2021 MLS Cup playoffs: Predicting the first-round fixtures

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The Major League Soccer regular season is in the rearview. How will the long break through the international window affect teams as the playoffs kick off? We’ll soon find out.

Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls

If you like defensive futbol, you might be in for a treat with this one. Throughout the season these were two of the stingiest sides in allowing goals. But the pressure and necessity of a single-elimination format might force more risk, and that’s where the Red Bulls’ fast-paced press could benefit the visitors. Neither side is particularly threatening in the final third, but New York caught heat at the right time and crashed the playoff party. Give me momentum over home-field advantage to start the MLS Cup Playoffs. 

BetMGM odds: Union +115, RBNY +240

Prediction: Red Bulls steal one on the road

Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Children’s Mercy Park is certainly not a venue that any Western Conference opponent wants to visit to start the postseason. Peter Vermes’ squad might be getting a major piece back as striker Alan Pulido is “progressing” from a minor knee surgery and has been practicing leading up to the weekend. Add him to the mix with MLS MVP candidate Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell, who has been on an absolute tear lately, this could be one of the strongest sides in the playoffs. 

We can’t forget the way SKC finished the regular season though, losing three straight games and letting the top seed slip out of its grasp. On the other end, Vanni Sartini and the Whitecaps are on a storybook run right now behind the likes of Brian White, Ryan Gauld and Cristian Dajome. Despite not getting results early on, Vancouver was still tough throughout the year and is only progressing. Intensity and energy were injected when Sartini took over in late August and I don’t think they’re ready to slow down just yet. This will probably be the best game of the first round. 

BetMGM odds: Sporting KC -155, Whitecaps +400

Prediction: Caps keep it going with stunner in K.C.

NYCFC vs. Atlanta United

Atlanta United star Josef Martinez and manager Gonzalo Pineda (center) will face New York City FC to open the MLS Cup playoffs. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Atlanta United star Josef Martinez and manager Gonzalo Pineda (center) will face New York City FC to open the MLS Cup playoffs. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Speaking of a new coach turning things around, Gonzalo Pineda did just that in Atlanta. Josef Martinez went from not seeing the pitch to reminding everyone of his goal-scoring prowess. Along with Martinez, the Five Stripes have creatives like Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno that can really impact the game. New York finished the season as the fourth highest-scoring team thanks to Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos and Maxi Moralez pulling the strings in the midfield. The Argentine duo will need to keep that energy up in what should be a fun back-and-forth type of match featuring two teams not scared to attack. 

BetMGM odds: NYCFC -145, Atlanta United +375

Prediction: NYCFC get it done at Yankee Stadium

Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United

The coaching matchup between Gio Savarese and Adrian Heath adds an extra level of excitement to this clash. We know exactly what to expect from these teams, but the real difference is going to be in what adjustments are made to disrupt the flow of the offenses. There are difference-makers on both sides like Sebastian Blanco and Emanuel Reynoso. One of the objectives has to be to not let either get too comfortable. The Timbers have a few more impactful players (Dairon Asprilla, the Chara brothers, Felipe Mora) and are no stranger to a moment of this magnitude. Oh, and Providence Park is a decent little home-field advantage. 

BetMGM odds: Timbers -115, Minnesota United +270

Prediction: Timbers prevail at home

Nashville SC vs. Orlando City

These teams played three times this season and they all ended in draws, which is pretty on brand. Orlando City goalkeeper Pedro Gallese is coming off a massive international break where Peru got six important World Cup qualifying points. The Lions have some quality attacking players in Nani, Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller. 

But this is Nashville we’re talking about. Nobody was better defensively this season. That back line, led by Walker Zimmerman, who is coming off solid performances with the USMNT, does not get scored on much. You know what else they don’t do? Lose at home. They're on an absurd record 18-game unbeaten streak at Nissan Stadium dating all the way back to November 4, 2020. The only concern is there were a lot of draws in that span and they’re going to need more than just MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar to step up. They scored one goal in two playoffs games last year that both went into extra time scoreless. 

BetMGM odds: Nashville -110, Orlando City +300

Prediction: Nashville pulls out a close win

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake

Here we are again — another year and preparing for a Sounders playoff run. Unlike times in the past, this team was just good all season. Many would argue they were the best (sorry, Revs fans). They are indeed the most well-rounded squad from top to bottom. They can score (Raul Ruidiaz), they dominate the midfield (Joao Paulo, Cristian Roldan), and they're a brick wall defensively (Nouhou Tolo, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Xavier Arreaga). In addition they have players like Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro that can plug in depending on injury status. 

Jordan Morris' return has been a boost to the Seattle Sounders, who've won the Western Conference four of the past five seasons. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Jordan Morris' return has been a boost to the Seattle Sounders, who've won the Western Conference four of the past five seasons. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

No disrespect to RSL, but traveling to Seattle isn’t a matchup that benefits them or really any team in the league. I know the Sounders didn’t play great in the final stretch of the season, but if you’re looking for a first-round upset, it won’t be here. 

BetMGM: Sounders -145, RSL +350

Prediction: Seattle cruises to victory

Revs, Rapids sitting comfortably

What New England did this season was historic. Supporters’ Shield, single-season points record, likely MVP (Carles Gil), Coach of the Year (Bruce Arena), and Goalkeeper of the Year (Matt Turner). 

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t matter to anyone in Foxboro at this point. We saw this same exact script play out a couple years ago during LAFC’s historic campaign, all for them to flame out in the conference finals. Those accolades are substantial but the goal is to lift MLS Cup. And if you’re asking yourself if they are good enough to do so … yes, they are. 

This is a golden opportunity for the Revs, one of the original MLS franchises, who have been to the championship game five times without winning once. Next season, some players will be elsewhere and the identity of the team will even be different, as this is the last run with the “crayon flag” logo before the rebrand kicks in. Winning the cup in Foxboro 20 years after losing their first appearance would be some way to be out with the old and in with the new.

Meanwhile, what Robin Fraser's Rapids were able to pull off in the West was completely unexpected. They had an incredible surge in the second half of the season, and as Colorado kept getting overlooked, it was quietly fine-tuning and learning how to deal with adversity. Being able to manage tough moments is something Fraser, who would’ve probably been a lock for Coach of the Year if it wasn’t for Arena, praised his team for learning and acknowledging en route to that top spot. 

They aren’t the best team in the conference, but they fought hard to earn their position. And home-field advantage doesn't get much better than the altitude in Colorado.

BetMGM odds to win MLS Cup: Revs +300, Rapids +625

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