Armchair Analyst: Playoff teams by tier as the regular season ends | Week 23

And so with the conclusion of Decision Day presented by AT&T, the 25th regular season of Major League Soccer is in the books.

Since there were seven games going on at the same time, and then six games going on at the same time, I can't pretend I'm going to give you a full blow-by-blow analysis and breakdown. Instead let's take a look at where everybody stands heading into the postseason.

For those teams that didn't make the postseason, post-mortems will begin to trickle out soon. But now into the playoffs we go:


Tier I: The Favorites (As Always)

Toronto FC

Decision Day Result: 2-1 loss at RBNY

We're not going to be stupid enough to think of this team as anything except alphas, right? Sure, they have looked defensively frail at times and are as injury-prone as almost anyone in the league. It's still not clear what their best formation is (I'm guessing they end up going to a 4-4-2 even though that moves likely MVP winner Alejandro Pozuelo out of his best spot), nor who will be healthy enough to end up playing big minutes.

But for three of the past four years they have found answers where almost any other team in the league would've discovered only questions. It's happened again in 2020, in a major way:

Jozy Altidore got hurt. Ayo Akinola rose up. The have depth at left and right back now, and central midfield, and striker. They didn't have that last year.

Pozuelo remains irreplaceable, but that's true of any team's best player. 

I'm guessing they'll get a couple more guys a couple steps toward full healthiness over the international break, at which point they will find that extra gear they need for the playoffs. I'm still not entirely convinced anyone — even the Union — in the East can match them once they do so. Toronto have more talent and more experience, and that is a deadly combo. There's a reason they've been to three of the past four Cups, right?

A lingering worry, though: Even if Michael Bradley achieves full health, he will still be painfully slow. Teams find more room against the Reds in midfield when he's out there.

Seattle Sounders

Decision Day Result: 4-1 win over San Jose

Death, taxes and the Sounders vs. Reds in MLS Cup. It's happened three of the past four seasons and while I wouldn't bet any of my money upon it happening again — there are always too many variables in short-form tournaments like the playoffs — I certainly would bet some of yours. Gimme $20 and watch me work.

The big variable, of course, is injury. We saw it in 2018 when what was, in my opinion, the best Seattle team of the past four years were eliminated by the Timbers thanks to a pair of untimely injuries (Chad Marshall and Cristian Roldan). If not for that, it most likely would've been four MLS Cup appearances in four years, with an eye on No. 5 in 2020.

The good news for the Sounders is that they are deeper than two years ago, so they have a better chance of withstanding an injury to a starting CB or central midfielder (as Roldan was at the time; he's now a winger) and still coming through the West. As with Toronto, though, there is no replacing their No. 10. Nico Lodeiro remains essential. He is the system.

Two notes: First, Seattle do not have their own version of Akinola. When Raul Ruidiaz was with Peru the attack went into the toilet. They need their little No. 9 to be back and healthy and scoring goals like he always does in the playoffs.

Second, they still do not do anything except cross the ball a million times when they see a bunker. And while LAFC won't bunker in Round 1, should Seattle advance to Round 2, they will find themselves trying to batter down a parked bus.


Tier II: They've Played Like Favorites

Philadelphia Union

Decision Day Result: 2-0 win over New England

For the fifth time in Union history they walked into a game 90 minutes from lifting a trophy. For the first time in Union history they lifted that damn trophy. Philly are the Supporters' Shield champs, and they unquestionably deserve it.

And that's a great thing for Philly, because I still believe in my core that the Shield is both the best trophy to win, because it means you've given your fans months and months of great and winning soccer, and the truest indication of the best overall team, since you need depth and flexibility and consistency. As someone who spent a decade-and-a-half in the stands... give me that. That is the very best.

And Philly did it in style:

If they keep playing like this, they will keep winning a lot of games.

But here's the thing: the playoffs are an entirely different type of competition. Week-to-week consistency often fades in the face of raw goalscoring prowess and star power. Sometimes you need to be able to just brute force a win by having the more talented players.

Altidore and Ruidiaz. Lodeiro. Josef Martinez. Diego Valeri. Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. These are the heroes of the past six MLS Cup playoffs. They are also some of the best and most expensive players in MLS history. The Union have a lot of very good-to-great players in a lot of different spots. I do not believe they have guys like the ones listed above.

So I reserve my right to doubt the Union in the playoffs until they prove me wrong.

Orlando City SC

Decision Day Result: 3-2 loss to Nashville

The Lions have done really well during the entire back half of the season to make do while dealing with a spate of injuries and international absences that touched every line from goalkeeper to forward. Oscar Pareja has built real depth by developing kids like Daryl Dike, Benji Michel and Andres Perea, getting young-ish veterans like Chris Mueller and Ruan to level up, and coaxing more out of veterans like Uri Rosell and Antonio Carlos. It's been a master class not just tactically from Pareja, but also on an individual level of just making the players on the roster at his disposal better.

But there is a massive difference between the Orlando City team that fought and clawed to scratch out results through September and October vs. the one that was mostly healthy and mostly playing beautiful, irresistible soccer through July and August. This is lovely:

This was also before Dike upgraded the center forward spot. He offers them a target to play through, which allows the rest of the attack to do some fun things off the ball.

But while the wingers have stayed healthy the central midfield has not, a fact compounded by the long-term absence of left back Joao Moutinho, whose calm distribution and overlapping threat gave Orlando an attacking dimension out of pure possession they have not been able to replicate since his injury.

When they've had all their pieces available they've shown, repeatedly, that they're good enough to beat anyone. If they're healthy in two weeks then nobody should be shocked if they make a deep run.

If they're not healthy in two weeks, they're still capable of going far. But it would be at least a little bit of a surprise if they replicated this summer's trip to the finals.

Sporting KC

Decision Day Result: 2-0 win at RSL

You might not have noticed it but Sporting pretty quietly began to solve some lingering defensive issues in mid-September, and then by early October became one of the league's hottest teams in rattling off a bunch of wins thanks to a bunch of high-level performances. They have knocked the ball around and looked good, and have done so while limiting the defensive frailties that torpedoed their 2019 season and caused them all sorts of problems back in August as well.

Their defense is still a concern, though. I think they're less good than the other teams in this tier, and the punchless opponents they played down the stretch weren't exactly high-level challenges.

Offensively, though, they can hang with anyone:

Sporting do stuff with high-level positional play and high-level positional fluidity that is just gorgeous to watch and devastatingly effective. They can use that approach to get on the ball and just pin you back, then rip you apart. Doing that while no longer being as susceptible to the counter is a good recipe for a good time.

They also have high-level depth (Gerso off the bench) and firepower now. Alan Pulido is a different kind of forward from Ruidiaz, but he's supposed to provide the same kind of boost for Sporting that Ruidiaz has done for Seattle. So far in the regular season, he's done just that.

Columbus Crew 

Decision Day Result: 2-1 win over Atlanta United

I debated dropping them down a tier because the Crew really have not looked the same since about mid-September, when injuries obviously began taking their toll on guys like Gyasi Zardes, Eloy Room and Darlington Nagbe, while heavy minutes during the compressed schedule turned what had been the league's best defense through 10 games into one of the leakiest playoff defenses since then. Meanwhile Lucas Zelarayan has spent the entire year in and out of the lineup and has mostly not been a 90-minute player because of a series of injuries. He has still been a match-winner, but only rarely has he gotten enough time to get on the ball, take over the game and run the show like the elite No. 10s in this league do week after week.

But they are all healthy — or close to it — now. And as they showed two weeks ago against Philly, they have enough talent to win against very good teams even when they're not playing particularly well.

What they showed earlier in the season, though, is why I've got them this high. With a couple of weeks of rest and close to a full first XI, the Crew should be feeling good as hell about their chances.


Tier III: Too Broken To Do It?

Portland Timbers

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw at LAFC

The best player on the best team from this summer's MLS is Back Tournament was Timbers DP attacker Sebastian Blanco. He popped his ACL in August and is done until 2021. One of the hottest forwards, on a goals-per-90 basis, this autumn was Timbers DP Jaroslaw Niezgoda. He popped his ACL a couple of weeks back and is done until 2021.

If you're without two of your three DPs... look, the Timbers have a deep and largely well-constructed roster. Yimmi Chara took a while but lived up to the DP tag he's got, and Diego Valeri is still a maestro. Diego Chara is still somehow playing and covering ground like he's 24, not 34. Many of their young players have leveled up, and Steve Clark can still win you a game all by himself. This is a very, very good team that can beat you in a lot of different ways.

But they're without two of their three DPs, which means that as good as they are, they're a different — and, frankly, worse — team than the one that won the MLS is Back Tournament. That's life with injuries.

If they win an MLS Cup in spite of that, it'll be one of the more impressive feats in recent playoff history. They certainly have a chance to do so, especially if Jeremy Ebobisse is back and healthy by the time the playoffs start. But the injuries have robbed them of "favorites" status.

Minnesota United 

Decision Day Result: 3-0 win over FC Dallas

It has been a whole summer and autumn of hanging on by a thread as one player after another has seen their season derailed by injuries. The biggest was to Ike Opara, back before the MLS is Back Tournament, and I honestly thought they were done without him. Then they made it all the way to the semifinals.

They've also lost Ozzie Alonso, Hassani DotsonEthan Finlay and Luis Amarilla for prolonged stretches. They have had to scramble to put together a team week after week.

They have scrambled really, really well. Kevin Molino has been a rock and has had his healthiest season in half a decade, and ended the season in style. Meanwhile, Kei Kamara and Bebelo Reynoso haven't completely integrated, though there sure have been some hints of what Bebelo can make happen:

The Loons just haven't been able to play like that all that often, though. Injuries — specifically soft-tissue injuries — have ravaged this team. If Ozzie's back and healthy, they could make a run. If not, it's tough to see it happening.


Tier IV: Terrifying Darkhorses

NYCFC

Decision Day Result: 4-3 win at Chicago

There's a good case to be made for NYCFC being moved into the "too broken to do it?" tier given they're without Heber and James Sands for the rest of 2021 (head coach Ronny Deila has hinted at Sands being back for the playoffs, but I don't believe him). 

They also sold a DP mid-season and didn't replace him, and are still thin as hell almost everywhere. They just don't have a lot of proven depth anymore beyond that first XI.

But man, that first XI can just rip teams apart, especially now that Maxi Moralez is healthy and clicking in central midfield with Keaton Parks and Alex Ring (back where he belongs after spending a few games on the wing back in September). That central midfield is so good, and in Anton Tinnerholm and Ronald Matarrita they have two of the best overlapping fullbacks in the league. That makes them absolutely devastating in possession even if they're not as wedded to positional play as they were under Dome Torrent, and even as they're making due without Heber, Alexandru Mitrita and the oft-injured Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.

They can just envelope you, make you chase the ball, then hit gaps at pace. It is fun to watch and effective.

Nobody should look forward to facing them in the playoffs — unless Moralez picks up another knock. In the regular-season you can replace your A+ starter with a B- back-up and still scrape up some results. Try that in the playoffs and you go home after 90 minutes.

LAFC

Decision Day Result: 1-1 draw vs. Portland

LAFC unquestionably got worse this offseason after some very questionable personnel decisions. They also struggled — like everyone else — to deal with the spate of injuries that simply appear to be a natural part of the compressed schedule. That includes a season spent mostly without the great Carlos Vela.

But it turns out that Vela was not irreplaceable! He is still the best player in the league, but LAFC still had the best attack in the league even when he was hurt. They don't just have depth up top and on the wings; they have high-level match-winners as depth up top and on the wings.

The guy they couldn't replace, though, was Eduard Atuesta. The Colombian d-mid missed five games in late summer; LAFC went 1-4-0 with 6 goals scored (five of those were against the Quakes when the Quakes were hilarious), 12 goals conceded and were shut out three times. Correlation is causation here.

He is mind-bendingly good on both sides of the ball:

When he plays this year LAFC are 8-4-5 with a +16 goal differential. That is not quite a Shield-winning pace, but it would put them near the top of the West.

And just remember: We haven't seen this team's final form. Vela and Atuesta are healthy, but Bradley Wright-Phillips wasn't on the field the past two games. He's expected to be back soon. Mark-Anthony Kaye came back and got some minutes this week. The defense has been upgraded with Jesus David Murillo's arrival, but it's still not clear what their best back four is. I think Kenneth Vermeer is probably the starting goalkeeper for the playoffs now.

These are all major questions for a team heading into the playoffs, and as they showed vs. Portland they're still capable of playing really, really well and then giving up a brutal equalizer. That is why they are seventh-seeded darkhorses and not favorites..

But this team's got a ton of talent (I haven't even mentioned Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi or soon-to-be-sold-for-$15 million winger Brian Rodriguez yet). If Bob Bradley's able to get it all healthy and onto the field in two weeks, Seattle's got a knife fight on their hands.

New England Revolution

Decision Day Result: 2-0 loss at Philadelphia

There is a sense that the Revs have somehow regressed from last season, and that the run they went on to make the playoffs in 2019 after Bruce Arena replaced Brad Friedel was something of a mirage.

But that's not the case. What's happened is that the nature of New England's performances have been inverted. In 2019 they generally played poor soccer — they conceded a ton of chances, many of them very good — and were bailed out by match-winners in Matt Turner, Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou. They were nowhere near as good as their results indicated.

In 2020 they have been much better than their results have indicated. They are tougher to build through and give up few open play chances (and Turner still generally gobbles those up). They move the ball well from the back and get themselves into high-leverage positions in attack. They often play pretty, compelling soccer.

But Gil has been hurt and Bou has been hurt. So those high-leverage moments have been converted into goals at a lower rate than they frankly should have been.

Neither of those guys are 100%, but both of them are back, and two weeks of rest and recuperation after Decision Day should, in theory, do them a whole lot of good. Throughout the regular season the Revs have played well. If, in the postseason, they play well and have high-level attacking players out there, you should not want to face them. Gil doing his "Eastern Conference Lodeiro" thing or Bou going supernova for a month? Yikes.

A note, though: They are godawful defending set pieces.


Tier V: This Is MLS So Anything Is Possible

Nashville SC

Decision Day Result: 3-2 win at Orlando City

Counterattacks and set pieces and, occasionally, a little bit of high pressing. Don't create any spectacular goals but don't ship any soft ones.

I'm not going to say it's an "ideal" formula for an expansion team. Everybody knows that Nashville's not LAFC 2018, or Atlanta 2017 or Seattle 2009 — let alone Chicago 1998, which remains the gold standard for Year 1 performances. But everybody should know by now that Nashville are a smart and tough veteran team who don't panic when they give up a goal and absolutely do sow panic when you give up a set piece. 

I wish I had more to say about them than that, but I honestly don't. Nashville are a good solid team who don't beat themselves. I don't think they've shown much to make me believe their top-end attacking talent can carry them to a long run in the postseason, but just being here is a massive victory, right?

And if they can make fellow newcomers Inter Miami miserable in the play-in round along the way, more's the better.

New York Red Bulls

Decision Day Result: 2-1 win over Toronto FC

RBNY are still a team in almost constant flux with regard to their personnel and formation, as Bradley Carnell has had them play in a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 and even a little bit with three at the back at times since he's taken over. There's no clear first-choice XI, and none of the midseason acquisitions have moved the needle all that much.

There is even some question as to whether they're really a high-pressing team anymore. They certainly still can, but they don't as often as I'd expected them to. It is weird.

When they do press, though, it can be devastating. Especially when it's a re-press after losing possession in the attacking third:

There are two turnovers from the Red Bulls in this sequence and both of them are by design. They do not care about completing those passes; they care about creating scramble and getting those defenders to try to win the 50/50 — because if they don't win the 50/50, suddenly the back line is out of shape and you get these mini-transition moments.

My guess is we'll see more of this from RBNY in the postseason than we saw in the regular season. It has to be very unpleasant to play against even if, on balance, this is far from the most talented team in the conference.

Colorado Rapids

Decision Day Result: 2-1 win at Houston

 The Rapids left zero doubt about their worthiness for playoff inclusion and refused to let their season get derailed despite so many players and staff coming down with COVID-19 just as they had heated up. It is great that they have all recovered, and it is also great that, after two rusty games coming off a month without soccer, they went on a three-game tear with wins over Seattle, Portland and Houston to close the season. Wins over the Sounders and Timbers make you legit no matter what, and icing it by getting a road win with a rotated squad to steal the five seed? That speaks to mentality as well as talent.

Let's speak to how they play, though:

They move Younes Namli around and have let Cole Bassett become a space interpreter as much as he is a central midfielder. Namli hasn't put up big numbers, but he does a ton of work conducting the game from odd angles, which unbalances teams. That opens gaps for Bassett to exploit, and he has put up big numbers: 5g/5a in just 982 minutes. On a per-minute basis that is elite production from a No. 10.

They are quick and mobile everywhere in attack, Jack Price can spray from defensive midfield and both fullbacks get forward well. They are, as a team, slow to close space in central midfield and error prone at the back, but that only makes the more fun, to be honest.

FC Dallas

Decision Day Result: 3-0 loss at Minnesota United

There was a sense of things starting to come together for Dallas before Sunday night. They'd won three in a row and were 4-1-1 over their past six, and seemed to have settled into something of a rhythm even if they weren't exactly overwhelming teams out there every single week. At some point you have to give a team credit for getting results even when the game itself isn't pretty.

Maybe that means I'm reading too much into what happened in St. Paul, though. But man, that was a hell of an egg to lay when there's a home game in the playoffs on the line — especially for a team that is much, much better at home (7-0-3) than they are on the road (1-5-3). It was, in a lot of ways, a playoff game. You can see from the scoreline how that worked out.

We know Dallas can struggle at times to generate any sort of consistent attack, though they've been better at that of late thanks to both fullbacks. But the worry is that when they play away from home they get weirdly gappy defensively, and teams have been able to too-easily set up shop in the half-spaces.

Not great.

San Jose Earthquakes

Decision Day Result: 4-1 loss at Seattle

That Decision Day loss was the seventh of the season by three or more goals for San Jose, which makes it kind of insane that they're in the playoffs. But in between that loss — which came after they opened themselves up to chase an equalizer and then made a couple of major individual errors — and the end of their nightmare summer, they'd gone 6-2-1 with a couple of those wins over LAFC and the draw a hard-fought 0-0 against Seattle.

So yes, this team can take themselves out of any game real quick. But they're also shockingly resilient and have gotten some results against strong competition this year.

That said, there is an obvious way to attack them:

San Jose have mostly not been this fragile since September and the Decision Day loss really didn't look much like the loss highlighted in that video, but the principles still apply. If you can drag their backline upfield and then turn them, you will be able to attack at pace into space, and that's any good attacker's dream.

Good attackers like Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell and Gadi Kinda.

Man marking means it's all about individual match-ups, and it's easy to lose individual match-ups when you're going up against guys like that. San Jose's got their work cut out for them from the jump.

Montreal Impact

Decision Day Result: 3-2 win at D.C. United

It's cliched to call a win "gutsy" but I don't really think there's a better word for what Montreal did on the road in D.C. in coming back and clinching a playoff spot. Thierry Henry & Co. have essentially been on the road for three months — they're playing home games in New Jersey, remember — and it's clearly worn them down. They entered Decision Day hanging by a thread.

They exited it with three points. There's not a lot to pick apart from this group on a tactical level as so much of what they've done throughout the year has been back-foot defensive actions with some liberal counterattacking thrown in, and that obviously means it's about not letting Victor Wanyama get on the ball and spray. If you keep his distribution square, you'll be in good shape.

Montreal do have a match-winner in Romell Quioto, though. The mercurial winger has become a mercurial center forward under Henry, and has delivered with 8g/6a in 1,483 minutes, which includes 1g/1a on Sunday. Quioto sometimes has an "maybe I'll try a little bit more later on" air about him, but that doesn't fly with Henry. Titi's got the guy locked in and focused, and a locked-in and focused Quioto is a scary proposition.

They're still massive underdogs and there's little reason to believe their defense won't be a catastrophe. But they could make this fun.

Inter Miami

Decision Day Result: 2-1 win over FC Cincinnati

Just making the playoffs in Year 1 is an accomplishment, and Miami officially cleared that bar on the final day of what was otherwise kind of a disappointing season. It's weird to be disappointed to seen an expansion team struggle — most expansion teams are bad, remember — but I there were expectations with this group. There were always going to be expectations when you spend $15 million on an in-his-prime Mexican international, or bring in a World Cup winner, or a center forward who's scored 300 top flight goals over the past decade, or spent $15 million combined on a couple of young Argentines on the fringes of their youth national teams.

The simple truth, though, is that Miami haven't lived up even after adding all those guys. The young players have largely underwhelmed, Blaise Matuidi (the aforementioned World Cup winner) has looked his age, and Gonzalo Higuain (he of the 300 top flight goals) has just 1 goal in 800 MLS minutes thus far. He's been less productive than Chicharito, and you may have heard a tiny bit about the Little Pea's struggles this year.

Could it all just randomly snap into place over the next two weeks? Sure. They've beaten the Red Bulls and Orlando City twice, so it's not like they've just feasted on the Cincinnatis of the world. And they haven't often been blown out — they're in almost every game.

But they've been less than the sum of their parts all season. I don't see a compelling reason to believe that will change in the playoffs.

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