The Daily KO - Jose Martinez
What you need to know

Minnesota, Seattle draw

Sounders center back Yeimar Gómez Andrade scored for both teams on Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis as Minnesota and Seattle played to a 1-1 draw. The Loons ended the weekend below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line, but equal on points with ninth-place Austin. Seattle sit in third place, equal on points with fourth-place RSL.

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Who's good enough to win MLS Cup?

Let’s be real. Despite what you might want to believe about MLS’ unceasing ability to surprise and amaze week to week with results you’d never expect, we rarely see that manifest over the course of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or similar knockout tournaments where teams are actively seeking to be at their best from start to finish – sorry, US Open Cup.

The “worst” MLS Cup-winning team over the last 10 years or so is…I guess 2016 Seattle? At least that’s true by points per game. And even with a pretty mediocre season-long performance, we know how good the core of that Sounders’ era ended up being. Point being, even to be the least impressive MLS Cup-winning side, you have to have the kind of talent that ends up leading an era where you win another MLS Cup, make another two and win a CCL title. Or something.

Basically, you have to be an incredibly good MLS team to make it through a gauntlet of other very good MLS teams playing at their best. There are only a few teams each year capable of doing that. You can almost always tell who those teams are. Either by the numbers or the eye test or both. With 24 games or more of data points now, I figure now might be a good time to let folks know who the 2023 teams capable of winning it all actually are.*

*NOTE: Some are more capable than others. Let’s put them in two tiers.**

**Not included that may surprise you: New England and RSL. The Revs without Djordje Petrovic and Brandon Bye don’t have the juice. The jury is still out on RSL’s chances without Pablo Ruiz. Check back in on this in like three weeks though.

Tier "Definitely Able To Do This"

Cincy are currently sitting on 2.16 points per game. 2021 New England, the MLS record-holders for points in a season, finished with 2.15 points per game. They’ve been fantastic all season, especially at home. The Garys have 12 wins and one draw in 13 games at home. They’re assured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Of course they can win the whole thing…even if their underlying numbers still kind of suggest they’re closer to “very good!” than “greatest team of all time!”

We know the Union are good enough to get close at least. The question is whether or not they can get over the hump. In the last year, the Union have lost MLS Cup on penalties, lost a CCL semifinal and lost in the Leagues Cup semifinal. They’ve been good enough to get to or near the end, but have been missing…something. Probably a little top-end talent and a lot of luck. It feels like they just need a couple of breaks and they can (finally) lift a tournament trophy.

You can maybe ask some questions about the Crew defensively, but any struggles seem to be more of a side effect of Wilfried Nancy’s game model than a lack of ability at the back. The good news is Nancy’s game model also calls for Columbus to score about four times a game. That kind of thing can take you pretty far. The Crew have the East’s second-best underlying numbers behind the Red Bulls, who could totally be here if their entire existence this year wasn’t just a big shrug emoji. Per American Soccer Analysis, Columbus are third in the league in expected goal differential and expected points, and fourth in ASA’s all-encompassing goals added metric.

They were already an outstanding team and the computers don’t even know they’ve brought Julian Gressel and Diego Rossi into the fold now. They might be even better.

No team in the East creates chances like Columbus, and that means they’ve got as good a shot as anybody.

Yeah, they aren’t perfect this year. Yeah, they just kind of inexplicably lost to Charlotte. But they’re still going to have home-field advantage for most of their playoff games, and they have the added benefit of running through a weak Western Conference. I don’t feel like I really need to explain why they’re the favorites out West and the most likely team to make it to MLS Cup.

Their first game post-Leagues Cup wasn’t ideal, but that doesn’t take away the fact we got a remarkable amount of proof of concept from Nashville last month. Any team that can go through Cincinnati, Club América, Monterrey, Minnesota and (nearly) Miami in a tournament can handle a run to MLS Cup.

It’s still not entirely clear if they’re going to make the playoffs, but I think it’s prudent for everyone to maybe relax on doubting the current edition of this team until we actually have a data point that suggests we should doubt them. If they make the playoffs, they can absolutely go on the road for a few weeks and take down team after team until they’re lifting another trophy.

Tier "If God Smiles Upon Thee"

I’ll be honest, I almost didn’t include them. Their game model isn’t quite the same as the Red Bulls, but it might be a little too close for me to comfortably believe their stuff is going to work in the playoffs despite having an expansion roster. Even with their excellent regular season performance, winning MLS Cup would be an actual miracle.

But I thought about it more and the West is so uninspiring and St. Louis’ home crowd + their whole “having Roman Burki in goal” thing is so useful for playoff runs that there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least get to the final. And once you’re there, anything can happen.

The teams in this tier are all (mostly) very good. However, either their underlying numbers are closer to the middle of the pack than the top, or they simply haven’t proven they can win at a high level yet, or both. Orlando City are both. Their underlying numbers generally put them in the 10-15 range in the league, and it’s fair to wonder if they have enough top-end talent to make a run through the best teams in the league. 

That said, it feels like they’ve gotten better and better as the year has progressed. The roster may not have weekly match-winners all over the field, but the floor is very high at almost every position. They may not be the most likely choice to win it all, but they’re absolutely a plausible choice.

Even before Atlanta’s new signings arrived, the underlying numbers positioned them as one of the better teams in the league. But they weren’t passing the eye test week-to-week and clearly had glaring flaws. The last two weeks though…

Atlanta haven’t passed the eye test quite like that in a long, long time. With the addition of Tristan Muyumba in midfield and dynamic wingers Xande Silva and Saba Lobjanidze, Atlanta looks completely revamped. Thiago Almada suddenly has the space to thrive, they’re (mostly) avoiding critical errors and they have the kind of top-end talent needed to win a title.

They also still have a few pretty clear weak points. It’s much more a possibility than a probability the Five Stripes make a run to the playoffs. But it’s way more likely now than it was a few weeks ago. It seems appropriate a team with some of the architects of Seattle’s best years (Garth Lagerwey, Gonzalo Pineda) leading the way would take off after the summer window, right?

Hey, speaking of…

I know. I know. It hasn’t been great in Seattle for the large majority of this season. But the underlying numbers are still some of the best in the league, and they’ve absolutely been here before, even if they haven’t acted like it this season. As always, Seattle aren't officially dead until they’ve been in the ground for a few days. I’m not going to make the mistake of counting them out.

Plus, they finished the year on 1.41 points per game in 2016. They’re on 1.42 points per game right now. It kind of feels like they have everyone right where they want them.

The Reading Rainbow
Full Time

Good luck out there. Here is a video of a dog.