Back in 2017 and 2018, I wrote this column ahead of opening weekend of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Here’s what I had to say about the eventual champions from the past two seasons, edited for brevity…
Toronto FC will win MLS Cup because the best players in the league refuse to be denied this time around. The roster that took them to the brink of an MLS Cup triumph is even better this time around, and lifts the treble (Canadian Championship, Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup).
And now 2018…
Atlanta United will win MLS Cup because nobody can slow down Tata’s Four Horsemen. The Five Stripes wreck opposing defenses on the counter as King Peach pulverizes the league’s top attacks, building on their fourth-best MLS defense from 2017 with the help of a TAM d-mid picked up during the summer.
In summation: NAILED IT, I AM ALL-SEEING
Just ignore the cases I made for all those other, not-championship teams. That stuff absolutely could have happened! The TFC treble absolutely did! And you can’t deny the existence of Almiron and Martinez’s insane partnership (the only two horsemen who matter) and that TAM d-mid did arrive in the summer (Eric Remedi) just as I predicted.
Now that you know I mean business, let’s get down to staring into the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs crystal ball ahead of Saturday and Sunday’s Round One matches. We’re going in alphabetical order so you can’t claim I’m biased in any way.
Atlanta United will win MLS Cup because
… they have the most ruthless, single-minded, voracious goalscorer in MLS. Yes, in a league that boasts Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that’s still Josef Martinez. Plus, Darlington Nagbe is capable (yes, I know it’s not an every-game occurrence) of taking over games singlehandedly, and Brad Guzan is more than capable of erasing any defensive mistakes, which is important because…
Miles Robinson is likely to be out until at least MLS Cup with a hamstring injury suffered with the USMNT. That, more than any other, is reason to believe the Five Stripes won’t repeat.
LAFC will win MLS Cup because
… they’re the best team in the league. They have the best player in the league. They only have to win three games, all at Banc of California Stadium, to get it done. Pretty simple math here.
If you were watching Canada’s big win on Tuesday night, you know there’s now an unknown variable introduced to LAFC’s previously straightforward MLS Cup equation. Mark-Anthony Kaye’s hammy. First Robinson, then Kaye? It’s a cruel world we live in. Lee Nguyen is more than capable, but he’s a different sort of player. Will it matter? We’ll find out. Heal up, MAK.
LA Galaxy will win MLS Cup because
… Zlatan thrives on big moments, and that Galaxy backline doesn’t have to keep teams off the board for 180 minutes thanks to the new playoff format. LA are a flawed team, but anything can happen in a single game. The draw was kind, too. Minnesota have never been here before. LAFC can’t seem to get over the rivalry hump. The other side of the West bracket is sort of meh.
They won’t win because this is a team that lost to Vancouver and Houston to finish the regular season. Flawed might be a kind word for the Galaxy. Probably is, actually. They’re sorta … bad. Like, third most losses in MLS (14) behind FC Cincinnati and Houston since the start of May bad.
Minnesota United will win MLS Cup because
… they’ve got a championship spine and one of the strikers gets hot. Vito Mannone, Ike Opara, Ozzie Alonso, Darwin Quintero (I’m counting the good Darwin) and … I’m gonna say Mason Toye is the guy who goes on a heater. Ike vs. Zlatan is must-watch stuff. That’s the sort of matchup that might just quiet the big man. Plus, they’re the only team in the league to win at LAFC this year. Gimme all the Adrian Heath “You never believed in us!” shade and a lemonade to sip on while I sit in it.
Why won’t they win it? Because this is their first time in these waters. I feel like a gut punch is coming after all the good vibes. Also, the comment section said it better than I ever could: Minnesota won't win the Cup, not because it's our first time on this stage, but because we are a Minnesota team.
NYCFC will win MLS Cup because
… they’re arguably the most balanced team in MLS. Goalkeeper? Sean Johnson got my vote for Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year. Backline? Not a weak link. Midfield? Maxi Moralez (4th in my internal MVP vote), Alex Ring and whoever Dome Torrent figures is best for the moment. Goalscoring? Three players in double digits, and a potential hatty off the bench in Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.
Home-field advantage (11-1-5 at Yankee Stadium in 2019) is the other reason they’ll win MLS Cup, unless it isn’t. The club announced Citi Field will host the Conference Semifinal match. Will it matter? We’re gonna find out.
New York Red Bulls will win MLS Cup because
… there’s no pressure this time around – well, less pressure than in previous seasons – and being on the opposite side of the bracket of NYCFC is a pretty sweet reward for finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference. On paper, the backline could chuck a couple straight shutouts. They could also get the Revs in the Conference Semifinals, a home game. If they got that far, maybe New York is red in the Conference Finals.
Lots of maybes here. Maybe the Red Bulls are going to come up short in the playoffs again. Almost certainly they will, in fact.
Philadelphia Union will win MLS Cup because
… all the pieces fit together and some of those pieces are game-changers. Looks like Kacper Przybylko, he of 15 regular season goals, is gonna be good to go. Same for Alejandro Bedoya. Jamiro Monteiro can boss a game on his own. Ilsinho can change it off the bench. The collective is greater than the individuals, which is a credit to Jim Curtin and all the players.
They won’t win it because their form is poor and, to borrow some Calen Carr logic, the Union don’t have veteran central defenders. That seems to matter a lot in the playoffs. Find me a team that was missing experience in that position who won the Cup. Good luck.
Real Salt Lake will win MLS Cup because
… adversity and distractions don’t seem to faze them. This season has been … interesting. And yet, RSL are the third seed in the West and they overcame a reeling Timbers side missing Fernandez and their mojo with a ho-hum Sounders team up next. They could easily win again. If they do that, who knows? July-to-August Real Salt Lake was sort of a menace.
But also … Mid-August-to-September Real Salt Lake, far less menacing. Why should you believe in them? That’s sort of the problem. I can make a decent case for RSL, but it doesn’t feel that convincing. They could win a couple games, and I wouldn’t be surprised. They could get bounced and same. What sets them apart?
Seattle Sounders will win MLS Cup because
… they’ve got a bunch of gamers in the squad and home-field advantage against everyone but LAFC. Their side of the playoff bracket shouldn’t put fear in Brian Schmetzer’s heart. The Sounders should push through to set up a showdown with, I am assuming, LAFC. Bad news is that LAFC whooped them at the Banc early in the season, 4-1. Good news is that that was a long time ago!
They won’t win it because there just seems to be something missing from this team. I can’t put my finger on it, but they look more vulnerable more often. Oh wait, they don’t have Chad Marshall. The theorem exists for a reason. Plus, Raul Ruidiaz hadn't scored in five games before Round One. If that's a one-off occurrence, it's not gonna happen for Seattle.
Toronto FC will win MLS Cup because
… Jozy Altidore’s quad injury is more headline than real concern and he goes full-on beast mode. If he’s in the laboratory, cooking up some great stuff for the Toronto faithful, we know that’s liable to end in a parade. Two years ago, it was with Sebastian Giovinco at his side. This time it’s Alejandro Pozuelo. Toronto FC have the talent. They are on a 10-game unbeaten run. They are absolutely capable of winning four straight games. I’m talking myself into this now.
They won’t win it because it is NYCFC’s year and Dome Torrent gets some revenge for the 4-0 whooping the Reds laid down in late March and the 1-1 draw at Yankee Stadium a month ago, a game in which Pozuelo missed a PK and NYCFC was denied a spot kick in second-half stoppage time. We'll see the rematch in the playoffs.