MLS Playoffs 2020: First-Round Odds and Predictions
The MLS Cup Playoffs truly serve as a second season.
Over three weeks, 17 one-legged playoff contests will determine the winner of MLS Cup.
Almost two weeks were in between Decision Day and the start of the playoffs Friday with the Eastern Conference play-in round, but it feels like a much longer layoff because most of the regular-season contests occurred at a rapid-fire pace.
The Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union is the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, while Sporting Kansas City sits on top of the Western Conference.
The top seeds have not experienced a ton of success in the postseason in the last decade. A year ago, neither top seed advanced to MLS Cup and since 2010, the 2011 LA Galaxy and 2017 Toronto FC are the only top seeds to qualify for MLS Cup.
While the regular season is a showcase of the league’s best overall teams, the postseason is more of a reflection of which squad is best equipped for 90- or 120-minute one-off games.
The first round of games kicks off on Saturday afternoon, with Orlando City SC hosting New York City FC.
The Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls follow that match, three games will be played on Sunday and three more will take place on Tuesday.
No. 4 Orlando City vs. No. 5 New York City FC
Date and Time: Saturday, Noon ET, UniMas, TUDN
Odds: Orlando City (+143); NYCFC (+163)
Orlando City’s first-ever playoff match takes place against a team it’s been linked with since entering MLS.
While the Lions have lingered in the bottom of the Eastern Conference since their first MLS season in 2015, NYCFC established itself as one of the premier clubs in the East.
The hiring of manager Oscar Pareja was one of the best league-wide decisions in the offseason, and he has led Orlando into unknown territory.
Orlando’s attacking lineup, led by Nani, boasts a few young stars of the league in Chris Mueller and Daryl Dike, while NYCFC's front-line stars fly under the radar.
Maxi Moralez, Valentin Castellanos and Jesus Medina form one of the most underrated attacks in MLS, combining for 12 goals and nine assists this season.
They have arguably the league’s top defensive midfielder and full back behind them in Alexander Ring and Anton Tinnerholm.
Orlando carries the edge in goal with Peru international Pedro Gallese, who had 52 saves and 20 goals against in regular-season play.
He could be busy in the net on Saturday afternoon. Castellanos led MLS in shots on goal with 34 and Moralez is one year removed from being the league’s assist king.
Prediction: Orlando City 3, NYCFC 2
No. 3 Columbus Crew vs. No. 6 New York Red Bulls
Date and Time: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, UniMas, TUDN
Odds: Columbus (-114); New York Red Bulls (+270)
When the Columbus Crew departed the MLS is Back tournament, they were viewed as the favorite to land the No. 1 seed in the East.
A drop in form combined with injuries to some key players forced the Crew down the third beneath Philadelphia and Toronto.
The dip into third place means the Crew will face a tougher first-round opponent, and one that comes into the postseason in a situation that is unique even for a league that thrives on unexpectedness.
Gerhard Struber will coach his first game for the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. The former Barnsley manager was hired on Oct. 6, but viewed the team from afar while Bradley Carnell took charge on an interim basis for the fired Chris Armas.
In a way, the two-week break allowed Struber plenty of time to implement his style upon the Red Bulls compared to if the match took place days after Decision Day.
However, it is still a tricky situation to manage and could either be a success, or lead to the Crew outplaying the new-look Red Bulls.
Even if the Red Bulls come out packing a punch, the Crew can still gain an advantage through Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan and the always-reliable Gyasi Zardes, whose 12 regular-season goals is tied for second-most in MLS.
If Zelarayan and Zardes are active in the final third, they should provide the Crew with an edge to move on to the conference semifinals.
Prediction: Columbus 2, New York 1
No. 1 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 8 San Jose Earthquakes
Date and Time: Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1
Odds: Sporting Kansas City (-157); San Jose (+370)
The opening game of Sunday’s tripleheader has the potential for chaos.
At one point, the San Jose Earthquakes were viewed as one of the worst teams in MLS, as they lost to Portland and Colorado by a combined 11-1 in two-game span in September.
The Quakes miraculously recovered from that bad patch of form with a three-game winning streak, and then they closed the regular season with three wins and a draw from six matches.
Matias Almeyda's men could pose a challenge to Sporting Kansas City, who has been one of the most consistent franchises in the Western Conference.
Peter Vermes is one of the most experienced managers in MLS and he will have his team more than prepared to deal with the pressure of San Jose’s man-marking system.
The key to Sporting KC’s success should be Gadi Kinda, who flew under the radar as one of the best offseason additions. The midfielder is important in both aspects of the game and could be the key to absorbing San Jose’s pressure.
Sporting KC owns three wins in its last four games with San Jose. Both teams scored in all four contests and at least five goals were netted in three of them.
Prediction: Sporting Kansas City 3, San Jose 1
No. 4 Minnesota United vs. No. 5 Colorado Rapids
Date and Time: Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Odds: Minnesota (+114); Colorado (+205)
The Colorado Rapids should be happy just to be playing in the postseason.
Robin Fraser’s side was shut down due to positive COVID-19 tests for close to a month and it had to fight for a playoff position in the final few matchdays.
Colorado benefited from points per game being used to determine the playoff standings. It earned 28 points from a league-low 18 regular-season games. Had the top eight in the West been determined by total points, the Rapids would have been the eighth seed.
Minnesota United has controlled the matches with the Rapids at home recently. The Loons won the affairs at Allianz Field in 2019 and 2020. They also earned a 2-2 draw with Colorado on July 22 during the MLS is Back tournament.
Adrian Heath’s side earned the No. 4 seed in the West by winning three of its final four games, which was part of an eight-game unbeaten streak.
In the four wins during that span, the Loons produced multiple goals on three occasions. They also produced five clean sheets in the final eight games.
While Colorado’s story is nice, Minnesota is the better team and should control the play through its defense.
Prediction: Minnesota 2, Colorado 0
No. 3 Portland Timbers vs. No. 6 FC Dallas
Date and Time: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN
Odds: Portland (+100); FC Dallas (+250)
Portland is one of two teams that can earn its second trophy of 2020 by hoisting MLS Cup.
The MLS is Back champion navigated a tough regional schedule in the Western Conference to take third behind Sporting KC and Seattle.
The Timbers have a depleted attack due to the season-ending injuries to Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, but they still have Diego Valeri and Jeremy Ebobisse leading the line.
Giovanni Savarese’s team stumbled to the finish with a loss to Colorado and a draw with LAFC. FC Dallas experienced a similar disappointment on Decision Day in a 3-0 loss to Minnesota.
Portland should be the pick based off its previous tournament experience and 5-4-2 home record. The Timbers become an even more enticing pick when you look at FC Dallas’ meager 1-5-3 road record.
Prediction: Portland 2, FC Dallas 0
No. 2 Toronto FC vs. No. 7 Nashville SC
Date and Time: Tuesday, 6 p.m. ET, FS1
Tuesday's pair of East first-round games feature two very different types of matchups.
Toronto FC and Nashville SC will meet for the first time ever to start the night in East Hartford, Connecticut.
The Reds are the established power in the East with three MLS Cup appearances in the last four years, all of which were against the Seattle Sounders.
Most Valuable Player favorite Alejandro Pozuelo is one of the many players in the TFC side with countless playoff experience.
If Pozuelo, Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio control the midfield battle, like they have in many past playoff games, the Reds should cruise past the expansion side.
Nashville has been one of the biggest surprises in 2020. The first-year side made some smart acquisitions by landing Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman and midfielder Dax McCarty, who scored one of the three goals on Friday night against Inter Miami.
Zimmerman and McCarty need to turn in massive performances up the spine of Nashville to pull off an upset.
Gary Smith's side may have an edge entering Tuesday with a playoff game under its belt, but beating one of the most experienced playoff squads is still a tall task.
Prediction: Toronto FC 2, Nashville SC 1.
No. 1 Philadelphia Union vs. No. 8 New England Revolution
Date and Time: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Philadelphia and New England will face each other for the sixth time in 2020 on Tuesday night.
The first meeting occurred in the knockout round of the MLS is Back tournament and then they played four more times in the regular season, including on Decision Day.
The Union have four wins and a draw in those contests and enter the postseason with a 9-0-0 home record.
Philadelphia's last three victories over New England came by two goals or fewer, and two of those results occurred with Carles Gil out of the lineup due to an injury.
With Gil healthy and improving his on-field chemistry with Gustavo Bou, the Revs have an outside chance to pull off the upset.
Mark McKenzie and Jakob Glesnes have become one of the best center-back pairings in the league for a Philadelphia team that conceded 20 goals in regular-season play.
However, the familiarity New England's attackers have with the tendencies of the Union's defenders could help in breaking them down on a few attacking moves. The Revs will also need to keep an eye on Brenden Aaronson. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder finished the regular season with four goals and seven assists as the centerpiece of the highest-scoring offense in the league, enough to earn him a spot in the MLS Best XI.
At some point New England is going to beat Philadelphia, though, and with top seeds traditionally not faring well in the MLS Cup Playoffs, this is the matchup where the upset could happen.
Prediction: New England 2, Philadelphia 1.
No. 2 Seattle Sounders vs. No. 7 Los Angeles FC
Date and Time: Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Odds: Seattle (+118); LAFC (+195)
The first-round finale had the makings of a Western Conference final until the reality of our current world struck.
LAFC will be missing four players on Tuesday night due to positive COVID-19 tests. Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, who is viewed as one of the best young attackers in MLS, will both miss the game after testing positive while on international duty with Uruguay. Jose Cifentues and Diego Palacios will also miss the match.
That leaves the Black-and-Gold at a significant disadvantage against a full-strength Sounders attack with Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris in the fold.
If Ruidiaz, Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro cause problems to the LAFC defense, the visitors may not have enough firepower across the board to keep up.
But do not feel too bad for LAFC since Carlos Vela is still expected to be in the lineup, as well as MLS legend Bradley Wright-Phillips.
However, there is a smaller margin of error for LAFC’s attack since they can’t have a revolving door of world-class talent up top.
In the last four meetings between the two clubs, the winner has scored at least three goals.
Prediction: Seattle 3, LAFC 1
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
Statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.
Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook.