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. (If you missed the Eastern Conference portion, click here.)
Alicia Rodriguez, Angels On Parade
Why LAFC will win MLS Cup: They just wrapped up the best regular season in MLS history, and that has to count for something, right? LAFC have a terrific combination of a true team ethos, playing as one well-drilled machine, and a player capable of taking games himself in Carlos Vela, coming off the best season of his career. The starting XI is the envy of most of MLS, and Bob Bradley has done well to raise the game of literally every player who’s gotten major minutes this year. All in all, they enter as the favorite for MLS and rightly so. Now it’s time to see if they can make it happen.
Why LAFC won’t win MLS Cup: Teams that successfully pull off a Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double are rare, happening just six times in league history, by my quick count. They may be the best team of the regular season, but with just three games to win MLS Cup one bad night or fluke goal can ruin everything in the playoffs. LAFC admittedly struggled in the final six weeks or so of the season, although by “struggled” I mean they just didn’t win a lot, losing just once in their low point. And for the next game, LAFC probably got the worst draw they could have hoped for, facing the winner of Minnesota United-LA Galaxy, the last two teams to beat them this season and the only two Western Conference opponents they didn’t beat this year.
The X-factor: Coming off winning the Supporters’ Shield there are few surprises and a major target on their backs, but the playoff run could come down to goalkeeping. Bradley has needed to rotate between Tyler Miller and Pablo Sisniega, some out of necessity and some because each ‘keeper has run hot and cold during the season. Bradley will likely go with Miller for the playoffs, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he pulled a surprise and put in Sisniega. Regardless, both players are capable of standing on their heads or of making a mistake, so that could be the difference between MLS Cup or bust.
Jeremiah Oshan, Sounder At Heart
Why the Sounders will win MLS Cup: No team in the playoffs is more experienced with the postseason than the Sounders, who have now been here for a record 11 straight seasons. They’ve also been to two of the past three finals and even have a title to show for it. This is an experienced squad who has been here before. This year, they’ve shown an ability to win close games like no one else -- their 12 one-goal wins is the most in the league -- and their once leaky defense has been significantly improved over the past four games.
Why the Sounders won’t win MLS Cup: This is a team that has fluctuated between being solid defensively, but struggled to score and one that has scored almost at will, but been unable to slow teams down. Right now, they’re more of the former. Even the normally reliable Raul Ruidiaz has gone cold, failing to score in his past five games. This is a team that has been stuck in neutral for six months and may never hit its stride.
The X-factor: The one player on the roster who could change things is Victor Rodriguez. When the Spanish midfielder is healthy, he’s among the most talented players in the league. But he’s missed half of the Sounders’ games this year and is once again nursing an injury.
Lucas Muller, RSL Soapbox
Why Real Salt Lake will win MLS Cup: Because they’re a group of highly talented but underrated players. They’ve shown they can complete with anyone, including knocking LAFC out of the playoffs in 2018 and beating the defending MLS champs earlier this season. When RSL won the Cup in ’09, they were the underdog. That’s a mentality that never fully left the team, even when they were one of the best sides in MLS from 2010-2013. The firing of Mike Petke, who was apparently a fairly toxic coach, gives the team a new manager bump, even if it’s with an interim manager in Freddy Juarez (who seems to be well liked by all). With Juarez’s soft-spoken but tactically-minded leadership, the team will pull out several upsets to win it all.
Why Real Salt Lake won’t win MLS Cup: RSL doesn’t have a center forward that’s been playing consistently. We’ve seen Damir Kreilach take up the center forward spot, which he plays as more of a false 9, but Sam Johnson is getting fewer and fewer minutes. The Liberian striker did well the first half of the season, but has fallen off in the last few months, and going into the playoffs is not a good time for an attacker to have a dry spell. The team is also a very inexpensive squad and, well, money gets results in this business and owner Dell Loy Hansen hasn’t been willing to spend much in the way of players.
The X-factor: The attacking chemistry is one of the biggest factors that can work in Real’s favor. The team has a good number of talented wingers in Bofo Saucedo, Corey Baird, Joao Plata, and Jefferson Savarino. We see a good deal of change on the left wing, but Save has the right locked down and is often the team’s best player. When he and the other winger, and there’s a lot of rotation at left wing, connect well, we see some incredible stuff that often wins games.
Jacob Schneider, E Pluribus Loonum
Why Minnesota United will win MLS Cup: There isn’t a single superstar on this team. It’s a group of soccer players who are a brand, they’re a single entity if that makes sense. We all thought Quintero was going to be our superstar this season, but he hasn’t been. We can’t rely on a Zlatan, a Vela or a Josef. We don’t have it. We have grit, determination, motivation and most of all, this is a family. Minnesota United players are some of the closest players I’ve ever seen live and work together. It’s an inspirational group of guys. From a playing standpoint though, if we can get through the first two rounds of the playoffs, I personally think we’ve already cleared the two best in the West, and two of the top three in the league (not counting us). If they show up determined on Sunday, there’s nothing they can or can’t do.
Why Minnesota United won’t win MLS Cup: Well, it’s because we have the hardest draw of any other team in the first two rounds. We have the Galaxy in the first round; I don’t think anyone wants playoff Pavon or playoff Zlatan. Even though we’re at home, this is a team built entirely of superstars in the attacking third. Heck, even Alessandrini is back now. It’s a scary attack. The Loons also don’t have a reliable goal scorer, which isn’t great. Mason Toye was hot over the summer but has since cooled. Angelo Rodriguez has never been hot and our wingers create they don’t finish. Goals are going to haver to come on the counter or from set pieces for Minnesota, cause frankly, their attackers haven’t been getting the job done as of late. The main reason why we won’t win is because of our draw, I don’t see us beating both teams from LA; however, I think we fall on the road in the second round. I think we beat the Galaxy.
The X-factor: Hassani Dotson. The kid only scores bangers. No, I mean literally. He literally only scores bangers. The kid is a versatile midfielder and fullback who is the definition of a ball-winning #6. I have a feeling Adrian Heath rolls out with a 4-3-3 on Sunday with Dotson starting, but then again, we can never really predict Heath. Dotson will win balls on either side of the half; he’s full of energy and full of motivation to be the best player he can be. If there’s an X factor, it’s him. He changes the way we play, and frankly, he’s our best shot on the counter as of late. Watch him boss the midfield and tear up Pavon, it’s gonna happen.
Mike Gray, LAG Confidential
Why the LA Galaxy will win MLS Cup: No one can stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and that was before Cristian Pavón’s arrival transformed the Galaxy attack. Ibra struck the back of the net 14 times in Pavon’s 11 appearances to pull within a hair of the Golden Boot race. With teams forced to concentrate on Zlatan and Pavón, their teammates have stepped up: Uriel Antuna has four goals and three assists with the Argentine international in the lineup.
A superstar who’s won silverware at every stop of his illustrious career, Zlatan is obviously motivated to win MLS Cup. The big Swede lives for the big occasion and the team usually follows suit.
It helps LA can score away from Dignity Health Sports Park: Only once in their past five road matches have they failed to score at least twice.
Why the LA Galaxy won’t win MLS Cup: The Galaxy back line is woefully inconsistent. Far too many times this season LA have hit the self-destruct button from poor defending and an overzealous desire to win matches. Part of this falls on the game plan of manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but the fullback positions are a weak spot. You can’t win a MLS Cup if you can’t defend.
The X-factor: Romain Alessandrini. The technical staff have been careful to let Alessandrini return at his own pace, and a few small setbacks stalled a mid-September return. From all accounts however, the Designated Player is fit and raring to go on Sunday. If LA needs a goal, expect the Frenchman to make a late appearance.
Sam Svilar, Stumptown Footy
Why the Portland Timbers will win MLS Cup: They have Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Diego Chara. The talent of those three players alone may be enough for the Timbers to lift the trophy in November. When Valeri and Blanco are clicking, Portland’s attack in transition is truly something to behold. Add in Chara as his regular “all-consuming destroyer of attacker’s hopes and dreams” self, and Portland has the top-end talent to win the whole thing. Plus, Dairon Asprilla realized it’s playoff season, so that means he’s bound to score an outrageous goal or two.
Why the Portland Timbers won’t win MLS Cup: They can’t figure out how to break anyone down. The Timbers dragged themselves to the finish line of the regular season, almost squandering a home-heavy second half of the season. A big reason for that is during that slate of games teams would come to Providence Park, defend deep, put numbers behind the ball, dare Portland to break them down, and then... watch as Portland couldn’t do it. The Timbers weren’t able to crack how to score on a team that is defensively compact, and regularly resorted to pumping in fruitless cross after fruitless cross in possession. The odds of them successfully chasing a result if they go down a goal are not good.
The X-factor: Jorge Moreira. The new Timbers right back has the ability to take your breath away one moment, and then make you lose your lunch the next. He has shown this season that he can be a dynamic and decisive attacking presence when he bombs forward. But he can also become a huge defensive liability, with either his positioning or hit-or-miss one-on-one defending. Portland’s fortunes may rest on how well he can effectively balance his responsibilities on both ends of the pitch.
Drew Epperley, Big D Soccer
Why FC Dallas will win MLS Cup: The lack of experience at this stage may be tough to overcome but this group has a fearless approach to their game right now that could catch some folks on the right night. The recent games at home have shown that this offense can come alive at any point and be pretty lethal in the process. Also, this group had a winning record against the other playoff teams going 5-4-3, with wins in Salt Lake and draws against LAFC and Seattle (on the road).
Why FC Dallas won’t win MLS Cup: Two reasons, the road form they’ve had this season and their lack of attack away from home. Both are big reasons to be pessimistic about their chances in the playoffs since they’ll basically have to be on the road for every game should they continue to advance. September’s game on the road showed that this group can get exposed defensively too often, while the attack goes bone-dry. Neither are a good mixture for a deep playoff run.
The X-factor: As odd as it may be, if Luchi Gonzalez opts to bring Paxton Pomykal off the bench in any series, it could be the boost the team needs late in games. The team seems to do better when the game isn’t all on his shoulders to carry right now.