MLS Cup Playoffs promise fun after crazy regular season (even for MLS)
Major League Soccer is stupid awesome.
That’s because watching the league is often a logic-defying blend of stupid and awesome, not the utterance I’d often use in a bid to ride a skateboard in 2-aught-aught-five.
MLS is a league with tremendous parity, driven by a salary cap and outlandish travel relative to the rest of the world that makes winning games on the road a bit of a biological marvel.
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New England’s done that and so has fellow No. 1 seed Colorado. Western Nos. 2, 3, and 4 are the only other teams to win six or more away matches.
LA Galaxy is out despite being in a playoff spot for pretty much the entire season until Real Salt Lake won on the final day. LAFC is out, too, despite posting some very good advanced stats. You won’t see FC Dallas’ vaunted young group, nor Caleb Porter’s reigning champs Columbus. Toronto FC? Closer to the No. 1 MLS SuperDraft pick than 11th in the East (let alone seventh).
So what should you be watching over the next month?
MLS goes full MLS when it comes to the preseason odds, salary success
Consider that our No. 1 question during 2021 MLS preview season was, “Who will actually be bad?” because simulation site FiveThirtyEight.com only listed five teams holding a probability of 60% or more to miss the playoffs.
FC Cincinnati (91%) had the highest probability to do so and didn’t disappoint -- in that way -- by finishing dead last. Expansion side Austin FC (80%) largely struggled, too.
But Vancouver (89%) actually made the playoffs and DC United (87%) and Montreal (75%) missed by one point and two points, respectively.
Here’s what interesting, though: No. 1 payroll Atlanta United made the MLS Cup Playoffs, but the five next biggest spenders all missed out. So did teams No. 8, No. 10, and No. 12.
In fact, this insane year for Major League Soccer feels even more insane when you consider that the three teams to spend the least on salaries all made the playoffs, and the four lowest spenders in the Eastern Conference are all post-season bound.
The West’s No. 1 seed, Colorado, is the lowest spender in the league. The East’s No. 2, Philadelphia, spent under $100,000 more than the Rapids.
In fact, eight of the 10 lowest payrolls in MLS made the MLS Cup Playoffs, including the Supporters’ Shield-winning New England Revolution, whose coach Bruce Arena downplayed the shield, as if winning three or four-straight games in the Fall -- perhaps all at home -- is more difficult than having the best record over months and months (Oooh boy is it a relief to get away from praising the American soccer exceptionalist and back to questioning his logic).
The Revolution are the favorites, especially if they win their first match
All of that is made funnier by the fact that Arena’s New England really should win MLS Cup. The Revs will host NYCFC or Atlanta a few days after the pair play their first-round match at Yankee Stadium, then with a win would meet either Nashville, Orlando, Philly, or RBNY before tangling with a Western foe in New England.
They also lead MLS in goals scored (by seven!) and their only loss since Aug. 28 was in their last match, which meant exactly nothing. Throw in three big scorers, a lot of MLS experience, Arena’s wisdom from playoff matches past, and a show-stopping shotstopper in Matt Turner, and life is good.
But beware that first match against either the Five Stripes or NYCFC, especially if it’s the latter. NYC boasts the second-best expected goal differential in MLS (+22.5), the joint-third best actual goal differential (+20), and the league’s best shots on target per 90 minutes (5.32).
As for Atlanta, the team that won exactly zero times between May 23 and July 30 has lost just twice since the calendar hit August.
Neutral can hitch their wagons to a lot of fun storylines
New England’s a fine one and Arena an American soccer legend, but pardon me if two decades of living in Buffalo while the Patriots stole the soul of American football stops me from endorsing the Revs.
But Philly’s Jim Curtin led the Union into the East’s No. 2 seed despite the club selling Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. Nashville and Walker Zimmerman are a still-new team that refuses to entertain the new team narrative. And NYCFC and Atlanta play fun soccer.
Out in the West, Colorado’s a tremendous pick after making the playoffs for the second-straight season after missing out during five of the previous six seasons. It’s a story of good academy work and smart-buying led by a coach, Robin Fraser, who had to wait for his chance and would win Coach of the Year in any other season (Arena).
But then there’s Seattle, who is always good and has a feel-good comeback story in Jordan Morris (again). All three Cascadia Cup rivals are in the playoffs, including Vancouver’s surprise entrants (a shame there’s only one scenario where they get a home game).