ProSoccerTalk’s MLS playoff picks and predictions

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Major League Soccer’s 18th playoff season begins Wednesday. ProSoccerTalk’s writers have a few thoughts on how they might play out:

Who will come out of the East?

Liviu Bird: The New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have proven that they are actual contenders this year. They have only briefly relinquished first place and deserved to win the Supporters’ Shield.

Kyle Bonn: Sporting KC

With the Red Bulls getting all the attention, Sporting KC quietly won six of their last eight matches, conceding just four goals. For all the goals NY is scoring, KC have it in them to be the team that stops the NY hot streak.

Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

I know New York is the hot pick, but SKC has the better defense and better goalkeeper. Plus, lessons learned over the last two years – when good Sporting KC teams got so close – will pay off now.

source:  Richard Farley: New York Red Bulls

As much as I want to pick Kansas City, I think New York has enough to defend that number one spot.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

Expect Sporting KC and New York to battle it out for the Eastern Conference, but New York gets it done.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

I love to watch Sporting KC play and think a potential matchup against NYRB in the Conference Semifinals will be an absolute blockbuster. But as long as the Red Bull’s play up to their potential, they are the superior team.

Who will come out of the West?

Liviu Bird: Portland Timbers

My pick is based on their strong season from start to finish. The turnaround Caleb Porter has engineered is nothing short of sensational, and they are the most consistent team in the league.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

LA did just enough to get in, and I’ll take experience over youth in crunch time any day of the week.

Steve Davis: L.A. Galaxy

The asterisk here is whether Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez are healthy. If they are, the Galaxy and all that collective playoff knowledge will be hard to beat. Plus, Robbie Keane is the best player in the MLS post-season.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

As hard-to-call as the West looks, I’ll take the proven commodity.

Joe Prince-Wright: Portland

I think the Timbers will get it done. Of course they’ve tailed off a bit, but I think they’ll come up big when it matters.

Mike Prindiville: Real Salt Lake

In a wide open and unpredictable West, those who grind the hardest, prevail.

Where we would PREFER to see MLS Cup (based on “best atmosphere,” or “not LA again,” or whatever):

Liviu Bird: Somewhere in Cascadia

Not just because it’s the shortest trip for me — the atmosphere here is the best in the country, and if you want to advertise MLS to the rest of the world, the Timbers Army is probably the best conduit.

Kyle Bonn: New York

What better way to complete the redemption story than in your own house? New York proved this weekend the stadium and atmosphere have what it takes.

source:  Steve Davis: New York

The Big Apple? As Christmas approaches? I mean, it’s so darned romantic! Plus, the Red Bulls were Supporters Shield winners, so there is a beautiful symmetry to it … in addition to all those pretty lights!

Richard Farley: Seattle

It’s all about the numbers. Also, Seattle’s not a bad place to throw a party.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York

It’s about time the Red Bulls won MLS Cup, and I think a sold out RBA would be a great advert for MLS.

Mike Prindiville: New York

A number of other stadiums are considered better atmospheres but to have Red Bull Arena finally filled to capacity and rocking-out for a final would be a thing of beauty.

Where are the dark horse favorites?

Liviu Bird: Seattle

It’s hard to call them dark horses because of the star power on the team, but Seattle could still make a run at the Cup. The Sounders have proven they can beat teams 5-0, be beaten 5-0, and everything in between. Anything can happen in the MLS playoffs.

Kyle Bonn: Portland

It’s not often first-place teams fall under the “dark horse” category, but with everyone off the bandwagon thanks to their poor(er) form down the stretch, they qualify. First order of business in playoffs: don’t lose. They don’t.

Steve Davis: Real Salt Lake

Alvaro Saborio’s scoring rate (52 goals in 97 MLS matches) is prodigious. Nick Rimando is tops in goal. Kyle Beckerman commands that strong midfield and some of those “kids” are going to be something else.  So remind me again why we aren’t talking about this team a little more?

Richard Farley: Portland

Only five losses all year.

Joe Prince-Wright: Colorado Rapids

On their day they can beat anyone in the league. So many good young players, and having come up against Dillon Powers and Tony Cascio in their college days, I know how good those guys are.

Mike Prindiville: Colorado Rapids

Probably the darkest of all dark horses but with Seattle’s poor form, Portland’s playoff inexperience and a little bit of luck, it could happen.

The 18th MLS Cup champion will be …

Liviu Bird: Portland

It’s Portland, for all the reasons I listed above. One final nugget: on only five occasions in 2013 have the Timbers failed to get at least one point on the road and all three at home — and that’s a formula for playoff success if I’ve ever heard one.

Kyle Bonn: LA Galaxy

It’s that experience thing again. So hard to pick against. I know, I know. I hate myself for going here too, but with having put New York out in the semifinals, the Galaxy get it done.

source:  Steve Davis: Sporting Kansas City

The league’s best road team (8-5-4 away in 2013) won’t mind playing in New York, so they’ll get through to the final … and they’ll host MLS Cup in KC.

Richard Farley: LA Galaxy

In the absence of a truly convincing alternative, I’m picking three-peat.

Joe Prince-Wright: New York Red Bulls

I just don’t think the big boys out West, Seattle, LA, and RSL, are in top form heading into the playoffs and the Red Bulls are flying.

Mike Prindiville: New York Red Bulls

The time has come. Mike Petke’s passion and dedication is what this squad has been in dire need of for a long time. Most importantly, this is a team that’s peaking at the right time. The stars have aligned in New York.

(MORE: Are there too many playoff teams?)

(MORE: MLS playoff schedule and TV times)

(MORE: Top story lines for the MLS playoffs)

(MORE: MLS Week in Review for Round 35)

(MORE: MLS Eastern Conference playoffs are set)

(MORE: MLS Western Conference playoffs are set)

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE

Petkovic: Time to “take Switzerland seriously” after Brazil draw

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While much of the talk about Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Brazil and Switzerland will focus on the former, the Swiss would like their share of credit for frustrating — and matching — one of a handful of favorites to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic is chief among those who believe it’s time those on the outside “start taking notice of us and taking us seriously.” As for the insinuations that his side roughed up Neymar, who suffered 10 of the 19 fouls committed by Switzerland, most of them were “very clean” — quotes from the BBC:

“Sometimes if there is a lack of recognition that is a pity because we have played very well. We showed and demonstrated that this team always believes in itself and can achieve results.

“Most of the duels (with Neymar) were won in a very clean way. It was one of the key ingredients to neutralize Neymar.”

“I’m very proud and pleased with the discipline with the way we played. We worked collectively and cohesively.”

“When we are able to play forward and press higher up we were able to do it well and it is an excellent starting position for the rest of our group matches.

“We had real difficulties in the first 40 minutes, I said ‘let’s remain calm, focused and believe in ourselves, push up higher up the pitch and create opportunities to score.'”

Having secured a point in far and away their toughest group game, Switzerland now have eminently winnable games against Serbia (Friday) and Costa Rica (Wednesday, June 27) remaining. Four points from those two games would just about guarantee progression to the knockout rounds.