As we work our way up to and then through the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, most attention will be spent on top favorites who are chasing the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
It makes sense. Only a handful of clubs in league history that started among the bottom half of postseason seeds have gone on to raise MLS Cup (2001 San Jose, 2005 LA Galaxy, 2009 Real Salt Lake, 2010 Colorado, the Galaxy again in 2012 and Seattle in 2016, to be exact).
Of course, that doesn't mean that supposed underdogs can't cause major trouble along the road to the title game. There will probably be a favorite or two that gets bounced by a lower seed, and there's usually at least one club that surprises with a deep run. What follows below is an attempt to identify the clubs most capable of being the disruptive dog that tears up everyone's playoff brackets.
No. 6 seed, Western Conference
Just when we thought the Texans were finally rounding into form at just the right time, they did a major face plant at Minnesota United on Decision Day presented by AT&T. The good news for FC Dallas players and fans is that loss earned them a first round match-up with a banged-up Portland side (Sebastian Blanco, Jaroslaw Niezgoda) that lost its grip on the West’s top seed and is coping with international call-ups (Felipe Mora, Andy Polo).
Now, FC Dallas aren't a great road team (1W-5L-3D this season). However, they’ve been quite competitive at Portland in recent seasons and one big postseason win away from home can heat a team up very quickly. They're also a big enigma — are they more the team that went 2-0-1 against Sporting Kansas City this season or closer to the one that suffered galling losses against Atlanta United and Houston? I can't say for sure, but do know that they have the pieces and skills to be the former for a few weeks.
Inter Miami CF
No. 10 seed, Eastern Conference
It’s not been a smooth road to the postseason for the expansion side, but they squeaked through the playoff door thanks to a 4W-3L-1D closing kick that required only one goal from star recruit Gonzalo Higuain. I mentioned it yesterday, but it bears repeating: If Higuain resumes normal service, Inter Miami instantly become scary to any favorite that crosses their path.
The Herons almost always play white-knuckle games that can go either way with a well-timed goal, and they have loads of winning experience on the field at all times. And like FC Dallas, there's a creeping feeling that we're yet to see their best. If it shows up now, Nashville SC could be in for trouble during their Eastern Conference Play-In Game.
No. 7 seed, Eastern Conference
The Music City gang are in many ways a prototypical postseason overachiever. Their defense is among the stingiest in the league (22 goals against). Nashville's equally well-seasoned midfield can control central park and they have some speed out wide. The forwards seem to have checked in at the right time and they’re dangerous on set pieces. They have a goalkeeper (Joe Willis) who’s currently in the best form of his life. It's a lot for any team to contend with.
They're also on a roll, having closed the season on a 4W-1L-2D run. And while Nashville SC will open their maiden playoff voyage at Nissan Stadium – they're 4-1-5 at home – it's worth noting that Nashville have won three straight away from home. This expansion side isn't fancy, but we've entered the stage where being gutsy and organized is often more effective.
New England Revolution
No. 8 seed, Eastern Conference
I think that (thanks to the wonders of alphabetical listing) we've saved the best (or is it darkest?) for last. Not only were the Revolution fourth in the East and seventh in MLS in expected goal differential, but they have many ingredients that make for a successful underdog's playoff recipe.
Winning road record? Check (5W-4L-1D). Larcenous netminder? Check (Matt Turner). Sturdy defense? Check (25 goals allowed). Diverse attack? Check-a-roo. Solid bench contributors? You betcha. The fight to be competitive every time out and a boss (Bruce Arena) who can game plan? Check and check. The only thing they don't have is a consistency of results to match their efforts... so far. Of all the unfavored playoff sides, my money says New England are most capable of causing some real trouble.