And then there were eight. The Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs field got chopped in half after a chaotic opening weekend. We’re left with five teams who’ve already got a Philip F. Anschutz Trophy in the trophy case and three who don’t.
Only one team will lift the Cup on Nov. 10. The other seven will have to wait another year, left to either grapple with their failure to capture the big prize or celebrate their relative overachievement.
So who needs it the most? Like, who really needs it? Which clubs, from the front office to the players to the supporters, are under the most pressure to win three games and bring a championship back to their city?
Here’s my take ahead of the Conference Semifinals on Wednesday and Thursday.
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Well, now it’s absolutely everything for Bob Bradley and the Supporters’ Shield winners. They are, undoubtedly, under the most pressure this week. That pressure is threefold.
First and foremost, it comes from within. Internally, LAFC held themselves to the highest possible standard this year, one never before matched in the regular season. To let themselves down now, after more than two years of pulling the sled in this direction, would be heartbreaking. It would be yet another “game of consequence,” as general manager John Thorrington calls them, in which they fell short. Imagine that disappointment.
Second, their collective legacy is hanging in the balance. I’m on record saying I think LAFC have to win MLS Cup to occupy the place in league history that their soccer and their ambition warrant. They want to be the best to ever do it in this league, and Bradley wants to do it playing the game with a certain panache.
To steal another of my own lines, legacy is more than just supremacy. It’s the story we tell, the way we remember a team. The next 19 days represent the climax of LAFC’s story.
If they fall short, fair or not, this team will be remembered as the regular-season juggernauts who bottled it at the end, and doubly so if their downfall comes at the hands of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy (Thursday, 10:30 pm ET | ESPN in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada). And therein lies the third source of pressure swirling around LAFC this week. In 90 minutes, they can either turn this rivalry on its head or face years of trash talk to which they have no real riposte.
Like I said, MLS Cup (and Thursday’s sixth El Trafico clash) is everything.
2. Atlanta United
The Five Stripes are the defending champs. They went out and made the league’s record signing in the offseason. They replaced Tata Martino with Frank de Boer. They’re one of the clubs that define success and failure by whether they win MLS Cup. That’s from Arthur Blank to Darren Eales to de Boer to Josef “Don’t mess with my money” Martinez, to the supporters.
Doesn’t matter that they stumbled early in the league, bombed out of Concacaf Champions League, dealt with something of an internal revolt against their new coach’s tactics, saw two of their three best center backs go down with untimely injuries and benched record signing Pity Martinez in the season’s biggest game to date.
They’ve already won a double, but it’s the treble they really care about. MLS Cup or bust.
3. LA Galaxy
Zlatan’s talking like this might be it for him with the Galaxy. He’s won everywhere he’s gone during his illustrious career. The Galaxy’s aura is built on stars but, more importantly, stars who win championships.
You don’t get to act like the biggest kid on the block then shrug if you bow out early, especially when that might mean losing to your biggest rival (thus losing head-to-head hegemony in Los Angeles) and then watching them parade the trophy through downtown.
The Galaxy have – via results on the field, massive signings and an organizational attitude approaching elitism – fashioned themselves as the league's Goliath. It’s always a big deal if Goliath doesn’t win.
4. New York City FC
I wanted to put the Sounders here, but Ben Baer talked me out of it. Clearly, his argument was convincing.
Ben’s logic goes like this: NYCFC are the second-best team in the league. Who knows if they will be that next year? Maxi Moralez will be a year older, Heber is no guarantee to crush it again in Year 2, Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens could drop off from their high standard, there’s very real potential for standouts like Taty Castellanos to be sold and, just spitballing here, maybe Dome Torrent moves back to Europe for a head coaching job, a la Patrick Vieira.
There are a lot of hypotheticals there, but I keep coming back to Ben’s first point: NYCFC are the second-best team in the league. When you’re as good as this team is, you need a trophy as validation.
5. Seattle Sounders
I can’t get over the feeling that the Sounders are missing something this year.
That might just be Chad Marshall, the coziest of MLS security blankets. Hell, I might just be imagining it – second in the Western Conference behind only LAFC, after all – or judging them on their high-water marks from 2011 to 2017 or against the standard set by the past two MLS Cup champions. Whatever it is/was/isn’t that’s missing, Jordan Morris covered it up enough against FC Dallas for Seattle to move on and host another winnable home game.
Sounders fans are, I think … for the most part, realistic. This is a good team. It does not appear to be a great team, not since the middle of May at least. Everybody wants to win, but I don’t think it’d shock anyone in Seattle if they don’t, especially with LAFC claiming the lion’s share of expectations.
6. Toronto FC
It doesn’t look like Jozy Altidore is going to play a major role in the playoffs. Thus, Toronto FC find themselves sixth in these rankings, above two teams very few expect to win MLS Cup.
7. Philadelphia Union
The Union, after a decade of existence, just won their first playoff game. When that’s the case, you can dream about MLS Cup, but you can’t reasonably expect to win it.
8. Real Salt Lake
Before you get upset with me, RSL fans, know that this is not a bad place to be.
Your boys can take the field with zero weight on their shoulders. They aren’t supposed to win MLS Cup. Nobody outside Utah believes they will. That’s probably true for many inside the state’s borders as well. This team has been through too much this season, their record against Western Conference playoff teams is too poor and their road form is too inconsistent to believe they’re gonna get this done.
Sounds kinda like that 2009 team, huh?