Knockout Round Preview

Playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs?

It’s hard to believe that an entire MLS season has come and gone, but here we are in the 2017 postseason. The season is over for ten teams, but the other twelve in theory could still be playing for up to a month and a half until MLS Cup on December 9. It all begins tonight with the first of four knockout round games.

Best game of the knockout round: Atlanta United FC v. Columbus Crew SC – Thursday, October 26, 7:00PM, ET, ESPN2 and UniMás

This one definitely has the most intrigue surrounding the game. Atlanta United FC head into their first ever playoff match after a very successful inaugural campaign. They finished fourth in the East with 55 points, good enough to earn a home playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They managed to outpace their expected goal differential (xGD) all year and finished at +30, second only to Toronto FC and 16 better than the next best team in terms of GD, the Chicago Fire. Atlanta ended the season in a thrilling 2-2 draw with Toronto FC, a game that left many hoping we’d get to see a two-legged playoff matchup between the two clubs.

The Columbus Crew might have something to say about that, though. The Crew finished fifth in the East at 54 points, just one point behind their hosts ATLUTD. The Crew also ended their season on a 2-2 draw, but they did so on the road against #2 seed NYCFC. Columbus ended the season on a ten-game unbeaten streak, and striker Ola Kamara and midfielder Federico Higuain are in the top five in MLS in goals and assists respectively. The problem for the Crew is they’ve faced Atlanta twice this year already—once at home and once on the road—and they lost both games by a combined score of 5-1. The biggest thing the Crew have going for them is playoff experience. Can a team of experienced veterans put aside all the off-field issues surrounding the Crew and steal a road game against a young, dynamic, inexperienced playoff team? It will be tough, but never say never.

Worst game of the knockout round: Vancouver Whitecaps FC v. San Jose Earthquakes – Wednesday, October 25, 10:30PM ET, UniMás

These two teams ended their seasons on pretty much opposite notes. Vancouver went into Decision Day atop the West. If they had won or drew on the road at Portland, they’d be sitting at home reading this right now instead of getting ready to play. (Okay, maybe they wouldn’t be reading this, but they would be sitting at home.) Instead, Vancouver lost 2-1 to the Timbers, causing them to tumble to third in the West. For as much disappointment as Whitecaps fans were feeling on Decision Day, Earthquakes fans were feeling equal parts elation. San Jose needed just about every possible second in the season to secure a playoff spot, but that they did. Marco Ureña’s 90+3’ stoppage time goal gave the Quakes a late winner over MNUFC, pushing them just over FC Dallas in the standings and sneaking the struggling San Jose side into the postseason.

That’s probably where the happiness stops for San Jose fans, though. Yes, the Earthquakes deserve credit for doing what they need to do to make it into the playoffs. But, it’s clear San Jose is the worst team in the 2017 postseason, and it’s not close. There is only one playoff team with a negative goal differential. You guessed it… it’s the San Jose Earthquakes. Not only do they have a negative goal differential, the have a NEGATIVE TWENTY ONE goal differential. Only three teams have a worse GD than the Earthquakes: D.C. United, Minnesota United FC and the LA Galaxy. Those three teams are three of the four worst teams in MLS. The Earthquakes have the worst defense and worst offense of any team in the playoffs. That’s not exactly a winning combination.

How exactly did the Quakes pull this off with such a poor defense and lackluster offense? They rode a hot start to 2017 throughout the year, and despite their under .500 record of 13-14-7, they were able to do juuust enough at home to earn the sixth and final spot in a relatively weak Western Conference. Vancouver’s defense is nothing to write home about either, having allowed 49 goals on the year, which is good enough for third worst of all playoff teams. But their offense was decent, they played fine at home and their road form was above average. Essentially, Vancouver was pretty good, but not great, at a lot of things. That should be more than enough to get them past San Jose at home in the knockout round, but it’ll make things a bit tougher when they face a stronger Seattle or Portland side in the next round. 

The rest:

Wednesday, October 25

Chicago Fire v. New York Red Bulls – 8:30PM ET, Fox Sports 1 and UniMás

Last year Chicago was dead last in MLS at 31 points. The year before they finished dead last in MLS at 30 points. The year before that they weren’t dead last, but they weren’t much higher. This was a team that needed significant change, and that’s what the Fire got. They underwent pretty much an entire organizational overhaul this year, adding tons of new players including Dax McCarty, Juninho, Bastian Schweinsteiger and most importantly Golden Boot winner and likely Newcomer of the Year Nemajna Nikolic. All that change pushed the Fire from last in MLS to third in a difficult Eastern Conference, earning them their first playoff berth since 2012 and only their second postseason appearance in the last eight years.

Unlike the Fire, the Red Bulls have been no stranger to the MLS Cup Playoffs as of late. RBNY have made the postseason for eight straight years now. Also unlike the Fire, the Red Bulls have not won an MLS Cup. As good as they’ve been—they’ve finished first in the East four times in the last eight years—the Red Bulls have never been able to even make an MLS Cup Finals, let alone win one. They’ve won the Supporters’ Shield twice (2013 and 2016), but they’ve never won a cup, either MLS Cup or U.S. Open Cup. Unfortunately for RBNY fans, I’m not expecting that to change this year.

The Red Bulls have experience on their side. Their leader Sacha Kljestan has been here before, as has goalkeeper Joel Robles and forward Bradley Wright-Phillips. Defender Aurelien Collin has been battling injuries for much of the season, but he knows what it takes to win an MLS Cup as he did with Sporting Kansas City in 2013, and he can be an emotional leader and veteran presence in the locker room. RBNY also have a good amount of talented youth on the roster, most notably 18-year-old defender Tyler Adams and 24-year-old midfielder Sean Davis. They’re a good team, but Chicago is better.

The Fire are 12-2-3 at home, and as great of leaders as Kljestan, Robles and Wright-Phillips may be, it’s hard to match the veteran presence of a World Cup champion like Basti. Nikolic and Accam are two of the most threatening attackers in MLS. Chicago’s defense has been solid, but it’s their offense that truly pushes them to a higher level than the Red Bulls. Jesse Marsch has his club heading in the right direction, but I don’t think this is the year RBNY gets it done.

Thursday, October 26

Houston Dynamo v. Sporting Kansas City – 8:00PM ET, UniMás

If it weren’t for San Jose being one of the worst teams to ever make the MLS playoffs, this would be the worst game of the week, hands down. Just a few weeks ago, Sporting KC looked like a virtual lock for a first round bye. They had those magical words “games in hand” on their side. They seemed to get through August without going through that typical SKC end of summer lull. Unfortunately, it appears that lull just reared its ugly head a couple months late this year. Not only did Sporting KC not earn that first round bye they’ve been talking about since before the season started, they find themselves travelling during the knockout round for the fourth year in a row after earning only two points in their last five matches. SKC fans need not be reminded how this story has ended each of the past three years.

Due to SKC’s October collapse, we’ll now see Houston and Sporting KC face off for the third time in two weeks. Houston beat Sporting KC 2-1 at BBVA on October 11 and were able to earn a hard fought 0-0 draw at Children’s Mercy Park on October 15. Sporting KC statistically dominated the game in Kansas City in every category except for the score line, which pretty much sums up how Kansas City’s season has gone post-Open Cup victory. Sporting KC’s offense has been mediocre at best as of late as they haven’t scored more than one goal in their five games since September 24. To make matters worse, starting goalkeeper Tim Melia will be out once again with a hamstring injury, leaving journeyman keeper Andrew Dykstra in goal for SKC.

Houston is not without injuries, either. AJ DeLaGarza tore his ACL in the Dynamo’s season finale, a huge blow to Houston. AJ was an emotional leader in the locker room and brought a championship pedigree to the Dynamo from his eight years with the LA Galaxy. AJ’s injury leaves Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera with the less-than-ideal options of starting Jalil Anibaba or Kevin Garcia at RB or moving Adolfo Machado to RB and starting Philippe Senderos at CB. None of this will matter, though, if SKC can’t solve its offensive problems. Peter Vermes tore into his team’s effort after their Sunday loss to RSL, saying, “If you play like that, you’ll be out in the first round of the playoffs.” Vermes is exactly right. I’m just not sure four days is enough time for SKC to make the adjustments they need. Combine that with Houston’s 12-1-4 home record this year, and it looks like Thursday could be a sad night for the people of Kansas City.

Oh by the way, the last two teams to beat SKC in the knockout round went on to win MLS Cup. If the Dynamo do take down Sporting KC, will history repeat itself in 2017? Probably not, to be honest. (Sorry Houston fans.)

Hot take of the week: Columbus gives Atlanta United a scare. I’m not going so far as to say that the Crew will beat Atlanta necessarily, because I think Atlanta’s home field advantage truly is that good. But, many ATLUTD fans are already looking past Columbus to TFC. I think the grueling MLS season and playoff pressure will start to catch up with Atlanta, and if they do lose to the Crew I won’t be entirely shocked.

GIF of the week: Guest GIF appearance this week. If I were a betting man, I’d say this isn’t the only celebratory alcoholic beverage Giovinco and TFC will be drinking. They should have the champagne bottles chilling for December 9.