Zlatan Ibrahimovic - pensive - LA Galaxy - 2019
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Bogert: Ranking playoff teams most under pressure

Though each of the league's remaining 14 clubs want nothing more than to win MLS Cup, pressure is different for every side heading into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. 

Which teams are under the most pressure this postseason?

14. New England Revolution

To call a Bruce Arena-led operation "just happy to be here" wouldn't quite be precise, but after starting 3-8-2 with hope in dangerously low supply, New England rescuing the season to finish above the playoff line is an achievement in and of itself. 

Again: Not that Arena will feel that way and nor should he. Dude's an insatiable winner. But in macro terms, the Revs are under no pressure this postseason.

The returns on half a season of Bruce, Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil together are pretty, pretty good. With that as the foundation, New England might be just one or two moves away from moving up the tiers in the Eastern Conference. The real pressure will manifest itself in 2020. 

13. FC Dallas

(This ranking won't just be a reverse order of the standings, I promise. The first two are purely coincidental. Anyway.)

It was meant to be more of a transition year for FC Dallas in the first season under Luchi Gonzalez. Paced by a renewed #PlayYourKids ethos, which was already among tops in MLS before the former academy director took over, Dallas made the playoffs. It's a big win for the argument that giving meaningful minutes to more than a few youngsters and staying competitive aren't mutually exclusive. 

12. Real Salt Lake

A third-place finish in a season in which the club parted ways with both the head coach and the general manager more than halfway through the season? Not bad for Real Salt Lake.

Who knows in which direction the club plan to head in 2020 but 2019 has been a success. The major changes have already taken place for this club, so regardless of what happens in the playoffs, don't expect any more major shocks.

11. Portland Timbers

Two months ago, the Portland Timbers were believed to be a foregone conclusion to make the playoffs and were widely expected to host a Round One playoff game. A month ago, despite tepid form in their home-heavy second half of the season, they were viewed as perhaps the team likeliest to knock off LAFC. 

How quickly things can change.

It took the team until Decision Day to finally clinch that playoff spot, Diego Valeri's future is in question, Brian Fernandez is currently unavailable and the team simply haven't performed to where we all expected. They enter the playoffs as outside of the pack considered true MLS Cup contenders.

10. Minnesota United

It's been an awesome season for Minnesota, who not only are about to play their first MLS playoff game after entering the league in 2017, but are hosting it at brand new Allianz Field. They also made the U.S. Open Cup final; 2019 has been good to the Loons. 

Though a few players in the club's core are theoretically reaching the end of their prime, Minnesota are set up well for the future with Mason Toye, Thomas Chacon, Robin Lod, Hassani Dotson and others all expected to have their best days ahead of them. 

A quick note: You may have noticed that's four Western Conference teams in a row. With all eyes on LAFC, who just set the league record for points and goal differential, most of the pressure is situated in SoCal. Any of the teams could pull off an upset on the road against LAFC in the playoffs; could any of them realistically be expected to? 

9. New York Red Bulls

For the first time in a few years, the New York Red Bulls are flying under the radar a bit heading into to the playoffs. That's good news. But they're flying under the radar because of their lackluster form. That's bad news.

Still, it could be a nice place for the Red Bulls to be right now. Or, it could forecast a Round One exit as they travel to Philadelphia as underdogs. What role will their playoff run have on players and staff heading into 2020?

8. Toronto FC

Back in the playoffs, and hosting a Round One game, Toronto FC are back on track following their disappointing 2018 campaign. 

Unfortunately, star forward Jozy Altidore picked up an injury on Decision Day and there haven't been any updates since he was forced to drop off the USMNT squad. If Altidore's healthy, they have the top-end talent to be a dark horse contender in the East. Without him? They might not have the firepower around Alejandro Pozuelo

7. Seattle Sounders

It kind of feels like the Sounders are just floating along, right?

After losing Ozzie Alonso to free agency and Chad Marshall to an early-season retirement, the Sounders persist. They finished second in the West and if LAFC, Atlanta United or NYCFC win MLS Cup, they'll qualify for the Concacaf Champions League. Their playoff streak has made these excellent seasons seem average. 

Still, it's Seattle so the expectation around the club, always, is to win. 

6. D.C. United

Win it for Wayne? The playoffs are Rooney's final ride with D.C. United. It could be Lucho Acosta's, too. Bill Hamid's loan expires at the end of the season. Paul Arriola admitted he'd be open to a move abroad. 

Next year's opening day lineup might be quite different than the one they end with this fall. Can this group put together one playoff run before the changes come? 

5. Philadelphia Union

You know how "That's so Metro" has become a playoff thing for fans to deride the Red Bulls? The Union might be a Round One loss away to that very team from creating their own version of that unwanted ambiance, fair or unfair. 

Philly have made the playoffs three times, been bounced from their first round three times. They've made three Open Cup finals and lost all three. Last season's playoff loss to NYCFC wasn't particularly close, either. 

Hosting a playoff game, with the kind of season they had, and falling to the Red Bulls would be a huge disappointment. It could spoil the club's best-ever regular-season finish. 

4. Atlanta United

From even before the first time Atlanta United kicked a ball in MLS, it was clear this club is about trophies. They are the reigning MLS Cup champs and brought home both the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup already in 2019. There's still room and ambition for one more.

Even in a season that started with a coaching change and Miguel Almiron departing, the club have always had eyes on MLS Cup. And with Josef Martinez healthy after an injury scare, a trophy is always on the table.

3. NYCFC

For the fourth consecutive season, NYCFC are playoff bound. For the first time, they topped the Eastern Conference. They've never made it past the Conference semifinal, though. 

This season they pulled away from Atlanta and Philly by losing just one of their final 11 matches and enter the playoffs as the favorite in the East. The club have hit their stride under Dome Torrent after taking a bit of time to find that top gear. Just making the playoffs isn't good enough for NYCFC, just having a great regular season isn't good enough, either. 

Even with a potential venue change from Yankee Stadium to Citi Field during the playoffs, NYCFC will have grand expectations for the 2019 playoffs. 

2. LA Galaxy

Last season, the Galaxy had Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a TAM contract. They didn't make the playoffs. This season, they have Cristian Pavon on a TAM contract. They finished as the fifth seed, and will hit the road in Round One. With their history, plus immaculate star power, Los Angeles will be desperate for something much more than a one-and-done playoff experience. 

Sure, DP Romain Alessandrini played just 281 minutes in the regular season, lessening the competitive benefit of having Pavon on a TAM deal for this season a bit, but still. A team with Pavon, Zlatan, Jonathan dos Santos and the weight of expectation that comes with five MLS Cups, it's a pressure-filled postseason for the Galaxy. As per usual.

1. LAFC

By way of points won and goal differential, LAFC just completed the best regular season in league history. Carlos Vela's stellar 34g/15a regular season is widely viewed as the very best individual season in league history. 

Preparing for the playoffs, the Supporters' Shield winners face a quandary: Win MLS Cup and immediately enter the debate of one of the league's best-ever teams or fail to hoist the trophy and the history becomes something closer to a footnote, dismissed with a flippant well they didn't win MLS Cup. 

It's a lot of pressure on the small sample size that is a single-elimination tournament, where one cruel bounce can be the difference. But that's what LAFC are up against.

The season could end up being comparable to the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who set a league record for wins in the regular season before losing the NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. People only talk about the 3-1 lead the Warriors blew, not about the regular-season record. Can LAFC avoid that fate and cement their place in history?

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