The 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs have arrived, and instead of giving you our thoughts on each team, we decided to reach out to our sister sites around the SB Nation soccer network for insight. We asked three simple questions: why their team will win MLS Cup, why it won’t win MLS Cup, and an under-the-radar X-factor for their team.
Christian Smith, Hudson River Blue
Why NYCFC will win MLS Cup: From top to bottom, they are the most complete side in MLS when healthy. The combination of Alexandru Mitrita, Heber, and Taty Castellanos in the attacking third has been stellar since Heber’s arrival early in the season. Their midfield of playmaker Maxi Moralez, captain Alex Ring, and the often slept on Keaton Parks has been a machine and is adept at both stopping counter-attacks and spurring their own. And their defense — which ideally consists of Maxime Chanot, Alex Callens, Ronald Matarrita, and Anton Tinnerholm — is every bit as stingy as they dynamic. Also, goalkeeper Sean Johnson is a candidate for Goalkeeper of the Year — that speaks for itself.
Even if you are somehow able to compromise someone in the starting XI, there are several options that NYCFC can turn to on the bench, whether it be stud winger Ismael Tajouri-Shradi; versatile midfielders Ebenezer Ofori and Tony Rocha; defensive reinforcement Sebastien Ibeagha; or wonderkid James Sands.
Additionally, City’s ability to maintain a fluid formation — which can go from a 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, or a 5-3-2 — has proven invaluable in high-pressure moments where a change of approach is immediately needed. Even if one point of attack is figured out, another can be thrown at you without a moment’s notice. Many times this year, NYCFC went down early only to thump the opposition in the second half en route to a comfortable victory.
Oh, and they finished first in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing them home-field advantage for both the Eastern Conference Semifinal and Eastern Conference Final. Their record at home this season? 11-1-5 (W-L-D). Good luck!
Why NYCFC won’t win MLS Cup: NYCFC will lose out in the MLS Cup Playoffs because they will become complacent and/or get too cute with pregame tactics, leading to either a shock home loss in regulation or on penalty kicks. Heber and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s health are also in question going into the playoffs and without those two, City’s offense loses some of its bite.
The X-factor: The X-factor that you absolutely must look at is Sands. Before succumbing to injury problems midway through the season, Sands was possibly the best Homegrown Player in the league. His ability to flawlessly play either at center back or the midfield has proven invaluable as NYCFC have experimented with three-man, four-man, and five-man back lines. Despite only being 18 years old, Sands plays with a confidence and flair that is indicative of someone who has been playing professionally for a decade and he is certainly destined for Europe in the next three years.
Matt Ralph, Brotherly Game
Why the Philadelphia Union will win MLS Cup: The Union have shown that they can hang with some of the league’s best teams this season, spent 15 weeks in first place (yes, we know NYCFC had games in hand) and had their best season yet despite not getting the most out of DP signing Marco Fabian, losing Cory Burke to visa issues and Sergio Santos battling injuries. If Fabian can find his form and the team stays healthy, they could find themselves in the MLS Cup, where they would be massive underdogs, which has suited teams from Philadelphia well in the past.
Why the Philadelphia Union won’t win MLS Cup: For as entertaining as this season has been, the Union is still facing an uphill battle against the class of the league with so very little past success or star power to lean on when trying to gut out results. The team’s limited history of “big games” consists of three losses in U.S. Open Cup finals. Should they make a surprise run to the final, it’s hard to imagine them coming out on top in a final at LAFC or Seattle. The likelihood of one of the other teams in the West making it to a final they would get to host seems like an even bigger long shot.
The X-factor: Set pieces have been a struggle this season for the Union with them failing to score off a corner kick all season and bagging just six goals off set pieces. If the Union can find a way to reverse that trend (you’d think they could figure it out with Haris Medunjanin and Jack Elliott linked up) that could end up being the difference in gutting out a win or pushing a game to extra time and penalties. Individual player wise, Sergio Santos and Marco Fabian have both had mostly disappointing seasons but if either or both find their form in the playoffs that could be a major lift to a team that has struggled in recent weeks finding the back of the net.
Benedict Rhodes, Waking the Red
Why Toronto FC will win MLS Cup: At the moment Toronto FC are riding a 10-game unbeaten streak in MLS action. Among those 10 games were draws against NYCFC and LAFC that could have — and perhaps should have — been wins. TFC are as hot as any team in the Eastern Conference right now, so if they perform at the level they’re capable of, they could go all the way.
Why Toronto FC won’t win MLS Cup: Jozy Altidore’s injury problems. In the last game of the season against Columbus, Altidore went down with a quad injury, and was forced to withdraw from USMNT duty. He’s missed a lot of games over the last few years with various injuries, so TFC will be hoping the move was just precautionary as they’re a lot more dangerous with him in the squad. Patrick Mullins is a solid backup, and has been excellent at times this season, but he’s no Jozy Altidore.
The X-factor: The Toronto FC backline will be the difference. Toronto FC have one of the best attacks in the league when everyone is healthy and firing, but keeping the ball out of the back of their own net has been the problem recently. If the center backs in particular (expected to be Chris Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez) play mistake-free, or close to it, TFC will have a decent chance to beat D.C. and have a run at the Cup.
Steven Streff, Black and Red United
Why D.C. United will win MLS Cup: Defense wins championships, and right now, United are playing about as well as a team can defensively. With a Decision Day 0-0 draw against FC Cincinnati (not the greatest result), United tied Atlanta United’s record set earlier in the year of five consecutive shutouts. United have not conceded a goal in 504 minutes, a streak dating back to the first half of a 3-1 loss to the Union on Aug. 24. Since then, United have kept the Montreal Impact, Timbers, Sounders, and Red Bulls all without a goal, to go along with the clean sheet against FCC. Bill Hamid is playing at his best, and the backline is as strong as they’ve been all year, helping United concede the second-fewest goals in the league this year, behind only LAFC. If United can make a run at their fifth MLS Cup, it’ll be on the backs of a strong defense continuing to show up game in and game out.
Why D.C. United won’t win MLS Cup: United were only bested in goals conceded this year by LAFC, but at the other end of the field, only three teams scored fewer goals than the Black-and-Red in 2019. Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta were supposed to continue their stunning form from 2018, and light the league on fire this year. That never happened, as Rooney leads the team in goals and assists, with a modest tally of 11 and 8. The soon-to-depart Rooney has not scored a goal since mid-July and has just one assist during that same stretch. Acosta scored six goals in 2019 but had only two assists, a year after having 17. By the end of the season, the Argentine playmaker fell out of favor with head coach Ben Olsen, relegated to substitute appearances. For a team that is going to have to likely win four games on the road to lift the trophy at the end of the playoffs, it’s hard to see right now where the goals are going to come from, and that’s a huge problem.
The X-factor: Ola Kamara. The Norweigan has missed most of the past month with a hamstring issue, only just returning on Decision Day, when he came off the bench. But his goal against the Red Bulls in August showed just the quality of the former Columbus Crew and Galaxy striker. With two goals to his name, Kamara hasn’t exactly exploded back onto the scene since his return to MLS from China, but Kamara certainly knows his way around the goal in this league. There are a couple of scenarios for his participation against Toronto FC in the first-round playoff game, depending on how Olsen sets his team up. But if United are tied in the second half of a game, and Kamara is on the bench, there are few better options to bring on to change a game with a goal.
ThierrysGotWings, Once A Metro
Why New York Red Bulls will win MLS Cup: This has been quite the off year for RBNY. Toward the end of the regular season, I had doubts that we would even make it to the playoffs. Seeing how we weren’t one of the top teams this season, I think a lot of pressure would be off the team’s back. We would be going into the playoffs as the underdogs with nothing to lose. A group of motivated players with nothing to lose might just be exactly what we need to mount a strong playoff run and possibly win the franchise’s first-ever MLS Cup.
Why the Red Bulls won’t win MLS Cup: Over the years I’ve seen the team blow chances to win the MLS Cup in the most gut-wrenching fashion. It seems as though this year it won’t be as tense considering we aren’t favorites. The main reason that I don’t think we can win MLS Cup is the fact that we won’t have a single home game in the playoffs unless we were to win in Philly and New England were to win in Atlanta. If we were to win MLS Cup, it would most likely be through four away matches.
The X-factor: Defender Kyle Duncan. Over the course of the season, we saw many players fight for a spot at right back, but toward the end of the season we saw Duncan seize the spot. He was introduced back into the starting XI away vs. Portland and had a notable performance scoring a goal and helping to keep a clean sheet. Following that, he contributed to clean sheets in two games vs. Philly and DC. A big part of our drop off this season was our backline losing its strength of the previous year. Ever since Duncan was thrown back into the lineup, it’s looked bolstered and reinvigorated. His recent role in our backline may help us find success in the playoffs.
Jake Catanese, The Bent Musket
Why the New England Revolution will win MLS Cup: Because Major League Soccer is dumb and stupid and it’s the most entertaining league in the world. Because why the heck not?
No seriously, if you’re looking for a dark-horse to pull some upsets, you could do a lot worse than the team that’s lost just three games since May. In a single-elimination format where everything goes to penalties at some point, the Revs have been very resilient in grinding out results the past few weeks in particular. Here’s a list of the teams New England has lost to in the Bruce Arena era: LAFC, Atlanta, and NYCFC*. NYC gets an asterisk because of an overturned VAR red card and the Revs beat them at home a month later.
Gustavo Bou is a menace and has a chance in 2020 to perhaps challenge for the league’s Golden Boot with a full season of play under his belt as New England appears to have found the goal-scoring threat they’ve lacked for so long. Between Bou and playmaker Carles Gil, the Revs finally have a Designated Player tandem that is more on par with how the rest of the league uses their DP slots and I would argue one of the better DP duo’s in the league.
Why the New England Revolution won’t win MLS Cup: Because it’s just too soon. This team is on the rise and making the playoffs this year after a horrendous start is just the first step in the Bruce Arena comeback tour. At the end of the day, they’re still the No. 7 seed and having to win or advance in four road games is going to be very, very hard. If New England was starting anywhere but Atlanta in the first round I’d be far more confident. Can the Revs turnaround the loss from last week and win (or draw) a game at The Benz? Sure, but there’s something about that place I don’t like. The road through the playoffs begins in Atlanta and likely ends against LAFC, the two teams I still think are a class above in MLS right now.
The X-factor: The Revs were without Teal Bunbury for a few games when he pulled up with an injury in late August against Chicago. The next three games against TFC, NYCFC and Orlando City, the Revs looked a bit off, and I think really missed the energy that Bunburry provides when he’s in the lineup. Maybe teams were finally catching on to what Arena and New England have been doing, but the Revs have to claw their way back into a couple of games with some late equalizers and perhaps a few leads might have been held if Bunburry was available and/or fully fit during the stretch run when no one in the East wanted to grab the No. 7 seed.
Also Matt Turner is a god and should win Keeper of the Year. Despite only starting about half the season — for reasons I won’t get into because I’ll only get upset — Turner has managed to save more than eight expected goals according to American Soccer Ananlysis, tops in MLS. In a one-game, loser-goes-home format, having a keeper in top former for 90/120/PKs is a wonderful bonus.