Another chaotic Major League Soccer regular season is in the books, and now the fun really starts. With the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City winning their wild-card matches Wednesday, the 16-team playoff field is set in the race for MLS Cup.
The first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs begin Saturday and consist of a new best-of-three format to decide who moves on to the conference semifinals. From there, it will be business as usual, with the top seeds in their respective conferences, FC Cincinnati and St. Louis City, having home-field advantage.
Let’s jump into it.
16. FC Dallas
The momentum Nico Estévez was building in Dallas quickly faded as the season went on. FC Dallas barely snuck into the playoffs due to some uninspiring performances, most notably a bland 1-1 draw against Colorado at home. We’re going to skip over Decision Day because taking advantage of the LA Galaxy’s porous defense will have nothing to do with what Dallas is tasked with in the playoffs. They have the toughest draw of any team having to match up against Seattle. Jesus Ferreira and Alan Velasco are good, but there’s just not enough on the attacking side to create actual damage.
15. New York Red Bulls
It took a last-minute win over Nashville on Decision Day to sneak in, but 14 straight playoff appearances for the Red Bulls is impressive. The 5-2 drubbing over Charlotte FC in the wild-card match was beyond that. John Tolkin, who scored a beautiful free kick and added a pair of assists, is playing with a great level of swag right now. Elias Manoel scored a hat trick, matching his 2023 regular-season tally. It was a joyous moment that could spark hope until you remember that their first-round opponent is the best team in MLS. They might be able to put up somewhat of a fight against Cincy, but a lot has to go wrong for a major upset to even be a possibility.
14. Sporting Kansas City
SKC wasn’t able to break down San Jose in the wild-card game, as it ended scoreless and went to a penalty-kick shootout. But when Tim Melia is your goalkeeper, you feel good about your chances in that situation. He is unreal in shootouts and came up big once again to see them through. Unfortunately, SKC will have to potentially travel across I-70 twice and play their interstate rivals St. Louis at CityPark, where they were embarrassed 4-0 and 4-1 earlier this year. They can play the odds and hope to force penalty kicks, but that doesn’t seem likely based on the short history between these two teams.
13. New England Revolution
If there’s something the Revs can be optimistic about it's beating Philly 2-1 on Decision Day, using a change in formation that benefited the players. That can build confidence since they’ll be playing the Union in Round 1. But since this whole mess of losing Bruce Arena and everything that stemmed from it, New England has been treading water and hoping not to sink. Interim head coach Clint Peay wasn’t ready to be thrust into this situation, and some of his comments have made that evident. There’s way too much uncertainty everywhere, as he is still trying to figure out what his best options are, but the playoffs aren’t a time for experiments. Having someone such as Djordje Petrović in net would’ve been monumental, but instead, it’s a “competitive” goalkeeper carousel. The way things have unfolded the past couple of months is simply too much to overcome, even when you have talent such as Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and Tomás Chancalay.
12. Real Salt Lake
RSL hasn’t been able to weather the loss of Pablo Ruiz since he suffered a season-ending knee injury during Leagues Cup. Now, their most important player, Cristian “Chicho” Arango, is nursing a hamstring issue as the playoffs begin. You could add Brayan Vera (ankle) to the questionable list as well. Limping into the postseason isn’t ideal, and neither is having to play Houston in a best-of-three series. In two consecutive matches earlier this year, the Dynamo beat RSL 3-1 at home in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal and then traveled to Utah a few days later and won 3-0. Pablo Mastroeni’s squad won’t be short of confidence in the playoffs, but they’ll need Jefferson Savarino and others to step up if Chicho isn’t at full strength.
11. Atlanta United
Is Atlanta one of the most exciting teams to watch? Yes. Is Atlanta one of the most vulnerable teams? Absolutely.
The way this version of the Five Stripes plays is FIFA-esque: attack, attack, attack, and worry about everything else after. Tremendous firepower going forward will always make them a threat, but the way they easily give up goals is a glaring issue. They conceded 53 this season, the most by any team that made the playoffs. The proof was there on Decision Day, when they let 5-foot-3 Luciano Acosta score off a header in the area. Luckily for them, Columbus is the Round 1 opponent, and they're basically made of the same DNA. It will probably make for the most entertaining series. Giorgos Giakoumakis coming off injured in their last game and Thiago Almada missing Game 1 due to a red card could make the difference.
10. Vancouver Whitecaps
Things in Vancouver are trending in the right direction, and rewarding head coach Vanni Sartini with a two-year contract extension ahead of the playoffs speaks volumes. He has been sensational in leading this group anchored by the dynamic attacking duo of Ryan Gauld and Brian White. They have a difference-maker at defensive mid in Andrés Cubas, and Richie Laryea has been a great addition. They’re familiar with LAFC, their first-round opponent, as they drew against them 1-1 on Decision Day. Vancouver did miss a pair of penalties in that game. They also faced off in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and LAFC won both legs 3-0. The familiarity between the two could end up not being a good thing for the Whitecaps.
9. Nashville SC
There might not be a team in this playoff field better equipped for this new format. Play a strong defensive block and perhaps win in a penalty-kick shootout? That’s a perfect playbook for Nashville. We saw them flourish in the Leagues Cup under similar circumstances until they ran into the magic of Lionel Messi. But since then, this team has not been good. Hany Mukhtar is the engine, and his first half of the season was on par for another MVP campaign. Things are much different now, as the offense is once again looking for contributions elsewhere; Nashville failed to score in four of its past five games, while Mukhtar has just two goals in the past 12. We know what the former MVP is capable of, but he (and Sam Surridge) need to get it going again quickly.
8. Philadelphia Union
Philly has taken a step back since Leagues Cup as well, and I’m not as confident in the Union making a run like last year. We’re used to knowing exactly what to expect from Jim Curtin’s squad, but this one is more of a toss-up. The talent is still there, and perhaps they use the first round against the Revs to fine-tune a bit. Three wins in their past 11 is uninspiring, but there were a lot of draws along the way, and that could be beneficial in this format, especially going up against whomever New England decides to throw in net. With players such as Alejandro Bedoya and Kai Wagner set to depart after this season, it feels like the focus is already on the future instead of one final shot with this group.
7. Houston Dynamo
While many teams have struggled since the summer, Houston did the exact opposite. The Dynamo have been one of the most impressive teams in the second half of the season and have a U.S. Open Cup to show for it. They're probably the squad that’s getting most overlooked in the playoffs, and I’m sure that’s all the motivation they need. Héctor Herrera’s turnaround has been resounding, Adalberto “Coco” Carrasquilla is grossly underrated and both Amine Bassi and Artur have been tremendous. All that means is the midfield is really good. Where the Dynamo are lacking is having that striker that puts them on the next level, though Corey Baird has done a fine job holding it down this season. Will it be enough?
6. St. Louis City
Bradley Carnell and St. Louis City have gotten their praise for pulling off one of the best expansion seasons ever. Finishing as the top seed in the West was not only unforeseen but also a message to MLS. Now it’s added pressure because they have a target, and teams are going to be lining up to try to end this fairytale. Navigating a playoff run is going to be a completely different challenge. We’ve seen Roman Bürki, Eduard Löwen, João Klauss and others step up throughout the season, but this unit doesn’t have that experience in these high-pressure elimination situations. Carnell told Yahoo Sports in July that there are teams such as Seattle and LAFC that St. Louis is not in the same bracket as. He’s not naive to the situation. Starting your first playoff challenge with a rivalry series certainly doesn’t ease those nerves, either. But St. Louis could make a run because Carnell has shown resilience in getting the best out of his team all season. That road is just so much more treacherous now than it was months ago.
5. Columbus Crew
The highest-scoring team in MLS is going to be a problem for anybody, especially when coached by Wilfried Nancy. Juan Camilo “Cucho” Hernández has been one of the best in the league this season and can impact a game at any given moment. Acquiring Diego Rossi was a huge deal in moments such as these, when you need players to rise to the occasion, as he has done in the past with LAFC. Even Christian Ramirez has exceeded expectations with this team, making you forget that they sold their most important player, Lucas Zelarayán, over the summer. That’s how dominant they’ve been as an attack-minded team. The bad part has been their ability to close out games, and like Atlanta, having those defensive lapses that cost them games. That is something they were able to get away with in the regular season but won’t in the playoffs. Despite having what might be the toughest path in the East, they should be considered serious contenders.
Life is good when you have the Golden Boot winner on your team. Denis Bouanga has been an absolute menace, and he’s not about to slow down. The question is who else can the defending MLS Cup champions count on if Bouanga isn’t actually able to find the back of the net? Young winger Cristian Olivera is someone who needs to step up in order for LAFC to think of repeating because at this rate, relying on Carlos Vela and Mario González isn’t going to cut it. As chances at trophies have eluded the Black and Gold this year, Steve Cherundolo has continuously said those experiences should motivate his team. It’s time to see if that’s really the case. This squad isn’t as strong as last year’s, but they are talented enough to make another run. And the expectation in L.A. is nothing less than that.
3. Seattle Sounders
Here we go again. Seattle found its best form late in the season and instantly morphed into a title favorite. The old “defense wins championships” adage still holds some weight, and the Sounders have one of the best in MLS. The 2-0 win over St. Louis at CityPark on Decision Day was basically their way of sending a warning shot. Offensively, the Sounders aren’t as dangerous as they’ve been in the past with Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro firing on all cylinders, but as a collective, they can still put it together. Brian Schmetzer knows exactly how to navigate these situations, as he has successfully done over the years. If Lumen Field gets rocking, add that home-field advantage as another obstacle for any opposing team that has to travel to the Pacific Northwest, which would be all of them besides St. Louis. This is all too familiar.
2. Orlando City
No team has been hotter than Orlando the past few months. Momentum, though this format might try to kill it, is a real thing in the playoffs, and the Lions have all of it. Head coach Óscar Pareja’s ability to round out this roster and get contributions throughout shouldn’t be overlooked. He has been building all year, not reliant on just a few stars, and that should pay off, especially against a tough defensive team such as Nashville in Round 1. Facundo Torres is still the focal point in Orlando, but go down the list, and the likes of Duncan McGuire, Wilder Cartagena, César Araújo are all extremely important, too. Having one of the best goalkeepers in the league, Pedro Gallese, always helps. And defensively, they are one of the better units, too. Still, everything points back to form, and going 13-3-4 over their final 20 games says all you need to know about what time Orlando is on.
1. FC Cincinnati
This should come as no surprise. Cincinnati is the best team in the league, with soon-to-be-named MVP Luciano Acosta and MLS Defender of the Year contender Matt Miazga. Cincy’s success this season is a testament to how well-rounded the team is, and that bodes well entering the playoffs. Winning the Supporters’ Shield was a major accomplishment, but it was just checking off another box on the list. Pat Noonan knows MLS Cup is the real goal, and luckily for them, the road runs through TQL Stadium, where they went 13-2-2 this season. One major question is defender Santiago Arias and how available he will be as he tries to bounce back from an injury picked up during international duties with Colombia. The good news is that the situation with DP striker Aaron Boupendza, who was punished for disciplinary reasons on Decision Day, is reportedly all resolved, and he’s back in training with the team. Winning the double in MLS isn’t easy, but like LAFC last year, Cincy seems built to pull it off.