Given that they’re skipping an entire round of the postseason, the oddsmakers are handing each conference’s top seed a better prognosis. The whole “being the top seed thing” didn’t work out so well for the New England Revolution or the Colorado Rapids last year, but FiveThirtyEight’s logic is sound. After all, you can’t lose if you don’t play.
Even if LAFC and the Union didn’t have a Round One bye, they would still be the favorites in this postseason. I took an in-depth look at LAFC last week after their Supporters’ Shield win, and they, unsurprisingly, have some seriously impressive underlying numbers. According to American Soccer Analysis, Steve Cherundolo’s team finished with the best expected goal difference in MLS (+25.81), the most expected goals (62.30), and the second-fewest expected goals allowed (36.49).
LAFC have the quality to break you down (though they’d rather beat you on the break), they can defend in space, and they’ll have a talent advantage in almost every position against every team in the postseason.
They absolutely hammered Nashville SC on Decision Day, taking 30 shots to Nashville’s 12. But they couldn’t get the ball over the line (Joe Willis was a brick wall) and ended up losing 1-0 at home. That, folks, is the way the playoff ball bounces. LAFC are favorites, but the margins are thin in the postseason.
The Philadelphia Union, FiveThirtyEight’s favorite to win the Eastern Conference, have a great set of underlying numbers, too.
They finished second in the league in xGD (+21.46), second in xG (60.18), and fourth in xG allowed (38.72), per American Soccer Analysis. They also allowed 10 fewer goals than the next-best defensive team in 2022, thanks in part to Andre Blake. According to FBref’s post-shot xG metric, Blake just put together his third consecutive regular season of saving Philadelphia at least five goals with his acrobatic saves. When your attack is humming, your defense is strong, and Blake is on your team, you’re a trophy favorite.
I don’t make the rules. That’s just how this works.
Don't count them out
Wilfried Nancy should be, at the very least, a top-three finisher in the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year race. He’s done a ton (finishing second in the East while playing maybe the most aesthetically pleasing soccer in the league) with comparatively little in Montréal this year. According to American Soccer Analysis, CF Montréal have the best defense in the league based on xG allowed (35.43) and are fourth in MLS in xGD (+15.65).
One thing that sets apart Nancy’s team from the other top contenders out East is their disinterest in pressing. Sure, they’ll step forward from time to time. But Montréal are usually content to sit deeper. Per Second Spectrum, they’re fourth in the Eastern Conference playoff field in pressures in the attacking third per game (79.8). Montréal are willing to let you come to them before they take the ball, pass through you, and score at the other end. Their goalkeeping is slightly better under James Pantemis than earlier this year, but I wouldn’t count CF Montréal out of trophy contention.
Talk about finding your rhythm at just the right time. New York City FC had been struggling under interim manager Nick Cushing for most of his spell in charge this year, but their three straight wins to close out the regular season make NYCFC’s playoff picture look a whole lot brighter. They’re not the same, aggressive team they were under Ronny Deila, but getting Keaton Parks back in the midfield is a huge boost for this team.
Per FBref, Parks is in the 90th percentile or higher in goal-creating actions, progressive passes, passes into the box and progressive carrying distance. He’s the guy who gets NYCFC’s match-winning attackers into spots where they can, you know, win matches.
The worry for the reigning champions? Talles Magno’s health after he limped off with a painful upper-body injury in a 2-1 Decision Day win at Atlanta United. If the Brazilian forward isn’t good to go, their offense loses an important spark after Taty Castellanos’ midsummer loan departure.
I know I just said Nashville SC were hammered by LAFC last Sunday – and, to be fair, they were. But they won 1-0 still! Nashville’s been doing a lot of winning lately. They’ve beaten LAFC, Austin FC and FC Dallas (among other teams) over their last eight games.
Like Montréal, Nashville are happy for you to have the ball. Per Second Spectrum, they rank very last in MLS in pressures in the attacking third per game with just 67.1. Gary Smith gets his players to defend resolutely and attack through Hany Mukhtar, who’s almost certainly going to win the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award this year (after already taking the Golden Boot presented by Audi with 23g/11a).
For the better part of the last decade, it’s been either the Seattle Sounders or the Portland Timbers who have defended and attacked through a star or two en route to an MLS Cup appearance. With both of those teams watching from home this year, Nashville just might pick up Cascadia’s mantle.
Austin FC are the fifth most likely team (behind LAFC, the Philadelphia Union, CF Montréal, and New York City FC) to lift MLS Cup with a 5% chance, according to FiveThirtyEight. In some ways, they’re the opposite of the bit of prevailing wisdom that says being defensively solid and attacking in transition is a recipe for postseason success.
The Verde & Black have allowed the fourth most xG (53.76) and the 14th most goals (48) this year, per American Soccer Analysis. But they’re also 12th in xG (47.33) and third in goals (64). If Josh Wolff’s team is going to make a run, it’s going to be a goal-filled one.