Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Why each playoff team will (and won’t) win 2021 MLS Cup

And now, the postseason.

Let’s take a look at why each of the 14 teams that made it to the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will win MLS Cup – and why they won’t.

In we go, sorted by the Supporters’ Shield standings finish:

  • East No. 1 seed, 73 points

Why they’ll win

The Revs set the single-season points record (73) which means, yeah, they’re pretty good! And they’re that good because the guys they pay to be great – their Designated Players – have been great. Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa accounted for 66 goals + assists, combined, in the 2021 regular season. Second-place Sporting KC's DPs managed 47.

When your DPs are that good, you’re going to be a really good team. When you also have a DP-caliber goalkeeper (Matt Turner) and a DP-caliber winger (Tajon Buchanan) and one of the best d-mids in the league (Matt Polster) and a good backline and … yeah the Revs are really, really good.

On top of all of that, they have Bruce Arena. He’s won more MLS Cups than any other coach in MLS history, and more than any team in MLS history except the Galaxy (which he coached to three of their five MLS Cup wins).

It was not hard to write this blurb. There are a lot of reasons the Revs are a good bet to win.

Why they won’t

In the TAM era, only one Shield winner (2017 Toronto FC) has won MLS Cup. It’s just really freaking hard to do the double.

Beyond that, though, as good as the Revs have been they do not have an air-tight defense. They give up more and better chances than most truly great teams have in recent MLS history, and thus live on the edge more than most recent MLS Cup winners.

A stat that tells a story

As per Second Spectrum, New England created more xG against set defenses than any team in MLS aside from New York City FC.

So go ahead, bunker against them. It only makes your chances of winning worse.

  • West No. 1 seed, 61 points

Why they’ll win

Colorado’s become really used to winning under Robin Fraser, and done so more quickly than most thought possible.

At the same time, this season wasn’t the out-of-the-blue miracle people are making it out to be. The Rapids racked up 1.56 ppg in 2020; in 2021, they bumped that up to 1.79 ppg based almost entirely upon added tactical flexibility thanks to the chemistry they’ve accrued in the past two years under Fraser, and with two years of roster stability. Midseason additions of Mark-Anthony Kaye and Dom Badji were force magnifiers, not scheme resetters.

Anyway, to borrow a line from my buddy Steve Fenn: soccer is an o-ring competition where the worst player usually hurts you more than the best player helps you, and Fraser can go about 18-deep before he gets to the level of back-up that becomes a problem.

Why they won’t

That’s a better recipe for grinding through the regular season. Traditionally in the playoffs you need high-level match-winners who can just impose their will on the game, either by controlling it entirely (think the midfield for that great TFC team) or blowing it open entirely in a moment (Lucas Zelarayan, Raul Ruidiaz, etc).

As of now Colorado don’t seem to have that type of guy. Maybe one will emerge, but it’s just “maybe.” There aren’t any real expectations.

A stat that tells a story

Colorado’s defense was second-best in the West in terms of xG conceded, as per Opta. They allowed 42.72, with only Seattle doing better.

Speaking of the Sounders…

  • West No. 2 seed, 60 points

Why they’ll win

Seattle collected 60 points this season despite the fact that they played basically the entire year without two Best XI-caliber attackers (Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris), and with their MVP-caliber No. 9 (Ruidiaz) in and out of the lineup with injury and international duty.

Ruidiaz is expected to be healthy to go from the start, and Morris is expected to be healthy enough to be a super-sub. Lodeiro’s status is more up in the air, but even if he can only contribute a little this is a 60-point team that just got stronger over the past couple weeks.

They also have the best defense in the West, the best d-mid in the league (Joao Paulo) and damn man, it’s the Sounders. Do I really need to convince you they’ll be good in November?

Why they won’t

Ruidiaz is still the only guy on the roster I trust to come up with a goal-scoring, match-winning moment right now. Maybe Morris and Lodeiro will get there by this weekend, but also… maybe not?

That lack of match-winners seemed to wear on them as the season went on, which is how they ended the year on an 0W-3L-3D skid. I don’t think there’s any panic in Seattle, but I think there’s some justifiable concern.

A stat that tells a story

Only 13 teams in MLS history have managed both 60 points and a +20 goal differential in a single season (props to Jeremiah Oshan for digging that one up). The Sounders got there for the first time in club history this year.

  • West No. 3 seed, 58 points

Why they’ll win

Go back up to that Revs section and you’ll see that Sporting are second in DP productivity which, again, matters a whole lot. And bear in mind that those 47 goals + assists have come despite the fact that center forward (and playmaker) Alan Pulido has been on the shelf for most of the second half of the season.

He’s expected to play a role this month, as will fellow DPs Johnny Russell and Gadi Kinda, as will MVP finalist Daniel Salloi. That is one of the league’s deadliest attacks, and thus it should not be at all surprising that they were second in the league in goals scored.

Being that good and dangerous despite having to patch together a too-often-Pulido-less front line is a hell of a thing.

Why they won’t

That attack is going to have to be really, really good to cover for the slow and gap-prone defense, and that means Pulido’s probably going to have to be healthy. I’m not sure it’s fair to expect that given the duration of his absence.

So it’s basically the same story as last year, right? They got scorched by the Quakes in the first round but had enough in the tank to grab a 3-3 draw and force it to penalties, where Tim Melia is literally unbeatable. And then in the next game Minnesota United doused them in kerosene and lit a match.

A stat that tells a story

Here’s a line from Second Spectrum’s Regular Season in Review pack:

Sporting KC only gave up 4.8 shots per game in transition (7th fewest in MLS), but surrendered the 5th-most xG in transition this season.

Slow and gappy and totally prone to getting blown up by teams that can get out and run.

  • West No. 4 seed, 55 points

Why they’ll win

The Timbers found themselves with their backs against the wall in late August and proceeded to win seven of their next eight. Then they took their foot off the pedal for three games and backed themselves into a corner yet again… at which point they closed the season with three straight wins.

This is very obviously a veteran team that’s entirely comfortable with the idea of flipping the switch when they need to, and teams like that have been made for the playoffs in the past (most of the recent Sounders teams to make it to MLS Cup, for example).

Portland can do that because they are spoiled for attacking choice with Sebastian Blanco, Felipe Mora, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Yimmi Chara and a full year of Playoff Dairon. Those guys have been so good that even the fact that Diego Valeri has finally slowed down didn’t really upset the apple cart.

When you’ve got five guys – maybe six if Valeri’s able to take a swig from the fountain of youth at the start of the weekend – who can just go out and win you a playoff game with something outrageous, you’re in a good spot.

Why they won’t

The defense is prone to leaving them in bad spots. It’s more the fullbacks (who are always running themselves out of position and taking insane chances) than the center backs, but the center backs have been more “adequate” than “good,” and that’s a worrying recipe for the postseason.

It shows up in the numbers: Portland shipped 52 goals this season, which is second-worst among playoff teams. I don’t think there’s any reason to expect that they’ll be able to rely upon their defense to win them games, and sometimes you need that in November. No matter how many match-winners they’ve got in the attack.

A stat that tells a story

Those 52 goals allowed was actually an overperformance! As per Opta Portland’s xG against was 61.92, which placed them dead last in MLS in 2021. Worse than Cincy!

Steve Clark should ask for hazard pay.

  • East No. 2 seed, 54 points

Why they’ll win

If you’re good enough to make it to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals, and then you’re good enough to go toe-to-toe with the most decorated and successful side in North American soccer history before eventually succumbing after a pretty valiant effort, and then you’re mature enough to spin that forward into good regular-season form instead of going into the toilet as most vanquished CCL sides do … all of that says “yeah, these guys are for real, right?”

That’s how I’m looking at the Union. I’m not sure that I’d love their chances based on raw talent if we wrote out XIs and just assessed them on paper against most of the other playoff teams, but the games aren’t played on paper. They’re played on grass (or turf!) and based upon what we’ve seen over the past couple of years, this Union side has earned the right to be respected as a legit threat.

Why they won’t

“Succumbing after a pretty valiant effort” is a nice way of saying “they didn’t finish their damn chances.” Philly fare very well if we’re going by the Rapids-style O-Ring theory of soccer, but we’ve repeatedly seen them come up small in big moments of knockout games because they just don’t have high-level match-winners.

That’s not to say that Kacper Przybylko, Daniel Gazdag, Jamiro Monteiro and insert Union academy child name here are not good players – they all clearly are.

But none of them have ever done the stuff that Zelarayan did last year, or that Ruidiaz does pretty much every year.

A stat that tells a story

Everyone justifiably thinks of the Union as a team that likes to attack in transition, but don’t sleep on their transition defense this year, as it was superb. They allowed just 12.9 xG in transition all season, which was second-best in the league.

  • East No. 3 seed, 54 points

Why they’ll win

They’ve got their match-winner in Hany Mukhtar, who registered 16g/12a this year and did so while fitting in seamlessly as a second forward, as a pure No. 10 or even occasionally as a winger. Getting that kind of dynamism and versatility is not a given even when spending DP money – Nashville know this well, given the state of their other DPs – and Mukhtar profiles as the type of guy you can build a postseason winner around.

We got a hint of that last year, right?

We also got an outright demonstration that Nashville are more than just counters, set pieces and a good DP. Anibal Godoy and Dax McCarty are as good as any central midfield in the East at getting on the ball and dictating the game, while the backline has been flexible (Gary Smith shifting from a back four to a back three early in the season was a masterstroke) and resolute.

Plus they brought back most of the guys who carried them so far last year.

Why they won’t

If Mukhtar’s not scoring, who is? I love CJ Sapong but in 11 years the man’s got 83 regular-season goals and just two in the postseason, both of which came almost a decade ago.

CJ’s also a notoriously streaky finisher who happens to be running cold right now, having scored in just two of his past 13 appearances.

That’s not great, and especially so when the DP duo of Jhonder Cadiz (2g/2a in about 700 minutes) and Ake Loba (1g/2a in about 400 minutes) have offered basically nothing.

A stat that tells a story

Once again per Second Spectrum: Nashville spent more time than anyone else in an organized defensive state – i.e. “numbers behind the ball” – but actually allowed the fewest xG in a league when organized (17.75).

They are very comfortable with the idea of just waiting you out, and they are good at doing exactly that.

  • East No. 4 seed, 51 points

Why they’ll win

I truly think that when they were at their best this year, no other team was as good as NYCFC. They were just relentless with their possession, their pressure, their chance creation and their off-the-ball work both in attack and defense.

They were a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch, and did a nice job of handling the shift of home games from Yankee Stadium to Red Bull Arena and back again. It was a harder year for this club than I think most non-NYCFC fans recognized.

Why they won’t

A few reasons. One is that their finishers, up to and including Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos, are streaky as hell. Another is that this team has a history of mind-numbing postseason meltdowns (Matarrita’s tackle, Jozy goes HAM, SCHLEGEL!!!) and appear to be cursed. A third is that Sean Johnson has not had a good year in goal by any measure.

Bigger than all those reasons combined, though: Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks are both hurt, and both will miss the postseason. These are two of the five (or so) best players in the league at their respective positions, and that’s a lot of quality to be without during the most crucial time of the year. Also, we’ll see if center back Alex Callens misses out. He picked up a knock while with Peru for November’s Conmebol World Cup qualifiers. That’d be another big loss.

A stat that tells a story

That bit about their off-the-ball work in attack? Second Spectrum measures that, and by their tracking data NYCFC led the league with 55.4 attacking runs per game.

That puts constant pressure on any defense they face, and it’s why damn near every game they played this season was easy on the eye. They are a fun team to watch because they are always moving fast, and with a purpose.

  • East No. 5 seed, 51 points

Why they’ll win

Spend big, win big:

atlanta transfermarkt

Money did not correlate strongly to regular-season success in 2021, but it’s got a pretty good track record in the playoffs, and nobody spends money like Atlanta spends money.

Why they won’t

All that spending didn’t create a coherent, cohesive team, and there are real questions as to whether or not the three DPs – Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Luiz Araujo – actually make each other better. There’s never been great chemistry between Josef and Barco, while Araujo’s highlight reel since his arrival has more solo stuff or bursting out of midfield in transition rather than combining with the other guys around the box.

These guys have so far made each other less than the sum of their parts instead of greater than, and while there is good talent elsewhere in the team, there’s not real match-winning talent.

You can obviously still make the playoffs that way, but I’m not sure you can go very far.

A stat that tells a story

Atlanta went 1W-6L-8D with a -4 goal differential against playoff teams this year.

Hello there fellow playoff teams!

  • East No. 6 seed, 51 points

Why they’ll win

We talked above about how Portland seem to be a “flip the switch” team, right? Well, Orlando City haven’t exactly shown that, but like Portland they have most of the pieces that led to such a great performance in last year’s MLS is Back Tournament, and like Portland they have a lot of guys who can win you a match. Daryl Dike, Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, maybe even Pato? They can all do it.

On top of that, nobody in the league benefits more from prolonged periods of rest than Nani. Every time he’s been able to shut it down for a few weeks he’s seemed to come back rejuvenated and ready to do some real damage.

He hasn’t played since Halloween, which means he’ll have had three-and-a-half weeks off heading into Tuesday’s trip to Nashville.

We haven’t seen the good version of Nani for more than three months. But there’s a decent chance that’s the version the Lions bring with them to Tennessee next week.

Why they won’t

Then again, there’s a decent chance that Nani’s summer-into-autumn struggles this year will be the endgame, as was the case in each of the past two seasons.

Beyond that, though, is that Orlando just haven’t played particularly well at any point in 2021. The Timbers can at least show proof of concept for the switch-flipping, play-like-it’s-summer-2020 thing; with the Lions it’s just theory. They haven’t actually managed to be a team that attacks well with the ball since last summer, and it borders on wishful thinking to assume they’ll just start being able to do that now that the playoffs are here.

A stat that tells a story

Orlando were 24th in MLS in xG generated against an organized defense (19.6), as per Second Spectrum, which is yuck. They just have not shown the ability to consistently break teams down with the ball and get into high-leverage spots, nor have they done well at getting runners into the box.

The trip to Nashville seems like a really tough matchup for them despite the late drama of that draw on Halloween.

  • West No. 6 seed, 49 points

Why they’ll win

The Loons just seem like they’re a team better built for the playoffs than for the regular season – the opposite of Steve’s O-Ring theory. In Minnesota’s case the argument is that Emanuel Reynoso is a singular star capable of elevating an entire attack around him, and oh by the way the attackers around him (Robin Lod, Franco Fragapane, Adrien Hunou) are all really damn good already.

Add in Osvaldo Alonso on a decent bit of rest and a defense that’s pretty ok and battle-tested in the playoffs, and it’s not hard to imagine this team making a push.

Hell, we saw it last year, when only an epic Sounders comeback kept the Loons out of MLS Cup. It’s the same recipe in 2021.

Why they won’t

Have you seen them play this year? Minnesota weren’t bad, but they weren’t precisely good, either, despite Reynoso’s brilliance.

And that’s the real rub: Reynoso performed at damn near the same level throughout 2021 that he reached immediately upon arrival in 2020, and that he carried on with right to the bitter end of that playoff run. And yet the results this year were almost nothing like what we saw out of the Loons 12 months ago.

Random variance accounts for a good chunk of that, but so does personnel, and it’s worth remembering the heater Kevin Molino was on last year. He was the one taking those gaps Reynoso carved into opposing defenses and turning them into chasms, and then turning that into goals.

Nobody on this year’s roster has done that with any sort of consistency. Perhaps that changes as their front four plays together more consistently.

A stat that tells a story

Reynoso led the league in pressured progressive (i.e., forward or diagonal) passes in the attacking half this year with 274, as per Second Spectrum. Gil was second with just 219. That’s an insane gap.

So what story does that tell, exactly? This: Reynoso is S-Tier at drawing opposing defenders to him then eliminating them with the pass. He wants you to pressure him, because if you do that he will split you and find one of those other attackers I mentioned, creating a numbers-up break.

That’s it. That’s the game plan.

  • West No. 6 seed, 49 points

Why they’ll win

If there’s a team of destiny in this year’s playoffs it’s probably Vancouver. Given the good vibes in the locker room and good, exciting play on the field since Vanni Sartini took over, it’s hard not to be absolutely charmed by this bunch and kind of pulling for them.

I mean, look at this:

He was right! They came back to win that game 3-2! That’s Team of Destiny stuff, right?

Beyond the fact that they’ve been playing well for three months and the Team of Destiny bit, they have one of the league’s best No. 10s in Ryan Gauld and one of the league’s hottest strikers in Brian White, as well as a good and underrated attacking cast around them.

Why they won’t

I’m still not sure that White is good enough to be the starting striker for an MLS Cup winner. But bigger than that is that I’m really not convinced that the ‘Caps are good enough defending either with or without the ball to make a sustained, deep push.

They’re not bad, mind you. But “not bad” usually means “not good enough” at this time of year, when everyone is, by definition, not bad.

So 2021 seems much more of a year in which they set the table and built the foundation for a new era than one in which they go from worst to first.

A stat that tells a story

Before Sartini took over just 36% of Vancouver’s possessions made it to the attacking third, which was 25th in MLS. Since he took over that number’s jumped to 42%, which isn’t exactly among the league leaders, but is around the likes of other playoff teams like Atlanta, Nashville, Sporting and Orlando.

Moving forward at pace and with intent is good soccer.

  • West No. 7 seed, 48 points

Why they’ll win

RSL’s run wasn’t quite as sustained or consistent as Vancouver’s was, but in a weird way that made it more fun (for a neutral, anyway). Their highs were ridiculously high – 4-3 at San Jose, a huge 3-1 home win over Colorado and of course that dramatic 1-0 Decision Day win at Sporting KC.

Their lows were ridiculously low. Like, plumbing the absolute depths: 6-1 at Portland, a listless 1-0 at an already-eliminated Fire side, and a-too-nuts-to-sum-it-up-neatly 4-3 home loss to the Quakes with their playoff life seemingly in the balance.

If you can survive that roller coaster you can survive anything, right? Bear in mind that we’ve seen this version of RSL come into the playoffs with house money in the past and break some hearts. Why not do it again?

Why they won’t

They’re just not solid enough in keeping their shape and don’t do a great job of judging risk/reward balance when pushing numbers forward. That’s how you get gashed 6-1, right?

That’s also part of the issue with changing both the coach and the team shape in midseason. Now that I think of it, I should’ve written this for the ‘Caps blurb as well – they frequently live on the edge, though they’re not as obvious about it as Vancouver.

Anyway, I find it hard to imagine RSL will keep Seattle out of transition, and if they can’t keep Seattle out of transition then David Ochoa’s going to have a long day.

A stat that tells a story

RSL’s xG allowed in transition was second-worst in MLS, as per Second Spectrum, since Pablo Mastroeni took over in late August, as they conceded 9.6 goals from then until the end of the season. Only Austin was worse in that timespan.

In a bit of happy news: they were seventh-best in attacking transition during that span, generating 8.2 xG -- just behind Atlanta and just ahead of NYCFC and the Revs.

  • East No. 7 seed, 48 points

Why they’ll win

Since mid-September they are 7W-1L-4D, charging up the standings against one of the toughest schedules anyone in the East could face and knocking out competitors (Montréal and Columbus) along the way.

During that span they have forced literally every team they’ve played into an Energy Drink Soccer deathmatch. Every single game played out on RBNY’s terms, which is a great way to make sure you win a lot and lose hardly at all.

That ability to dictate the terms of any encounter is their biggest advantage. Turn every and anything into a battle of long-balls and 50/50s, and trust muscle memory to turn those into goals and wins.

Why they won’t

Well, maybe not so much with the goals. RBNY have scored more than once in a game just twice in July, which is basically half a season. This doesn’t appear to be just a tough, unlucky stretch in front of goal; this just seems to be who they are.

So now think all the way back to the top of this column when I was talking about New England’s match-winners and Seattle’s match-winners, the types of players who can lead a team to postseason glory on a diet of half-chances. Can Patryk Klimala be that? Even if he manages it, is one match-winner enough?

Didn’t we get the answer to this question during Bradley Wright-Phillips’ heyday?

A stat that tells a story

I’m just gonna screenshot this from the Second Spectrum season wrap:

rbny pressing stats 2s

That’s how they play. It tells the whole story.