With the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs set to kick off, the sense of motivation should be coming to a boil for all of the 18 clubs involved.
Of course, every team wants to win the big prize on December 12, but which of the 18 clubs need it more than the rest?
From where I'm sitting, there are three teams that fit that description:
Los Angeles Football Club
There are multiple factors at play with LAFC. First and foremost is the obvious: Despite being one of the scariest MLS collectives in league history, Bob Bradley's boys have yet to finish on top in a knockout competition.
It has to grind gears at the Banc, as does the fact that their ousters have all been painful. In U.S. Open Cup play, they've been bounced on penalties by a wildly inferior opponent (Houston Dynamo, 2018 semifinal) and a very late lone goal at home (Portland Timbers, 2019 quarterfinal). More to the point, their two MLS Cup bids were halted thanks to a first-round collapse to a big underdog at home (Real Salt Lake, 2018) and a sound conference final drubbing (Seattle Sounders, 2019). They also fell to Orlando City on PKs in the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament quarterfinals.
It all represents a relatively small sample size over two seasons, but enough to allow some doubt to creep in as they get set to face their next knockout challenge.
Then there's the significant possibility that major parts of the squad could be drawing the interest of European suitors in the upcoming transfer window. There's no escaping that big talents like Diego Rossi, Eduard Atuesta, Brian Rodriguez and perhaps even Latif Blessing could potentially depart the club at any offseason moment. That specter is always hanging around this team and it would be seen as a major missed opportunity if LAFC were unable to take advantage of having all these aces in the same hand by winning an MLS Cup.
A handful of positive COVID-19 tests for starters on recent international duty (Diego Palacios, Jose Cifuentes and Diego Rossi) have already thrown a wrench into their 2020 designs, but if LAFC can somehow find a way past Seattle in Round One, look out. The burning hunger is very real in DTLA.
The Philadelphia Union celebrate winning the 2020 Supporters' Shield | USA Today Sports Images
Back in the early days, clubs winning both the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup was a common occurrence. Four of the first seven league champs also topped the regular season table. Since then only three have managed that double, and it's only happened once in the past 10 years (hello, 2017 Toronto FC!).
While the Union are surely chuffed with claiming this season's Supporters' Shield as their first piece of silverware, the grit and determination in that side won't let them be content with it. You just know they will consider their job only half-done if they end up on the heap of regular season kings that fell short in the playoffs.
That's a solid enough reason for Philly's burning MLS Cup desire, but it's only half the story here.
There is also the stark reality that at least one of their key cogs — namely Brenden Aaronson — will be leaving when the season ends. I say "at least one" because European clubs are already circling above Mark McKenzie and Kai Wagner (if not others still) like transfer vultures. That's not to say that the Union can't patch holes to remain title contenders, but there is some level of urgency here.
A heavy sense of urgency is also weighing on Portland with the playoffs once again approaching. It's just a different kind of urgency than with the previous two entries.
While the two 34-year-old Diegos (Chara and Valeri if you've just woken from a long coma) keep on keeping on like it's 2015, they will at some point begin to fade, and not so long after that they will probably hang up their Timbers boots.
Of course, Portland could find suitable replacements to open a new window in their massive wake, but it will definitely be just that: a new window. This title window, which has seen them reach two MLS Cups and win one to go with their MLS is Back crown, is going to close when they depart. There's no getting around it. That means the last playoff hurrah for a Timbers side that features the two Diegos in championship form is coming. And soon. Possibly as soon as next week.
In part because of that, the Timbers will fight like mad to ensure that they don't fall further behind "the Jones" in their neighborhood (otherwise known as the Seattle Sounders). Portland's arch-nemesis is already one up on them in the MLS Cup count, and that doesn't even include all the Open Cup triumphs they can flaunt.
The Rose City bunch and its fans crave nothing more than to wrest the league title right out of Seattle's possession, and even the CascadiaMLS Cup score.