MLS Playoff Preview


NYCFC will face Atlanta United in the first round of the MLS playoffs on Sunday (courtesy of Twitter).

The 2021 Major League Soccer regular season has come to a close and the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs will commence on Saturday November 20, 2021.

The New England Revolution headlined the regular season with 73 points, the most by any team in MLS history. The Revs will have the benefit of home field advantage for the duration of the postseason as the MLS originals seek their third major trophy in their 26 year history and first MLS cup.

The top seven teams in both the Eastern and Western Conferences qualified for the playoffs with the top team in each conference receiving a bye into the second round. The teams will now play single elimination matches in their conference until the East and West champions face off in the final. New England comfortably topped the East while the Colorado Rapids narrowly earned the first place position in the West after picking up a win on Decision Day, the final matchday of the regular season, to edge out the Seattle Sounders and Sporting KC. 

Both New York clubs qualified for the playoffs, with New York City FC finishing fourth in the East and hosting fifth seed Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium on Sunday Nov. 21 while the seventh seed New York Red Bulls will travel to Subaru Park to face the second seed Philadelphia Union, whom they lost to 4–3 in an epic playoff match back in 2019. The Red Bulls narrowly qualified for the playoffs, going on an excellent run in their final twelve matches, picking up 25 points in that span, including two wins against their crosstown rival. 

Should NYCFC win against Atlanta, they will face New England in the second round, who they beat in season play on Aug. 28. The Cityzens’ possession style of play matches up very nicely against Atlanta’s and New England’s counter-attacking approaches. With Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos entering the postseason with a four game goal streak, scoring six in those matches, they pose a serious threat as a dark horse candidate to make a deep run. 

Similarly, the Red Bulls and Nashville SC enter the playoffs tied with the fewest goals conceded and most clean sheets. Should the Red Bulls pull off an upset against Philadelphia and if Nashville takes care of Orlando City in the first round, those two will clash in the second round. Upsets are to be expected in this Eastern Conference as only six points separate the teams between second and seventh. Despite New England’s historical season, Supporters’ Shield winners have only gone on to win the MLS Cup seven times in the league’s 25 previous seasons. 

The race for the West’s top spot was highly contested between Colorado, Seattle and Kansas City, who have just three points to separate them. Each team are heavy favorites to reach the final, but the other four teams have been impressive in their own rights. The fourth seed Portland Timbers and fifth seed Minnesota United in particular look to spoil the party. The Vancouver Whitecaps catapulted into sixth place behind a spectacular second half run after acquiring midfielder Ryan Gauld from Portuguese club Farense and Brian White from the Red Bulls. They could very well use their newfound attacking power and regular season momentum to go on a run. 

Seventh place Real Salt Lake returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2019 after forward Damir Kreilach scored a 95th minute winner on Decision Day. His goal eliminated the Los Angeles Galaxy from qualifying for the playoffs, leaving all three Californian clubs — LAFC, LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes — and all three Texan clubs — Austin FC, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo — on the sidelines for the postseason.

Seattle held the West’s top spot for the majority of the season and went to both the 2019 and 2020 MLS Cup Final, winning the first year. They have been the most dominant team in the MLS playoffs for the last five years, going to four of the last five finals. With forward Jordan Morris returning from injury, they should be the most dangerous team in the West again.

However, the MLS’ unpredictability is what makes the playoffs so special. With the league’s parity once again on display for the 2021 season, realistically, any of the 14 qualified teams could make a serious push for the cup. Many players will be returning from playing in World Cup Qualifiers during the weeklong FIFA international break, more than preparing the league’s best for playoff stakes.