The 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoff bracket is set and it's not too early to look ahead at what we can expect from the busiest weekend of the postseason on Nov. 20-22.
Here's an early look at each of the matchups:
Play-In (Fri., Nov. 20): #8 New England Revolution vs. #9 Montreal Impact
I love the way Montreal fought back against D.C. United to secure their playoff spot, but they will have a hard time advancing past the Revolution, especially since the game is at Gillette Stadium. If they're to prove me wrong, then every single one of their key players — Bojan Krkic, Romell Quioto and especially Victor Wanyama (if he returns in time from international duty) – will have to be in top form. But even that may not be enough because New England have the better players.
In attack, the Revs have too many offensive weapons not to advance — Teal Bunbury is in good form, Carles Gil is back, and between Lee Nguyen, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, they will create enough chances to get a couple of goals.
Play-In (Fri., Nov. 20): #7 Nashville SC vs. #10 Inter Miami CF
Both of these teams deserve huge credit for navigating the most challenging expansion season in MLS history. But only one of the two will continue their Cinderella story and my money is on Nashville for one simple reason: their defense. Gary Smith’s men don't concede very many goals and playoff games are often decided by one or two goals.
Gonzalo Higuain has been a good, if not spectacular, addition for Inter Miami, although they’d have hoped for more than one goal after nine matches. If he can find another level in the postseason, then this matchup becomes very interesting. Short of that, I expect defense to win the day and Nashville to advance.
Round One: #3 Columbus Crew SC vs. #6 New York Red Bulls
The Crew are formidable at home — they won nine of their 10 home games and ended the season with a confidence-boosting win against Atlanta that saw them leapfrog Orlando for third place in the East. This is a team that knows itself — strong and organized defensively, and precise and efficient offensively. In Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes, they have the match-winners to beat the Red Bulls.
RBNY's best bet is to keep the game tight for as long as possible and try to play on the counter. With four goals in five games, Brian White may be the man to cause problems for the Crew's back line.
Round One: #4 Orlando City vs. #5 NYCFC
This matchup is a neutral's dream. NYCFC are playing their best football of the season and ended the regular season by scoring nine goals in two games. Valentin Castellanos stepped up in the run in with four goals in two games, and of course Maxi Moralez is still the key that unlocks their offensive prowess. Both will need to have big games.
Orlando slipped to fourth on the final day, but Nani's a star who loves the big moments. He was exceptional at the MLS is Back Tournament, and if he gets anywhere near that level during the playoffs, his team is going to be very tough to beat. This is the kind of game that can go either way, but I expect a thriller.
Round One: #1 Philadelphia Union vs. Lowest Play-In Seed
What a team and what a season! The Union are a very fun team to watch — full of youth, energy, veteran experience and a fearlessness that saw them surge past everyone to the Supporters' Shield. They'll get everyone’s very best effort and that will be the challenge because teams will now gameplan meticulously.
Last season LAFC were the best team in the league, but they were bounced far too early in the playoffs despite securing home-field advantage throughout. That's because they received the Seattle Sounders' very best effort. The Union can expect the same against whoever they face.
Round One: #2 Toronto FC vs. Highest Play-In Seed
Toronto have stumbled their way through the final weeks of the regular season, but a lot of that can be attributed to untimely injuries that have prevented them from fielding their best team. With a couple of weeks to get healthy, they should be poised for a deep run. They have the experience for this moment, and the bitter taste of losing in the 2019 MLS Cup final to motivate them. I expect a strong showing from the Reds.
Round One: #1 Sporting KC vs. #8 San Jose Earthquakes
With the top spot on the line, Sporting showed they can dig deep and grind out a much-needed result in less-than-ideal conditions by winning away at Real Salt Lake on Decision Day. They will need Johnny Russell back to his best in order to ensure they can dispatch San Jose. He hasn’t scored in his last eight games, although there have been signs that he's nearing his best form.
Just six weeks ago, few of us felt San Jose would be in the playoffs, but they adapted their defensive strategy and achieved the turnaround they needed. This is still a step too far and I expect their campaign to end here.
Round One: #2 Seattle Sounders vs. #7 LAFC
They're not even denying it publicly: This will be about revenge for LAFC. After a historically-great 2019, they were supposed to win MLS Cup and cement themselves as the best team this league has ever seen until the Sounders spoiled the party in the Western Conference Final.
The Sounders enter this game as favorites after ending the season with a strong showing against San Jose and earning the No. 2 seed. It will come down to which offensive group has the better day and whether Carlos Vela (LAFC) or Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle) exerts more influence on the proceedings. Since the game will be played in Seattle, and LAFC are still suspect defensively, the Sounders have the slight edge.
Round One: #3 Portland Timbers vs. #6 FC Dallas
With just one away win all season, it will be hard for FC Dallas to go into Portland and advance. The Timbers ended the season in good form, they tend to play better at home and their attacking corps seems to be clicking at just the right time. They will just have too much for the Dallas defense.
Where this game can get interesting is if it's tied late on, and Dallas get Andres Ricaurte on the ball while making runs off of him into space. He always has a magical pass in him that can spring a forward for a golden opportunity to snatch the late win.
Round One: #4 Minnesota United vs. #5 Colorado Rapids
Health and November FIFA window call-ups will be the key for Minnesota. They’ve missed so many key guys due to injuries, and four key players – Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone), Jan Gregus (Slovakia), Robin Lod (Finland) and Romain Metanire (Madagascar) – are joining their respective national teams. It's a tall ask to have to replace so much quality. Should they get Osvaldo Alonso or even Ike Opara back, they have the edge. If not, it’ll be an early exit.
The Rapids look fresh, in form and ready to make a run. Cole Bassett is young, but he’s the real deal and the stage is set for him to really break out and make an even bigger name for himself.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.