Predicting the first round matches including some big surprises

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The two Pacific Northwest teams (Seattle and Portland) that have dominated the MLS Cup playoffs for nearly a decade did not qualify this season. Last year’s top seeds (New England and Colorado) also failed to secure a spot. Of this year’s 14 teams, half were not in the playoffs last season. This league is often impossible to predict, but we’ll try to understand it anyway.

All odds via BetMGM.

New York Red Bulls (+100) vs. FC Cincinnati (+240)

Finally it happened. After three years of bottom-place finish, Cincy finally broke the wooden spoon curse and qualified for the first time ever. More impressive is the way orange and blue got here. The trio of Brandon Vazquez, Luciano Acosta and Brenner (46 goals combined) were responsible for leading this team throughout the season and they scored all five goals in their Decisive Day win to settle that ticket.

Cincy was the fourth-highest scoring team in MLS this season but faces one of the best defensive positions against a Red Bulls squad that is elite in its own right. New York has made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons and remains one of those teams that can complicate the race east. Lewis Morgan’s off-season acquisition proved his clutch as he led the Red Bulls by 14 goals.

The smart pick here would probably be New York slowing down Cincy’s powerful attack, but this has been a dream season for Pat Noonan’s side and it doesn’t seem right that it’s ending after just one playoff game.

Prediction: Cincinnati finds a way into the Red Bull Arena.

LA Galaxy (-115) vs. Nashville SC (+260)

Perhaps the acquisitions of Kevin Cabral and Douglas Costa haven’t quite paid off yet, but the Galaxy blew it out of the park with the summer signings of Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman. These two players have completely transformed a midfield that was so important to Greg Vanney, and star forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has benefited greatly. Uruguayan defender Martín Cáceres has also ensured the defensive stability that has been sought for years. The result was that LA went from a playoff team on the cusp of a first round game. I still believe their best shot is to put Dejan Joveljić at the top alongside Chicharito, but Vanney is unlikely to roll with that.

It will be the Galaxy’s first home playoff game since 2016, and the potential of a second-round matchup against rivals LAFC is the prize – which only adds to the intrigue.

Nashville, led by Golden Boot winner and likely MVP Hany Mukhtar, is not shying away from the potential of having to beat both LA teams in one run to the cup. They’re a team that can cause a lot of problems transitioning when the likes of Randall Leal, Dax McCarty, Aníbal Godoy and Teal Bunbury support Mukhtar.

Hany Mukhtar is hoping to guide Nashville SC past the Los Angeles Galaxy en route to another LA showdown. (Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I think it comes down to who defends better and I would give the slight advantage to a proven line of defense led by Walker Zimmerman, although not as strong as in previous years. This will probably be the best matchup of the opening round, filled with a bunch of big names in a real toss-up.

Prediction: Nashville sneaks out of Carson by a narrow margin.

Austin FC (-115) vs. Real Salt Lake (+275)

Like last year, RSL snuck into the playoffs again. Unlike last year, don’t expect them to shock opponents en route to the conference finals with this wonderful run.

They don’t have enough to go head-to-head with this eager Austin team led by MVP candidate Sebastián Driussi. This is their first ever trip to the playoffs, which will raise some skepticism about Josh Wolff’s roster given how volatile they were looking to end the season. But the fact of the matter is, Austin are just a better team overall and home field advantage will really shine at Q2 Stadium as that raucous fan base should orchestrate the energy in a much-anticipated home playoff game that sold out in just minutes.

The stage is set for Austin FC to prove themselves worthy of being a championship contender, as they appeared to be in August after beating LAFC 4-1.

Prediction: Easy work in ATX for the locals.

CF Montreal (-130) vs. Orlando City (+320)

It almost seems like forever since Orlando won the US Open Cup. Since then, the Lions have been very inconsistent all the way, but managed to take that final playoff spot, thanks in large part to Facundo Torres fulfilling everything they expected. While the dramatic Decision Day win over Columbus stands out, we can’t forget how miserable they looked in an embarrassing 4-1 win over Miami just days earlier. They played three straight playoff opponents in their last six regular-season games and lost all three, outplaying them 11-3 in those games.

There should be some faith in head coach Oscar Pareja simply because he’s been able to change the fortunes of this franchise over the years, but they’ll be up against a different beast in Montreal. His counterpart Wilfried Nancy is (with strong arguments) in the running for coach of the year.

Montreal’s 20 wins this season were the second-highest behind only LAFC. Romell Quioto and Kei Kamara were an unexpected spark, with Djordje Mihailovic again playing a key role. You can go through the list and say nice things about Alistair Johnston, Ismaël Koné, or really anyone else on the list. This is one of the most balanced teams and that is all thanks to the work Nancy has put in. These players are all there and executing his approach in a special way, which has made for a memorable season. This is probably the least under the radar squad that will shock and make a push for some people.

Prognosis: Montreal looks strong in the big home win.

New York City FC (-165) vs. Inter Miami (+400)

You’ll be hard pressed to find a better storyline in MLS this season than Inter Miami. The odds were slim due to the penalties stemming from the signing of Blaise Matuidi, star DP Gonzalo Higuaín had to be on the bench for a while and a plethora of player movements both in and out. But somehow, head coach Phil Neville and athletic director Chris Henderson made the right moves and decisions to take this team from one that people were counting out to the playoffs.

Can Gonzalo Higuaín push strong underdogs Inter Miami CF over NYCFC? (Photo by Lauren Sopourn/Getty Images)

Higuaín enters the postseason as the league’s hottest player, having scored 14 goals in his last 16 games. He’s also retiring after this season, so you can safely bet the Argentine will play with extra motivation. Alejandro Pozuelo was the real key to the Heron’s success but injury worries for him and Leonardo Campana make things difficult.

They come up against the defending champions and although Taty Castellanos or head coach Ronny Deila are no longer with them, the experience from last year’s run will mean a lot for a core group of players who remain. This game will be played at Citi Field because Yankee Stadium is occupied by…the Yankees. Higuain’s illustrious career can’t possibly end on a baseball field, can there?

Prediction: Miami manages to steal one in New York.

FC Dallas (+100) vs. Minnesota United (+240)

While some teams are heading into the playoff fight with momentum, Minnesota is far from it. The Loons have only managed four out of a possible 21 points in their last seven games. They have lost four straight road games and have not recorded a win as a guest since August 14. And all despite the fact that Emanuel Reynoso, one of the top players in MLS, proved over the summer when MNUFC looked like a title contender.

The Dallas trio of Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola and Alan Velasco should be enough to put them ahead. They’ll also be relying on a defensive unit that has conceded the second fewest goals in the league this year. Give Nico Estévez plenty of props for finishing third in his first season at the top. Now it’s time to see what his team can do when it counts.

Prognosis: FC Dallas cruises past Minnesota.

Leader LAFC, Union goodbye

Similar to 2019, the black and gold won the Supporters’ Shield and are enjoy the first free week. The potential of El Trafico The fact that it is LAFC’s first playoff game this year is also reminiscent of this season. But fans are certainly hoping for two things: that they’ve learned from their mistakes and that the galaxy loses. LAFC’s record at Banc of California Stadium remains impeccable and the venue is sure to rock regardless of opposition. But there are always doubts as to whether time off actually benefits or harms teams.

For Steve Cherundolo and this star-studded squad, really nailing down what his best starting XI is is probably a plus. Is Gareth Bale really not a starter or will someone like Cristian ‘Chicho’ Arango be relegated to the bench to make way for the Welsh star to prepare for the World Cup? This is certainly the most talented team in the group, but that’s not necessarily a good thing in elimination games. Whatever doubts people may have about LAFC, it stems from the fact that they may have too many star players to juggle.

In case you haven’t noticed, Philly is just all-around good. Most goals in offense, tightest defence, most likely goalkeeper of the year – wherever you look on this list, they’re spot on. They’ve only lost five games this season. When they won, they often won big.

Jim Curtain and his team know what to do at this point in the season to make a run. And Philly’s chances have to be liked against either the Red Bulls or FC Cincinnati as a first opponent. They ran East all season and don’t expect that to let up now. 12 wins and zero losses at Subaru Park where they will play all their games and has the potential to host the MLS Cup depending on what happens with LAFC. The Union is the clear favorite for many reasons.



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