MLS playoffs Round 1 preview and predictions

The most dramatic Decision Day in Major League Soccer history is behind us, and while we’re sad to see the season end for 13 unlucky clubs (and their even unluckier fans), our enthusiasm for the beginning of the MLS Cup playoffs knows no bounds. The New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids will enjoy a bye in Round 1’s opening salvos, leaving the Nos. 2 through 7 seeds in both the Eastern and Western conferences to kick off the postseason beginning on Saturday.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Caitlin Murray, Dan Hajducky, Danny Guerra and Austin Lindberg preview all six Round 1 matchups, predicting which clubs will be moving on to the conference semifinals and whose players should begin booking travel arrangements for holidays in far-flung locales during the all-too-short offseason.

Jump to: Philadelphia-Red Bulls | Nashville-Orlando | NYCFC-Atlanta | Seattle-RSL | Sporting KC-Vancouver | Portland-Minnesota

Eastern Conference

2. Philadelphia Union vs. 7. New York Red Bulls (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET)

Two stingy defenses duking it out on the Delaware, just like George Washington intended. Their three previous meetings yielded a 1-0 Philadelphia win and two 1-1 draws, so the nets at Subaru Park should be spared too much action. Philadelphia allowed only 35 goals all year, while New York conceded 33, two of the four fewest totals in the entire league. With 2021 Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Andre Blake in net, Philadelphia has lost only once to the boys from Harrison since 2018. — Hajducky

Predictions:

The Red Bulls seem to be getting the hang of Gerhard Struber’s high-pressing tactics, but the Union usually find a way to get a result. — Carlisle

This match has 1-0 written all over it, either way. A Kacper Przybylko goal feels like a fitting way for the Union to advance in the MLS playoff for just the second time ever. — Bonagura

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After years of incremental progression under coach Jim Curtin as a team greater than the sum of its parts, the Union are due to finally make a deep playoff run. — Murray

Logic sometimes gets thrown to the wind when one team’s riding a hot streak. The Red Bulls lost one of their past 12 league matches going back to mid-September. If they patiently weather the storm and capitalize on a well-timed counter, they could stun Philly. Red Bulls in a nail-biter. — Hajducky

Like RBNY, the Union have rebounded nicely from a summer dip to finish strong. In a showcase of great keepers Blake and Carlos Coronel, Philly can count on its elimination-match experience from the CONCACAF Champions League run and should sweat out a one-goal win. — Guerra

New York has scored more than one goal just once in its past 11 matches. That doesn’t bode well going into a contest against Blake, one of the league’s premier goalkeepers. — Lindberg

3. Nashville SC vs. 6. Orlando City (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET)

The three clashes this season between these two teams have ended in draws (including a controversial result on Halloween) — so finally one side will come out on top.

Nashville, led by MLS Defender of the Year candidate Walker Zimmerman, will have to keep Orlando’s offensive threats of Daryl Dike, Mauricio Pereyra and Nani at bay. But Nashville needs to limit the fouls, as three of Orlando’s four goals scored against Nashville have come from a set piece or penalty.

Nashville will hope MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar (16 goals, 12 assists) can produce enough magic to keep the Tennessee side rolling into the conference semis. It hasn’t lost at Nissan Stadium all season (8 wins, 9 draws) and keeper Joe Willis finished with 13 clean sheets (T-1st in MLS). — Guerra

Predictions:

The teams met three times during the regular season and drew on every occasion, so expect this encounter to be a tight affair. Nashville tied for the league’s stingiest defense during the regular season and has MVP candidate Mukhtar in attack. — Carlisle

Orlando City has the talent to make life difficult for Nashville, but after the teams drew three times since August, the league’s best defense will stand tall at home. — Bonagura

Nashville has been a picture of consistency this season, losing just four times, the least in MLS. Orlando has been, well, the opposite, running hot and cold through the year. Nashville is the favorite, especially if Mukhtar balls out like we’ve seen before. — Murray

Orlando City limped to the playoffs, while Nashville, in its second MLS season, grit-and-grinded its way to a third-place finish in the East. Nashville barely concedes (tied for fewest goals allowed in the league) and is undefeated at home in 2021 — but that includes nine ties. If any match is bound for a PK shootout, it’s this one. Nashville backstop Willis was one of two MLS keepers with 100-plus saves and a sub-1.00 goals against average. Advantage Nashville. — Hajducky

Dike finished the season strong (seven goals in nine games), but expect Mukhtar and Nashville’s midfield to control the game, keep its home record streak intact and advance. — Guerra

There’s been so little to separate these two teams down the stretch: Each took 13 points from its final 10 matches, a points-per-game pace that would fall below the playoff line if continued all season. I’ll give the nod to Nashville and the league’s joint-best defense. — Lindberg

4. New York City FC vs. 5. Atlanta United (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, stream live on ABC)

Both teams finished the regular season strong, with the Blues unbeaten in their last five, while the Five Stripes did one better, going 3-0-3. But the fact that this game will be in Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC went 6-1-2, looms large. The Cityzens love playing in the cozy confines, where it has outscored opponents 25-4. The loss of midfielder Keaton Parks to a blood clot in a leg will weigh heavily, especially with James Sands filling in at right-back. How much the supply line to Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos will be impacted remains to be seen.

Atlanta is certainly capable of springing an upset, especially with midseason arrival Luiz Araujo augmenting an attack already boasting Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno and Josef Martinez. Defender Miles Robinson should be plenty rested after getting sent off late against Mexico and avoiding a trip to Jamaica with the United States national team. — Carlisle

Predictions:

NYCFC have as big of a home-field advantage as any team in the league, while Atlanta has struggled to beat other teams in the playoffs. — Carlisle

Few teams play better at home than NYCFC, which owns a league-best plus-24 goal differential on home turf. — Bonagura

Although Atlanta has managed to undo some of the damage from sacked coach Gabriel Heinze, the Five Stripes have struggled against playoff-caliber teams all year, even amid the strides of new manager Gonzalo Pineda. NYCFC, meanwhile, is one of the best possession teams in MLS, which will only make it even harder for Atlanta. — Murray

The career series is essentially dead even, as were their 2021s, both finishing with 51 points, with NYCFC getting the higher seed on goal differential. But the form has been divergent of late: NYCFC won only four of its last 14 league matches, while Atlanta — on its third head coach of 2021 — lost only two of its past 18. The game is in the Bronx, but look for Martinez to reiterate that no one has scored more MLS goals since 2018. — Hajducky

Robinson and Alan Franco will do enough to limit Castellanos and an NYCFC side that has some injury issues. Despite the narrow field that will give NYCFC an advantage, one of Atlanta’s offensive stars will rise to the big-stage occasion to pull off the road upset. — Guerra

Martinez is perhaps the most established and celebrated forward in these playoffs, but it’s hard to imagine him overshadowing NYCFC’s Golden Boot-winning front man, Castellanos. — Lindberg

Western Conference

2. Seattle Sounders vs. 7. Real Salt Lake (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET)

Whether through regular-season qualification or a playoff victory, the Seattle Sounders have never failed to reach the conference semifinals since their debut MLS season in 2009. To make it 13 for 13, the Sounders have to get through a Real Salt Lake team that was one of the league’s best attacking teams, featuring Damir Kreilach (16 goals) and Albert Rusnak (11 goals). No team in the league allowed fewer goals this season than Seattle, making this a strength vs. strength matchup to look forward to. It’ll also be interesting to see how much Jordan Morris factors into coach Brian Schmetzer’s plan, after making two substitute appearances in Seattle’s final two games of the regular season. — Bonagura

Predictions:

Seattle has been in scuffle mode lately, but with Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro back on the field, the Sounders should have enough to get by RSL. — Carlisle

Picking against Seattle in the first round of the MLS playoffs — regardless of the opponent — doesn’t make much sense. And in this case, the Sounders benefit from the expertise of assistant coach Freddy Juarez, who spent most the season as RSL’s head coach. — Bonagura

The Sounders of the past month haven’t looked like the utterly dominant Sounders we’ve seen the rest of the year, but they will surely find their mojo again. This is the Seattle club that has reached four of the past five MLS Cups, overcoming plenty of setbacks along the way, while RSL barely even squeaked into this year’s playoffs. — Murray

Real Salt Lake nabbing the last playoff spot on a 95th-minute volley on the final day of the season was tremendous, but Seattle was tied for the second-best goal differential in the league and it has won two of the previous five MLS Cups. The dream stops here and the Sounders breeze through. — Hajducky

A six-game winless streak raises some eyebrows, but Seattle’s defensive unit will ensure Salt Lake won’t recreate any late drama. Ruidiaz stayed in the Golden Boot chase all season despite injuries and Peru duty, and will deliver again. — Guerra

Put aside Seattle’s history as a perennial playoff performer, and just think about the course the club has been on since the appointment of Coach Schmetzer in 2016. Now recall that RSL hasn’t had a full-time manager since Juarez walked out in August to become an assistant … to Schmetzer in Seattle. — Lindberg

3. Sporting Kansas City vs. 6. Vancouver Whitecaps (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET)

Alan Pulido hasn’t featured since Oct. 3, following the Mexico forward undergoing knee surgery that kept him out the remainder of the season. He returned to training last Thursday, but will he be ready to go? Without Pulido, SKC averaged 1.33 goals per game down the stretch, but with him, Sporting averaged two a game.

While Vancouver’s goals-against figures are rather pedestrian, the difference between expected goals against and goals against is second widest in the league. Much of that can be attributed to goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, whose 7.47 goals prevented (expected goals on target minus goals conceded) is third best in MLS.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest this game will hinge on Pulido’s participation. — Lindberg

Predictions:

SKC didn’t impress down the stretch, losing three in a row, but the good news is that Peter Vermes should have something close to his first-choice lineup — including the front trio of Pulido, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell — available. — Carlisle

Sporting Kansas City may be the better seed, the favorite and playing at home, but it lost three straight to end the regular season, while Vancouver has lost just twice since mid-July. — Bonagura

This is the first time these two sides will face off in an MLS playoffs, and it’s hard to bet against Vermes and SKC. The midseason coaching change putting Vanni Sartini in charge in Vancouver has certainly made the Whitecaps a better, more entertaining side, but their defensive vulnerability is a concern. — Murray

Between Vancouver winning only two away matches all season and Sporting KC boasting two attacking players with 15-plus goals and at least eight assists (Salloi and Russell), this has the makings of a drubbing. Look for Vermes’ squad to glide through to the conference semis. — Hajducky

Can’t deny Salloi’s excellence this season for SKC, but Vancouver is playing confidently behind Ryan Gauld and Brian White. Each side has defensive struggles, so expect a shootout and for the Caps to stay hot. — Guerra

In the past month, the Whitecaps have beaten playoff outfits Sporting, Portland and Minnesota, and earned a draw with Seattle. I’ll take the in-form side with the hot goalkeeper. — Lindberg

4. Portland Timbers vs. 5. Minnesota United (Sunday, 5:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN)

The Loons have seemingly had the Timbers’ number this season, winning both of their meetings home and away — but notably, those wins came before the return of mercurial Timbers midfielder Sebastian Blanco, who helped usher in a 10-game unbeaten stretch to turn the Timbers’ season around. If Blanco plays well Sunday, he will probably be the best player on the field in Providence Park. Bolstered by the surprise breakout season of Dairon Asprilla — previously nicknamed “Mr. November” for a reason — the Timbers have an opportunity to win in style against a gritty, hard-to-beat Minnesota side. — Murray

Predictions:

Portland was streaky over the course of the season, and while the return of Blanco has been a big boost, questions remain about the team’s defense. Among playoff teams only RSL conceded more goals. The Loons have the weapons to make the Timbers pay through Robin Lod and Emanuel Reynoso, and they have playoff experience too. — Carlisle

With three straight wins by at least two goals to end the regular season, Portland is playing well at the right time. Minnesota won both regular-season games between the two teams, but they haven’t played since late July. — Bonagura

The Timbers have too many difference-makers on their roster, from Blanco and Asprilla to the Chara brothers and an off-the-bench Diego Valeri, and Portland is simply in much better form than Minnesota. — Murray

To paraphrase a younger, better Kanye: Home-field advantage is alive — I feel it breathin’. Minnesota has had Portland’s number of late, winning each of their past three matches, but Portland is unstoppable on home turf: Only New England was better at home this season, owing huge to the Timbers Army and that historic (recently — devastatingly — concluded) 163-match sellout streak. — Hajducky

This game looks to be the most unpredictable. The Timbers have any number of players who can get you a game-winner, as do the Loons. Let’s go with the home team emerging despite an expected valiant effort from Reynoso. — Guerra

The Loons have appeared out of sorts for much of the season, finding ways to earn results from matches in which they’ve looked decidedly second best, and are the only team in the playoffs with a negative goal differential. — Lindberg

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