The 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs field is set. With the league going to a single-elimination format for every round of the postseason, the working theory is that the better team will prevail more frequently, thus adding a bit more weight to pre-playoff Power Rankings.
With the higher seeds set to host the one-off matchups, don’t be surprised to see the below rankings read a lot like the final regular-season standings…
LAFC v. the field
1. Los Angeles FC
No matter how you wish to frame any discussion around this year’s playoffs, you have to first ask yourself, “Is it even worth talking about a team not named LAFC?” There’s a case to be made that, no, it’s not worth taking about any other team, but for the sake of this exercise we’ll say that there is. Very quickly, the case for LAFC:
- Single-season MLS points record (72)
- MVP-to-be Carlos Vela’s single-season goals record (34 – in a 34-game season; he played in 31) and 15 assists
- Single-season goals scored record (85 – tied for most)
- Fewest goals conceded (37)
- +48 goal differential (2nd-best is +21, followed by +15 and +9)
Simply put, LAFC’s level of dominance rewrote the MLS history book from front to back. If they don’t win MLS Cup, it’ll mostly likely be because they found a (silly) way to beat themselves.
Strong upset contenders
2. Atlanta United
3. New York City FC
4. Seattle Sounders
Atlanta spent all season lying in the weeds, perhaps realizing the Supporters’ Shield was an unrealistic target given LAFC’s pace, before hitting their stride in the final two months of the regular season (eight wins from their final 12 games). What’s more frightening, Josef Martinez is on fire after bagging an astounding 22 goals during his 15-game goalscoring streak from mid-May to mid-September. Assuming he’s healthy (he missed games no. 32 and 33 before returning on Sunday), there’s no one in the Eastern Conference who can take over a game — or an entire postseason — like he can.
There’s not a more tactically flexible team in MLS than NYCFC, who’ll spent most of the season morphing from a three-man backline to a four-man unit and vice versa. After jostling with Philadelphia and Atlanta most of the summer, Domenec Torrent’s side finished nine and six points clear, respectively. With just one loss in their last 11 games, NYCFC, though devoid of the global superstars they’ve been known to recruit, might just be the most in-form team at the right time of year.
The wild, wild cards
5. Philadelphia Union
6. LA Galaxy
7. Toronto FC
8. Real Salt Lake
9. Portland Timbers
No team in MLS history has ever entered the playoffs with a greater range of outcomes than the 2019 Galaxy. Given the fact they’re yet to lose to LAFC in two seasons of meetings, they might be the most likely (if undeserving) side to slay the giant. If they can get by Minnesota in the first round (a big if, away from home), they’ll get their chance in the next round. Oh, the things Zlatan Ibrahimovic would do to be at the center of that conflict. Sure, the Galaxy concede the most goals of any playoff team this year, but between Ibrahimovic and Cristian Pavon they might actually have the best 1-2 punch in all of MLS right now. In a knockout scenario, they only need one moment each to make their mark.
10 games unbeaten to finish the regular, but only four of them wins — are Toronto FC in great form or just a so-so run? There’s something to be said of securing results down the stretch, but drawing Orlando, Columbus and Chicago in that same period is hardly a ringing endorsement. Then there’s the quad injury to Jozy Altidore, suffered on the final day of the season. He’ll have an MRI and almost certainly skip USMNT camp in hopes of being ready in two weeks, but given his injury history it seems a long shot. Like most of the East’s non-Atlanta teams, TFC’s best path forward might just be to play for clean sheets and take very few risks, and hope.
Long odds worth a look
10. Minnesota United
11. D.C. United
12. New England Revolution
How did Minnesota, the West’s fourth-place team, end up down here? Their 3W-3D-3L record down the stretch of the regular season was hardly impressive and left more questions than answers. Osvaldo Alonso’s influence has been plain as day in recent weeks; same goes for Ike Opara, who’s been excellent and thoroughly deserving of Defender of the Year should he win it again. They’re great, but who else has shown they’re cut from the same cloth when the games get tense and tight? As stated above, the Galaxy could no-show or score six at Allianz Field, and neither outcome would have a whole lot to do with Minnesota’s performance on the night. Adrian Heath’s team got the worst draw of all the home sides in the first round, and their reward for a potential win is to go play the other team from LA. Woof.
Long odds for a reason
13. FC Dallas
14. New York Red Bulls
One of these teams will reach the conference finals, because this is MLS at the end of the day.