As we head into the final stretch of the MLS season, we take a look at the impending race to the MLS Cup Playoffs from the contenders, dark horses, and those on the outside looking in.
There were a lot of complaints about the new MLS Cup Playoffs format (including from us here at Urban Pitch), but one thing that critics may have underestimated was the allure of a thrilling race to the playoffs towards the end of the season. With so many playoff spots up for grabs, there is sure to be a massive sprint to the finish ahead of Decision Day 2023.
Now past the MLS All-Star game and into the Leagues Cup break, it’s the perfect time to take a look at how the playoff push is shaking out. Teams are racing to sign talent before the July transfer window closes, fans are fervently cheering their squads on, and the betting folk are rushing to top-ranked MLS betting sites to place their wagers.
With over half the teams in each conference making the playoffs, no one is truly ever out of contention, and we take a look at the favorites, potential underdogs, and those on the outskirts of playoff-town looking to make a late-season surge.
These are the straight up favorites. Juggernauts of the season thus far, anything less than a deep run into the playoffs would be a disappointment to these clubs.
After a few seasons in the dregs of MLS, FC Cincinnati has finally acclimated to the league. A fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference last year has been followed up by a dominant start to 2023, and Cinci currently has a comfortable eight-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield race.
Luciano Acosta has been a bona fide MVP candidate, and despite a tapered goal output from 2022 breakout star Brandon Vazquez, FC Cincinnati has been absolutely rolling this season.
St Louis City SC
Many (ahem, me) thought that St. Louis City SC’s hot start to their inaugural season was unsustainable, but we’ve been so far proven wrong. In addition to the squad’s suffocating press, St. Louis has displayed an electric offense, and currently has the highest goal total in the Western Conference and best goal differential in the league.
Another recent expansion side that has become a perennial contender, Nashville SC continues to be a formidable MLS side. Hany Mukhtar could be the first back-to-back league MVP, and the first multiple time winner since Preki won his second title 20 years ago. In the Eastern Conference for the first time, the road to the MLS Cup might be heading through Music City this December.
Inconsistent, But Don’t Sleep
Whether it’s a stretch of bad luck, injuries, roster shuffling, or a combination of all three, it seems like these clubs have it in them to make a title run, but just haven’t put it all together yet.
Up until the CONCACAF Champions League final loss, LAFC looked to be far and away the best team in the league. It’s been an up-and-down stretch since, going 3-5-3 since the June 4 loss to Leon. A loss at the Rose Bowl to crosstown rival LA Galaxy didn’t help things, but LAFC still has plenty of talent at its disposal and an aggressive front office that isn’t afraid to make moves. Look for the club to add a No. 9 before the July transfer window ends. A run at a repeat is far from out of the cards for LAFC. Don’t let them surprise you come playoff time.
Following a rare down year in 2022 that had the consolation of a CONCACAF Champions League title and a trip to the Club World Cup, Seattle has looked like a serious MLS Cup threat at times in 2023, but also a bang on average side at others. If the Sounders can maintain form down the stretch, we could see a return to triumph for one of the league’s premier franchises. That’s a pretty big if, however.
In the MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s better to be the hottest team than the best team. If any of these sides get rolling towards the end of the year, it could be dangerous for anyone in their way. Expect some upsets from these sides, or even a run to a title.
Since winning the MLS Cup in 2018, Atlanta United has been on a roller coaster of form. The club has missed out on the playoffs twice in the past three seasons, including last year, and are toiling in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings in 2023. However, Atlanta has shown flashes of the perennial winning side that took the league by storm in 2017. Thiago Almada is a game-changer, and defenses are never safe as long as he’s on the pitch.
They may have been outshined by their in-state rivals, but the Columbus Crew are a legit threat coming out of the East. They are relegated to Dark Horse territory only because they’ve been overshadowed by FC Cincinnati, but anyone who’s paid attention to the league knows that the Crew have been solid all season long. The most potent offense in the league could easily be one of the final few standing in the latter stages of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake still has the worst crest in the league, but they have looked pretty scary on the pitch of late. New DP Chicho Arango has been doing what he does best — score goals — since he joined the team, and RSL could very well be a matchup nightmare for whoever they draw in the playoffs.
On the Outside Looking In
These clubs have been struggling all season, but one reason why we love MLS — no team is ever truly out of the playoff hunt.
Riqui Puig is the best player in the league. Or at least he’s been playing like it. On the July 4 Rose Bowl victory against LAFC, he was nearly untouchable, and looked to be a class above everyone else he shared the pitch with. He followed that up with an absolute banger of a goal against Philadelphia four days later. If Puig can keep this up, the Galaxy might sneak their way into the playoffs despite being at or near the bottom of the West for the majority of the season.
Unlike recent expansion sides like Atlanta, LAFC, and Nashville, Inter Miami have been a pretty big mess throughout their entire existence. Whether it’s trying to sidestep MLS salary cap restrictions (only to still have a mediocre team) or signing dud designated players, there haven’t been a lot of positives for the David Beckham-owned franchise. With Lionel Messi now officially part of the team, it’s going to take a miracle for Inter Miami, who currently sit 12 points out of the final playoff spot, to make the postseason. However, it also took a miracle to land the greatest player of all time, so who knows what’s in the cards.