Armchair Analyst: One worry for each of the 18 MLS playoff teams

Full recap of Decision Day presented by AT&T above, and a full preview of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs to come. In the meantime... everybody's got something to worry about. Let's run through all 18 teams and just take a quick peek under the hood:


Western Conference

1. Sporting KC: It's still the defense. Sporting got the top spot in the West with a strong finish to the year, going 6-1-1 in their final eight games and posting three shutouts on the trot to close things out. They have, without question, looked better since the dog days of summer when they were getting gashed by the likes of Houston and a mostly punch-less Dallas team. Getting Roger Espinoza and Ilie back and healthy helped, as has the steady evolution of right back Jaylin Lindsey.

And both the boxscore numbers (Sporting were third-best in the West with just 25 goals allowed) and underlying numbers (second best in the entire league with just an xG allowed of 25.8 as per Opta) suggest that my worry is unfounded.

But I can't shake what I saw in August and September, and I can't shake what I saw in 2019, and I can't shake what I saw in the 2018 playoffs. That defense worries me.

2. Seattle Sounders: If Raul Ruidiaz was going to miss their first-round game against LAFC, that'd be the obvious worry. They were a much much much much worse team without him this year, as the on/off splits indicate:

But barring injury while on international duty with Peru, Ruidiaz will be available for Seattle. He had COVID-19 during the last international break, which means he still has antibodies, and as per GM Garth Lagerwey and first reported by The Athletic's Sam Stejskal, Sounder at Heart, that means Ruidiaz does not have to quarantine on his way back. So Seattle will be without Gustav Svensson and Xavier Arreaga, but Ruidiaz should be good to go vs. LAFC.

And there's the worry: They have to play LAFC in the first round of the playoffs. The Sounders are favorites in this game and likely every other they will play in the West, but if Carlos Vela is healthy again, and Bradley Wright-Phillips is healthy again, and that midfield is healthy again, and that central defense is mostly fixed... that's a brutal first-round matchup.

Seattle's other worry is that they have no plan to blow up a bunker other than "cross it a ton." This is not relevant against LAFC, but it sure as hell will be if they get past the Black-and-Gold and have to play Portland in the conference semis.

3. Portland Timbers: They have lost two DPs to ACL tears, including the MVP of this summer's MLS is Back Tournament triumph. On top of that they've been without leading scorer Jeremy Ebobisse since mid-October after he picked up a concussion, which means that it'll be more than a month since he stepped foot onto the field in competitive action once the playoffs start. Owner Merritt Paulson took to Twitter to let the fans know that Ebobisse will be good to go, but how much rust will the kid be shaking off?

Winning a trophy — or even coming close — without two DPs would be just a massive accomplishment. Portland still have some very obvious match-winners in Diego Valeri, Yimmi Chara and Felipe Mora, but they don't have the same type of attacking flexibility that propelled them this summer.

EDIT: Mora's been called in for Chile, so the Timbers really, really need Ebobisse to be healthy or they won't have a center forward for that opener vs. Dallas. Andy Polo is also going to be on international duty, which leaves Portland really thin on the wings.

The good news there, though? It's playoff time, which means it's Dairon Time.

4. Minnesota United: Injuries, man. First it was Ike Opara, and then Tyler Miller — though I'd argue Dayne St. Clair has been an upgrade, which is not intended in any way as a slam against Miller — and then Ozzie Alonso, and then Ozzie Alonso again, and then Michael Boxall missed the final two games of the season, and Luis Amarilla has been hurt most of the year now, and Hassani Dotson is out, and it all just really has added up.

On top of that they're likely to be without four more starters in that round one game vs. Colorado: RB Romain Metanire, CM Jan Gregus, winger Robin Lod and center forward Kei Kamara.

You don't often see higher-seeded teams bunker like hell at home in the playoffs, but given how many starters they're likely to be missing, I suspect that's what we're going to get from the Loons.

5. Colorado Rapids: The Rapids battled through COVID-19 and left no doubt that they were worthy of playoff inclusion by literally any metric. If you take out the two "we're shaking the rust off" performances right after they returned to play after a month-long absence, Colorado have lost just once in their past 10 games. That includes wins over Portland, Seattle and San Jose, and a very credible draw at Sporting which started the whole Rapids renaissance back at the end of August.

They don't have any real injury concerns, and because of the good work Robin Fraser's done developing the young players on the roster, they have created depth and dynamism throughout most of the squad. They play good, fun, attacking soccer.

And they will likely have to do it without Diego Rubio, the only true center forward on the team. He was called into Chile's national team camp for this latest international date, which means that Andre Shinyashiki is probably going to be the starting No. 9 at Minnesota.

The other big worry for Colorado: They still get a disproportionate amount of their goals off of set pieces. The Loons, meanwhile, are one of the best in the league defending set pieces. That avenue might be blocked.

6. FC Dallas: Dallas scored five goals over two games at the end of October against Miami and Houston. Other than that, they've scored four goals in nine games going back to mid-September.

Their attack has been double-plus-ungood for a while now, and while there are occasional signs of breaking out — specifically when both fullbacks are able to push up and stretch the opponents out — those signs are intermittent. You're more apt to see a team grinding through long sequences of ultimately unthreatening possession and then retreating to try to absorb and hopefully get out on the counter.

I think it's fair to say not a single attacking player has had a good year for Dallas. That's not a great way to go into the playoffs.

7. LAFC: Back to those international absences again... Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi and 22 Under 22 runner-up Brian Rodriguez are with Uruguay, while starting LB Diego Palacios and central midfield starter (of late, though maybe not anymore with Mark-Anthony Kaye back) Jose Cifuentes are with Ecuador.

Given the other options at the other spots — Jordan Harvey has squeezed one more pretty good year out of his legs, and Carlos Vela and Kaye are both healthy enough to start, most likely — it's obvious the absence of Rossi that's the crushing blow. 

That said, they'll still likely have Vela, BWP and Danny Musovski (5g/1a in 629 minutes this year) good to go along that front line, as well as their entire first-choice central midfield available and healthier than at this time last year in the opener.

LAFC are underdogs, but I don't think it's a stretch to say they're the most terrifying underdogs since the 2012 Galaxy.

8. San Jose: "Terrifyingly entertaining underdogs," maybe? Even by 2020 standards the Quakes had a bizarre season, with some all-timer performances scattered in amongst a stretch of the worst soccer this league has seen since Chivas USA. There was almost no in between — very few "normal" games from this group of Goonies. And yes, given how many late comebacks and improbable results they cobbled together, as well as the central roles both Chris Wondolowski and Shea Salinas played, I'm more than happy to re-up that famous 2012 moniker.

Even though the Quakes are largely a better team than last year's version, I'm going to go ahead and point out that they still have the same issue: none of their wingers are goal-getters. Cristian Espinoza had three in 1,822 minutes, while Carlos Fierro had two in 961. Those are the starters. Salinas had two in 775 minutes, almost all off the bench, while Vako had three in about 800 minutes. Cade Cowell is full of promise, but he had one goal in 470 minutes. He's not there yet.

Do you trust any of these guys to get a big goal in a big game? Do you trust Andy Rios (5g/1a in 1,711 minutes), now playing as a No. 10, to make a match-winning No. 10 plays in the playoffs?

I love the way this team plays, but they're at an obvious talent deficit against anyone they come up against.


Eastern Conference

1. Philadelphia Union: Like everyone else, it's injuries and and international absences on Philadelphia's mind. Andre Blake, the likely Goalkeeper of the Year (he didn't get my vote, but he was nonetheless excellent) has a broken hand. Philly are acting like he might play, but I think that's a smokescreen. I think it'll be largely untested 22-year-old Homegrown 'keeper Matt Freese who gets the call in round one, and even though Freese was very good on Decision Day, that's a worry.

So is the potential absence of Jamiro Monteiro, on international duty with Cape Verde and, as of now, unlikely to be available in Round One.

The other worry is this: the Union have a roster stuffed full of very good players, only one DP (Monteiro) and a "the team is the star" ethos. That makes them fun and unusual in this day and age.

That would also make them unique in terms of recent MLS Cup winners. You have to go back all the way to the pre-TAM era, 2013 Sporting side to find a team that won MLS Cup without a couple of dominant DPs. I am of the belief that, in a short-form tournament, you need a couple of those guys to just Hulk out and win you a couple of games that you otherwise wouldn't. And if you want proof, well... remember what Sebastian Blanco did in the MLS is Back Tournament semis?

I don't think the Union have a guy like that.

2. Toronto FC: Toronto FC have multiple guys like that, and many of them have done it in the playoffs. That includes Jozy Altidore (healthy-ish) and Alejandro Pozuelo (MVP-ish), and it looks like Ayo Akinola wants to show he can join that group.

Michael Bradley was, at one point, that type of player as well. His 2017 season was the single best year of any d-mid in MLS history, and he capped it off by dominating the Sounders midfield in MLS Cup, just as he'd done in 2016. And he was excellent in last year's playoff run, though this time it was the Sounders who outclassed the Reds in MLS Cup.

But those days look to be in the past:

Ooof. And that was before Bradley picked up an injury and came back in late October. His form was... concerning:

I don't think there's any chance Bradley gets benched for these games, especially since Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado have both been carrying knocks and missed time down the stretch. But this isn't the same Michael Bradley as 12 months ago, and Toronto's opponents know it.

3. Columbus Crew SC: The main worry for Columbus is that they haven't actually played particularly well for a few months now. And I'm including that gutsy run in September when they kept grinding out results despite a bunch of injury-related absences just about everywhere on the field.

Even down the stretch as they won two of three, the results were great but the collective performance wasn't. Eloy Room saved them (literally and figuratively) in that huge win vs. Philly, and Lucas Zelarayan did the same on Decision Day vs. Atlanta.

That, of course, is why you pay those guys. Every team needs their best players to be their best players in certain moments, and Columbus have guys who can do that in pressure-filled situations.

But they also need to play well as a team, and we just haven't seen a ton of that — the type of flowing, irresistible soccer that made them a favorite of most neutrals — since July.

4. Orlando City SC: Another team who, because of injuries and international absences, haven't quite been the same since the MLS is Back Tournament. Orlando City, like the Crew, played some beautiful, flowing soccer back in July and early August, and have managed to fight and scrap for some very, very good results since then. But they've rarely had the same group together for two games at a time and have been managing all of the above while dealing with the long-term absences of two of their key possession hubs from July: d-mid Uri Rosell and LB Joao Moutinho.

I think Rosell will be back, but expect him to be rusty. Moutinho's return seems less certain, and even if he is back... again with the rust.

That is particularly problematic against an NYCFC side that enters the playoffs as the league's hottest team.

5. NYCFC: They enter the playoffs as the league's hottest team, with four wins out of four down the stretch and a level of cool confidence with the ball that had largely been missing for most of Ronny Deila's first season. It turns out, though, that with Maxi Moralez healthy and Alex Ring back at his preferred d-mid spot, this group looks a lot like a 65-point team. Which is what they were last year.

The worry, though, is that they're going into the playoffs starting back-ups at each of their front three positions. Heber is hurt, which means the nod at center forward goes to Taty Castellanos. Alexandru Mitrita was loaned out (sold, really), which means Gary Mackay-Steven gets one wing slot, while Jesus Medina probably gets the nod over always-injured-but-at-least-temporarily-healthy-for-now Ismael Tajouri-Shradi at the other.

No matter how good the central midfield and fullbacks are, you need your attackers to win you some games in the postseason. Are you expecting that NYCFC front line trio to manage that?

6. New York Red Bulls: Well, they've got an interim head coach, no real set formation or first XI, and their two DPs might not even be starters. They also open the postseason on the road where they are just 3-3-4 — not awful, but definitely not ideal.

I'd also argue that based upon raw talent this RBNY team is an underdog against everyone they might realistically face, including Nashville. And while I'm a big Brian White fan, I'm a fan in the sense that he's basically a Gyasi Zardes-lite type of striker: he works hard, gets into the right spots, finishes at a good clip and is a "put in an honest shift" No. 9. I think he can be a pretty good striker in this league, and maybe already is.

But he's Gyasi-lite, and RBNY face actual Gyasi, backed by Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe and a bunch of good wingers, in the opening round.

The Crew are prohibitive favorites.

7. Nashville SC: I'm not going to say that Nashville are made to play spoiler for this tournament (that's what the playoffs are, remember — a one-and-done tournament) even though, historically speaking, sit-deep-and-counter-and-kill-on-set-pieces teams have generally done better, worldwide, than build-from-possession teams in tournament play.

That is because I'm a little bit shook by what happened this summer, when so many of the teams that were successful in the MLS is Back Tournament were teams that used the ball well. Nashville do that through central midfield, but then very much do not do that in the final third in attack. If they're not hurting you on counters or set pieces, they probably aren't going to hurt you at all.

And then there is the lack of that top-end talent, as all three of Nashville's DPs have mostly underwhelmed.

There has been a ton of pressure on the Nashville defense all year. There will be more on them as soon as the playoffs begin.

8. New England Revolution: Bruce Arena has always said that the key to being a winning coach in the biggest games is to have your best players be your best players. Here are the numbers on his team's DPs this year:

Boy, I don't know.

9. Montreal Impact: Montreal's biggest worry is that, no matter the personnel or the formation or the tactical approach, they haven't played well for a really, really long time. Over the final two months of the season they went just 3-9-1 with a -13 goal differential. That included a furious Decision Day comeback at D.C. to sneak into the postseason just under the wire.

"Haven't been good at soccer recently" is about the biggest concern you could have. Here's a caveat, though: TEN of those 13 games were against playoff teams! The schedule threw poor Thierry Henry & Co. into the blender, and they just barely survived.

From a certain point of view you could say that means they're blooded and ready to go. I'm choosing to be optimistic here — though it's worth noting they've lost to the Revs each of the past three times the teams have met.

10. Inter Miami: Sooooo things haven't quite gone according to plan, have they? Yes, Miami were able to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the season, but that involved a hang-on-for-dear-life win over an FC Cincinnati team you shouldn't have to hang on for dear life against. And it's safe to say that the big midseason acquisitions haven't quite lived up to expectations, as Blaise Matuidi has looked his age and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been mistake-prone defensively (though he did score a couple of big goals).

Know who didn't score a couple of big goals? Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine No. 9 walked into MLS with 250 career top-flight goals and after 802 minutes here, he now has 251. That is a lower rate of return than the Galaxy got from Chicharito.

Maybe he just needed a couple of months to settle in and will be able to flip the switch for the playoffs. Or maybe that's just where Higuain is in his career, and where Inter's attack is overall.

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