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MLS playoffs 2020: Can Philadelphia Union finish out their fairytale year?

Eighteen teams, 17 matches, 23 days. What promises to be the most unpredictable Major League Soccer playoffs in the 25-year history of America’s top division kicks off Friday night with a pair of play-in games ahead of this weekend’s first round proper. Here’s an idea of what to expect.

Best team to miss the playoffs

Chicago Fire. A bit of a trick question as a record 18 clubs are in this tournament – four more than have ever qualified for a postseason that was bloated to begin with – with eight from the Western Conference and a standard-flouting 10 from the East. If David Beckham’s first-year Inter Miami were good enough to make the cut with a scant 24 points from 23 matches, then it’s hard to muster too much sympathy for the clubs who did even less. Still, an honorable mention here for Chicago, who were expected to end a two-year playoff drought in their first season under head coach Raphael Wicky and sporting director Georg Heitz.

High-seeded team at risk of going out early

Seattle Sounders. The defending MLS Cup champions have a pair of Most Valuable Player candidates in Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro. But a devil of a draw finds the second-seeded Sounders tucked in the same quarter with three of the other top teams in the conference. Even reaching the West finals will require getting through a pair of one-offs against a reinvigorated LAFC (see below) and the Portland Timbers-FC Dallas winner.

Dark horse to win

Los Angeles FC. Bob Bradley’s talent-rich side, beset by injuries for most of the season, is a dark horse by record only. Yes, the No 7 seed will be without Diego Palacios, Jose Cifuentes and golden boot winner Diego Rossi, each of whom tested positive for Covid-19 during the recent international window. But star playmaker Carlos Vela is fit – the Mexico international scored against Portland in his first start since returning – while central midfielder Eduard Atuesta is back in form. The key could be Jesús David Murillo, a late-season acquisition on loan from Independiente Medellín, who’s helped shore up a patchy defense.

Player to watch

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City. The Mexican striker won’t be in the MVP discussion after missing half of the season due to injury and international duty. But Sporting KC have won eight, lost two and drawn one in the 11 games he’s started (with Pulido logging six goals and five assists in those outings). He is listed as week-to-week with a left knee sprain and could miss Sunday’s first-rounder against San Jose Earthquakes, but is bound to make his presence felt by the business end of the tournament.

Alan Pulido

Will this year’s MLS Cup winner have an asterisk?

Depends. As in other sports, the coronavirus pandemic has made for a year unlike any other. The compressed regular season has prevented clubs from deploying their preferred starting lineups each time out, while the regionally based schedules have made for competitive imbalance. Then there’s the playoff format itself: Last year’s switch back to a single-elimination competition was enacted to reward higher-seeded teams by placing more of an emphasis on home-field advantage, but the lack of supporters in most venues could have a reverse effect this time around. Ultimately, the answer will depend on which team lifts the trophy. High achievers like Philadelphia, Toronto, Sporting KC or Seattle will have navigated a season of unprecedented challenges both on and off the pitch. But if a Montreal Impact or Inter Miami catches fire and swoops away with the trophy, it’s a different conversation.

Eastern Conference final

Philadelphia Union over Toronto FC. The highlight of Philly’s eight-game unbeaten run to close out the season was a 5-0 destruction of Toronto at Subaru Park behind a Sergio Santos hat trick. Yes, Greg Vanney’s injury hit club were down several men, including designated players Jozy Altidore and Pablo Piatti, but it was the kind of wire-to-wire beatdown in a measuring stick match that Union fans have been waiting on for years. A fluke it was not. Expect more of the same when the clubs run it back in the East final.

Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro

Western Conference final

Sporting Kansas City over Los Angeles FC. No team will benefit from a more favorable draw than Peter Vermes’ side, who have a fairly clear path to the West final with San Jose in the first round and the Minnesota United-Colorado Rapids winner in the second. That should give them the edge against whichever team emerges from the quarter of death. From there, the attacking verve of Pulido, Johnny Russell and Gadi Kinda (along with home-field advantage) should be enough to see the No 1 seed through to their first MLS Cup final since 2013.

MLS Cup final

Philadelphia Union over Sporting Kansas City. The Union, long at home among the latter class in a league of haves and have-nots, surprised just about everyone by finishing with the best record in MLS despite one of the lowest budgets. Head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright have taken no shortcuts in constructing a bona fide contender from an inspired blend of graduates from their excellent academy (Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie), on-target draft picks (Andre Blake, Jack Elliott and Ray Gaddis), shrewd free-agent signings (Brujo Martinez, Kacper Przybyłko and Kai Wagner) and cost-conscious designated players (Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro). All year long they’ve proven they’re more than the sum of their parts and it will continue to serve them down the final stretch. Look for the Union to see off Sporting KC (and avenge the acid memory of the 2015 US Open Cup final) to become only the second Supporters’ Shield winner in nine years to lift the MLS Cup.

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