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Which road playoff team has the best chance at winning MLS Cup?

Since the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs began expanding past four/five teams from each conference in 2014, teams that begin the playoffs on the road don’t win MLS Cup. 2018 Portland finished fifth in the West then won a single elimination road game and two straight two-legged ties to make it to MLS Cup. They lost once they got there on the road to Atlanta.

2016 Seattle finished fourth in the West and then won two two-legged ties where they were the lower seed, then a single elimination road game on their way to MLS Cup. But they began the playoffs at home. 2019 Toronto finished fourth in the East and won a home game and two true road games before losing on the road in MLS Cup. And 2021 NYCFC won a home game and then three road games on their way to the title.

That kind of wraps it up for teams making total underdog runs to MLS Cup. No one has ever won all road games on their way to winning the title. And only one team has started on the road before making MLS Cup.

But maybe this is the year we see someone survive despite four straight road trips? We still don’t quite know which teams will fill into those final playoff spots in both conferences. However, we can still have a pretty good idea of which teams are MLS Cup-caliber or not. Let’s go through each remaining team in the playoff race and take our best guess at their ability to pull off the near impossible. While, of course, keeping in mind we’re talking about the near-impossible here and I’m generally of the opinion every single team is incapable of winning MLS Cup except maybe Philadelphia. It’s who I am.

Western Conference

  • Away record: 6W-5L-5D

They got a shot?

Honestly? Probably more than anyone on the list. I hate to start off so positive. If there’s anything The Daily Kickoff isn’t about, it’s unbridled optimism and the triumph of the human spirit. The Daily Kickoff is about being a hater, but I can’t really find it in me in this case. If anyone’s going to make some kind of near-impossible run through a bunch of road games, it’s the team that’s known for defensive solidity and for letting the best player in the league turn the game on its head at a moment's notice. There’s really only one obvious problem to them potentially being the first road tripping team to win MLS Cup: They’re in fourth place.

The Coyotes are still on track to get a home playoff game at GEODIS Park. They’re one point ahead of the Galaxy and Portland, and two points ahead of Minnesota with two games remaining. It wouldn’t mean everything, but holding onto that fourth spot or even jumping Dallas for third would make Nashville a much more likely threat to make a run. Either way, I think it’s plausible.

  • Away record: 5W-7L-4D

They got a shot?

I’m so torn here. They’ve been so inconsistent this year. In part because they haven’t been able to find a consistent lineup due to players underperforming by a remarkable amount, or players coming in on summer transfers, or players overperforming so much in substitute roles that it seems obvious they should be in the starting lineup. Still, there’s such an absurd level of talent on the field at times that it's hard to say they outright can’t do it.

That being said, it feels like they can’t do it. Even if they end up with a home game. It would take something special from Riqui Puig, Gaston Brugman and Chicharito to mask LA’s deficiencies elsewhere, which isn’t totally implausible. Just unlikely in a difficult conference.

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  • Away record: 3W-6L-7D

They got a shot?

It’s the Timbers. Of course they do. Even when they’ve been generally terrible on the road this year and honestly not all that good at home either. They frankly haven’t been all that good at all this season and I can’t remember a moment of thinking: “Wow, if they put it together, they’ve got a chance to do something.” They’ve been invariably average.

So, yeah, they’ve got us all right where they want us. Congrats to Portland on their shocking run to an MLS Cup title we definitely didn’t see coming.

  • Away record: 6W-9L-1D

They got a shot?

If you would have asked me a couple of weeks ago I would have said yes, but an injury to starting center back Bakaye Dibassy seems to have really derailed things for the Loons. Now I don’t even know if they’re going to make it to the playoffs. If they make it, I guess it’s possible Emanuel Reynoso goes on the same kind of run that nearly dragged the Loons to the 2020 MLS Cup, but the odds seem pretty low right now. They aren’t playing well. Bad injury luck may be too much to overcome in this case.

  • Away record: 3W-8L-5D

They got a shot?

They’ve been running on “We’re the team that tries harder than everyone else” for so long that it’s kind of become the only thing they’ve been doing well lately. The problem is, it’s the end of the season. Everyone else is trying hard too. I can’t see this one happening.

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  • Away record: 2W-10L-4D

They got a shot?

To win MLS Cup they would need to win double the number of road wins in the regular season and they would need to do it consecutively against playoff teams.

  • Away record: 3W-11L-2D

They got a shot?

Never count out the Sounders. But. They would have to make the playoffs first for this to even be a possibility and it really, really, really doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. Then again, it’s Seattle. So. I don’t know y’all, I’m really conflicted here.

Eastern Conference

  • Away record: 5W-8L-3D

They got a shot?

I want to say yes. I’m still trying to figure out how much to take from their excellent week before the international break where they took down Atlas and the Red Bulls. Did they actually figure out how to play with the intensity and cohesiveness they’d been lacking or were they just due for a couple of wins? I’m not convinced either way. But we know they have the talent to make a run no matter what. It would just be far easier for them if they got a home game or two. It seems like they will, but it’s not implausible to think they finish fifth.

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  • Away record: 5W-4L-6D

They got a shot?

This is a team that’s been able to pull wins out of nearly any situation this year. The answer is yes. It’s not always pretty, but they have enough talent and enough willpower and outright luck in critical situations to be a threat. There’s something Timbers-esque in how they’ve succeeded this season. They’ve got as good a shot to run through a bunch of road games as anyone.

They may not have to though. A couple of wins to close the year (especially on Saturday against NYCFC) just might be enough to get them a home playoff game.

  • Away record: 5W-4L-6D

They got a shot?

I love the Knifey Lions as a dark horse pick. It’s not even a difficult choice really. They have a top-tier attacking trio in the league, they have quality underlying numbers and they’ve been improving defensively. It feels like if anyone could chaos ball their way to a bunch of road playoff wins, it would be this group.

  • Away record: 3W-10L-3D

They got a shot?

The Herons have clearly not been great on the road this year. They’d need their attacking trio – probably at best the third most effective in their own conference – to go absolutely supernova. I just don’t see it happening.

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  • Away record: 3W-3L-9D

They got a shot?

The Crew were famously terrible on the road for their first few years under Caleb Porter. They’ve moved from “famously terrible” to “still pretty notably awful on the road.” Like Inter Miami, they’d need Lucas Zelarayan and Cucho Hernandez to go absolutely wild.

Anyway, in a related note to the entire premise of this section: Does anyone remember how many road games the 2020 Crew team played on their way to winning MLS Cup? (Zero.)

  • Away record: 2W-9L-5D

They got a shot?

They aren’t going to make the playoffs, so no. But I could totally talk myself into this group winning a couple of road games considering how they’ve been playing down the stretch. Could they win MLS Cup? Well, they aren’t going to make the playoffs so, no. Just enjoy the fact that we’ll never truly know for sure, Atlanta fans.

Other Things

Swiderski scores as Poland relegates Wales, Bale from Nations League: Charlotte FC striker Karol Swiderski won a battle of MLS attackers against LAFC’s Gareth Bale on Sunday in the UEFA Nations League. The Charlotte FC talisman scored a decisive lone goal for Poland to defeat Wales 1-0 in Cardiff to keep his national side in League A of the tournament.

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Full Time

Good luck out there. Practice something out of the ordinary.