Who is going to walk away champion of 2018 eMLS Cup?

Finally, eMLS Cup presented by PlayStation is here, and all the action is unfolding around us. Whether you’re one of the lucky ones attending PAX East this year, or you’re one of the other lucky ones watching from afar, you’re in for a treat.

We’ve chatted with competitors, let some top-quality FIFA streamers weigh in, built a fan guide to the weekend, and told stories of personal triumph. Now, as the action breaks loose from its cage of hype, it’s time to ask – who’s winning this thing?

While there are some studs in the group, the answer is more complex than you might think. Every competitor in the field is talented. As we know from many a match in MLS, however, talent isn’t the only variable. For many of these players, the bright lights of eMLS Cup and a major gaming convention will be brand new. And make no mistake: there will be some competitors who can’t handle the expectations.

Beyond the sheer shock of the atmosphere at eMLS Cup, the tournament format is not for the weak of heart. Before the knockout rounds even begin, each competitor will have played 16 matches. That’s just enough to settle into a groove, but just few enough that every match matters, especially in a field of unpredictability and high-level talent.

Building their squads

Next, competitors have to battle their way through on-field variables. With rules in place which dictate that everyone must have three MLS players on the field – two from their club and one other player – not every team will be created equal. Sure, eight of the eleven players might be legendary cards and other world class players, but the differences will really play out among the MLS players. Of course, not every club in MLS is created equally, and therefore not every club has their own Zlatan Ibrahimovic. These inequalities will test each competitor’s knowledge of their club’s talent pool – and how to use it.

This is where the hidden gems come into play. Likely, a competitor like Houston’s Memo Trevino will build his team around the lightning pace of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, looking to play fast, keep the field wide, and play aggressively through the lines. What he does with his third MLS player will tell quite a bit about his philosophy. Does he double down on the attacking front and bring in Sebastian Giovinco? Or does he try to get the most out of a player like Ike Opara – a set-piece killer – on the back ine?

Even competitors like Toronto’s Phil Balke and Orlando’s Abe Valbuena have major decisions to make. Does Lamine Sane get the start? Or will the on-field chemistry of Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, and Dom Dwyer translate into his starting XI?

The variables are many, the margins are thin, and the mistakes can be few. With that in mind, competitors who have pace and height on their side are very likely those who will have a shot at the eMLS Cup title.

Giuseppe Guastella has the LA Galaxy’s Ibra, Romain Alessandrini, dos Santos brothers, and even the lightning-quick Ema Boateng in his arsenal. Columbus’ Graham Ellix has Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos. Dallas’ Alan Avila has Roland Lamah, Mauro Diaz and Michael Barrios to work with. Trevino has Elis and Quioto. Sensing a theme? Let’s face it: if this thing does come down to pace, power, and experience, there are a few clear-cut title contenders.

Handicapping the field

In the West, it looks likely to come down to Guastella and Trevino – among perhaps a couple of others, including San Jose’s Alan Ortega and Portland’s Edgar Guerrero – competing for a shot at the title. Guerrero misses the final cut despite his globetrotting experience, simply due to the fact that most of his competitive resume is built on the 11v11 competition format, rather than the 1v1 of eMLS Cup. Ortega, while a budding Twitch star, doesn’t quite boast the same level of tournament experience as either LA or Portland’s gamers. At the end of the day, it looks likely that Houston’s Memo Trevino will emerge from the lonesome crowded West, but he’ll face one heck of a challenge from his Eastern Conference opposition…

Speaking of which, there is a lot of talent in the East. Red Bull athlete and RBNY competitor Mike LaBelle might just be the most impressive of the bunch, boasting almost 300,000 YouTube subscribers and real competitive pedigree. He’s represented the US at the FIWC, is a mainstay near the top of the leaderboards on Xbox and PlayStation, and has shared his deep knowledge of the game as an analyst for both Copa 90 and Kick TV. Hailing from just on the other side of the Hudson River is Chris Holly, who has repped the US at a FICWC and is one of the most versatile players in the entire PlayStation gamer pool. Add in the likes of Toronto FC (and Red Bull athlete) Phil Balke and Montreal’s Lyes Ould-Ramoul, and you’ve got quite a bit of depth to sort through.

In the end, it’s hard to see LaBelle not earning at least a spot in the semifinals. The kind of experience he has at his disposal – and his comfort on the biggest stages – puts him in a great position. With the likes of an in-form Bradley Wright-Phillips to work with, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Facing off against him will likely be Holly or Balke, both of whom are probably finalists in just about any other North American tournament. Despite Balke’s rough first day of preliminary action, he’s wildly talented. Canada’s best FIFA player vs. MLS’ first-ever eSports signing is a tantalizing matchup no matter what, but the fact that it will be for less than the crown is a testament to the talent on display here.

While I’m big on LaBelle carving a path to the semifinal, I’m bullish on NYCFC’s Chris Holly to ride his experience and past success to an appearance opposite Trevino in the eMLS Cup final.

Breaking down the final

Honestly, despite Balke having a deeper bench thanks to Toronto FC’s superstar talent, Holly’s ability to adapt to opponents and his knowledge of how to put David Villa in positions to maximize his skill gives him an edge. Like I mentioned before, the MLS players – not the Ronaldo, Messi, or Legend cards on a competitors roster – will make the difference in this tournament. Beyond the pace and power afforded them by those cards, Trevino and Holly simply have the most effective MLS players to choose from. Coupled with their experience on the competitive circuit, this is as close to a straightforward analysis as this tournament will afford (although I do want to stress that these two will not face straightforward paths to this point in the competition).

When the lights go down and a king is crowned, it’s hard to bet against a team with relentless wingers who possess underrated dribbling skills and the ability to get up for a back-post header. Villa is an unbelievable player in his own right, and he’s magnificent to watch, but this is FIFA 18, and FIFA 18 is often a cruel game. Set pieces, powerful strikes, and the ability to straight-up out-pace a defender is often the difference in a tightly-fought game. That’s just how it goes.

In reality, the probability that we see a Zlatan suiting up in both a Houston and NYCFC uniform in this final is fairly high, since competitors can choose an MLS player from another team to round out their group of three. However, it will be easier for Trevino to surround his Ibra with power on the wings, maximizing wide threats and helping Zlatan create mismatches. While Holly certainly has options in the way he arranges his NYCFC players, he lacks the advantage of high-level pace to divert attention away from Villa. The odds that the other NYCFC player in his squad is a defender or deeper-lying midfielder increases the probability of a defensive mismatch, and that will be exposed by a player like Trevino. So, congratulations to Houston’s Memo Trevino as my pick to win this darn thing. I hope I don’t jinx you.

No matter what happens, I’m going to enjoy every matchup of eMLS Cup – even if I turn out to be dead wrong in my picks – because I’m a nerd. If you let your inner nerd guide you, you’ll enjoy the heck out of this action, too.