The short answer: Not always.
As we head into the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs, the Supporters Shield-winning New York Red Bulls and D.C. United are by far the hottest teams in the league, with the Seattle Sounders and Sporting KC right behind. But late-season form isn’t necessarily a sign that a team is always going to make a run to the final.
[PL Preview: Tottenham vs. Manchester City]
Since 2015, only one MLS Cup finalist has finished the final three games of the season with nine points (the 2015 Portland Timbers, eventual MLS Cup champions). At the other end of the spectrum, in 2016, the New York Red Bulls entered the postseason on a 16-game unbeaten run including four-straight wins. They were promptly bounced by the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference semifinals, 3-1 in aggregate. It was a familiar salty feeling for Red Bulls fans.
The last two MLS Cup finalists, Toronto FC and the Sounders, came in with different form each oft he last two seasons. In 2016, both clubs won just one out of their final three matches, though Seattle picked up five wins out of seven in its incredible late-season surge while Toronto appeared to dip down the stretch, winning just one in its last six matches. But both teams turned on the heat in the postseason that year, After winning their respective knockout games, both teams exploded offensively, combining to score 21 goals (14 of them from Toronto) in the next two rounds.
Last season, the form appeared to switch a bit. Seattle closed out the 2017 MLS regular season with two wins in three, but it came right after a five-game winless streak. For Toronto, it won two of its last three and although there was a short dip in September with two defeats, they seemed a team of destiny, going unbeaten between July 5 and September 20.
The past two seasons, the playoff teams with arguably the best late-season form heading into the postseason, the Houston Dynamo (2017) and FC Dallas (2016) failed to make it to the final. The Dynamo were bounced by the Sounders in the conference semifinals while FC Dallas, which won the Supporters Shield in 2016, were also knocked out by the Rave Green.
Even with the historical analysis, there’s always some weight given to a team entering the postseason in the best type of form. Anything can happen over a two-leg series, but it would be hard to bet against D.C. United, the Red Bulls or Sporting KC from making a deep run in the playoffs.