MLS Playoff thoughts
Playoff thoughts: Cincy built from Philly & faces Philly, Mihailovic impresses, RBNY identity, El Traffic & more
October 20, 2022
THE MLS PLAYOFFS are now heading into the Conference semifinals and just eight teams remain. The first round gave us a few good games, a few duds, but no real surprises. It was a good thing for the league and the fans that essentially the eight best teams in the league remain.
Here are some thoughts on the playoffs so far – both looking back at the first round and looking ahead to the second round. Finally, I’ll cap it off with some predictions.
As a housekeeping note, we’ll provide thoughts on all of the upcoming playoff games in separate articles.
Philadelphia – Cincinnati is intriguing
With all eyes on Thursday’s “El Traffico” at 10pm EST, the earlier game on Thursday at 8pm EST between Philadelphia and Cincinnati could be even better.
For one, Cincinnati has built itself into one of the most promising teams in the league right now. After three terrible seasons where they won the “Wooden Spoon” each time, Cincinnati is now a formidable team (now and in the future) based on two men it brought over from the Philadelphia Union.
Pat Noonan has been one of the best coaches this season in MLS for Cincinnati and he was a former Union assistant to Jim Curtin. Chris Albright is the general manager at Cincinnati and he last worked at Philadelphia.
Then you have the differences between the teams. Philadelphia has the league’s best defense while Cincinnati has a front three (Brandon Vazquez, Brenner, and Luciano Acosta) that is as good as any in the league. Cincinnati’s knock is that it didn’t have a sufficient defense to compete at a high level. While it’s defense still lags, the midseason addition of Matt Miazga was huge.
Philadelphia is still a far more complete team than Cincinnati ahead of Thursday’s game but Cincinnati is in a position where it could pull off an upset. If its offense clicks, if it takes advantage of opportunities, the talent is there for an upset.
The playoffs have been very bitter for Philadelphia the past two seasons. In 2020, the Union won the Supporters Shield but were bounced in their first postseason game. Then in 2021, the team was in great position to compete for a spot in MLS Cup but then missed nine players due to COVID in the Conference final. That resulted in a 2-1 loss to NYCFC. While Philadelphia didn’t win the Shield this year, this is their best team yet.
It should be a good one.
Red Bulls need answers
The Red Bulls fell to Cincinnati over the weekend 2-1 and it hardly should come as any surprise. While the Red Bulls have been remarkably effective in making the playoffs over the 13 seasons, there is a huge gap between where they are now and being the type of team who can reasonably be expected to win a playoff game.
RBNY has a very young team and was by far the youngest team in the playoffs. But the whole purpose of the organization looks to be signing (either from within or from other teams) young players they can play for a season or two and then sell.
There is nothing wrong with being a selling team, but the Red Bulls are doing so while sacrificing the opportunity to be good. Philadelphia has great young players but also balances it out with having a great winning team. Selling players before they can help you win is not going to be a formula that cultivates an identity in New York. Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga were sold after they won Supporters Shields and looked like they were among the best in the league.
From the early parts of the season, it was obvious the team needed a real forward. But while some teams went out and added players like Mikael Uhre , Cucho Hernandez, or Christian Benteke, the Red Bulls added Elias Manoel.
Now this offseason there are rumors Aaron Long could leave. Players like Cristian Casseres and John Tolkin could be the next players sold. Then they need a forward. They need Luquinas to be the player he was in the first half of the season.
But without identifying who they want to be, it’s tough for Red Bull fans to feel good about where they are going.
FC Dallas surges into Texas Derby
FC Dallas travels within the state to face Austin FC for its conference semifinal game on Sunday.
Despite playing on the road, it’s hard not to like Dallas right now and where it stands heading into this game. The win over Minnesota United on Tuesday gave the team a ton of momentum and confidence heading into Sunday’s game in the Texas capital.
The winner in the final round of the shootout. Dallas paid a fortune for Velasco (who I thought was exceptional in Argentina as a teenager last season) and, I didn’t think he’d attempt this at this stage. pic.twitter.com/9rPMb4TBWe— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 18, 2022
With the hiring of Nico Estevez, FC Dallas improved 20 points (33 to 55 points) from last season where they were 15 points out of the playoffs. Even with the loss of Ricardo Pepi, the attacking trio of Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola, and Alan Velasco increased the goal production. But the team’s defense has been so much better, and the midfield is more organized. The team is so much better. It was good to see that rewarded with much better crowds in Frisco.
Montreal impresses vs. Orlando
While not getting the attention for Philadelphia, Montreal has had a great season when everyone is healthy. Wilfried Nancy has this team playing very well and the 2-0 win over Orlando in the first round was a statement. They had 60% possession and Orlando didn’t even generate a single dangerous chance in the game.
From an American perspective, Djordje Mihailovic is a real player to watch now. He is playing with a true purpose ahead of his move to AZ Alkmaar in January. In this game, he had the assist that broke the game open in the 68th minute and then drew a stoppage time penalty – which he converted.
Djordje Mihailovic: raw # for Montréal in 2-0 win vs Orlando— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 17, 2022
1 goal (penalty he drew))
3/3 accurate crosses
3 chances created
4/7 grouse duels won
- MOTM outing
- the assist:
The game against NYCFC is going to be revealing. NYCFC played its single best game of the season against Inter Miami since Castellanos and Deila left for Europe. Nick Cushing is an interim manager but he is getting his team to gradually playing better.
Montreal has been the better team all season but it is about momentum right now. Plus, NYCFC simply has the experience now of the MLS playoffs. Against Miami they played like they had been there before. The looked very comfortable in a single elimination game. That veteran experience matters so much in the playoffs. Guys like Moralez, Herber, and Rodriguez all took their games to another level.
Montreal should win but the margin between success and failure is very thin.
Words on the departed
After spending some space writing about the New York Red Bulls, it is only fair to write a little about the other teams who saw their seasons end in the first round.
Inter Miami: While Miami was decisively outplayed in the playoff loss to NYCFC, this was a very good season for Miami. They earned a playoff spot for a reason and that is important to change the narrative around the club. While Higuain is retiring, Miami has a good core moving forward. Most importantly, Phil Neville looks more like the right person for the job as opposed to the person who fans suggested only got the job because he is friends with David Beckham.
Minnesota United: It was an inconsistent season for Minnesota United and they nearly collapsed out of the playoffs at the end of the season. But they made it and they have one of the league’s best players in Emmanuel Reynoso but the knock on this team is that they’re overly reliant on Reynoso. There is a lot of truth to that and the team can only go so far with him doing as much work as he has been doing. They’re decent, but they need work to be a team that can win post season games.
Real Salt Lake: The loss to Austin FC stings because RSL outperformed their ability all season long. Pablo Mastroeni has done a great job. But now that the new ownership has had a season to take root, expectations should be higher. They need a more dependable forward and they should bring back Cordova. The big question will be Mastroeni getting the most out of his talent but that is tough to do on a regular basis.
Orlando City SC: There should be a good amount of roster turnover and the team is good up the spine. But the question will be developing from within. Oscar Pareja oversaw a great academy at FC Dallas but the homegrowns have yet to take root in Orlando and some good ones are on the way. Can Pareja make the most of that? That’s important. If a DP becomes open, how much will the team spend? This is plenty of room for optimism in Orlando if some good decisions are made.
Nashville SC: The formula for Nashville in 2022 was build on Hany Mukhtar (the likely 2022 MVP) and Walker Zimmerman (the 2021 Defender of the Year). Those players set a high floor but for big ceiling club, the team needs work on adding another forward, youth in the midfield, and perhaps a better set of partners for Walker Zimmerman. It’s an older team and they need a lot of turnover – but they should make the playoffs again in 2023.
The league got what it wanted with an El Traffico derby for the second round as the Galaxy will visit LAFC on Thursday. Along with Seattle – Portland, these two rivalries make up the best games MLS has to offer in terms of intensity, dislike between the teams, and overall passion for the game.
The NYCFC – RBNY game doesn’t mean a lot to enough people. Montreal and Toronto don’t have each other circled on their calendars. Same with the derbies in Florida, Texas, or RSL vs. Colorado in the Rockies.
2??4?? hours 'til El Tráfico ???? pic.twitter.com/eam39YKxdd— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) October 20, 2022
What makes El Traffico interesting, like all rivalries, is that the record or seeding of the teams heading into the game is largely meaningless. Even if one team appears to be a decisive favorite heading into the game, the game is generally close. In this game, LAFC should be expected to win at the Supporters’ Shield winner playing at home – but history between these teams suggests it won’t be easy.
After a long list of questionable DP acquisitions, Riqui Puig has been a great fit. The Galaxy come into this game having four wins and a draw in their last five games. LAFC, meanwhile, hasn’t played as well since they acquired Chiellini, Bale, and Bouanga. Then when LAFC has to play under the pressure that it is MLS Cup or bust given their roster strength, it doesn’t help.
Thursday’s game between the two teams should play very well on television.
While Cincinnati is vastly improved and is a good team for the future, I think Philadelphia gets it done at home in a close one, 2-1.
In El Traffico, I think the LA Galaxy pull off an upset 3-2 in what will be a very good game. I think the Galaxy have the momentum and do not have the added expectations which can cripple a favorite.
On Sunday, I think FC Dallas wins in Austin 3-1. FC Dallas has a good defense that should contain Sebastian Driussi. Meanwhile, Dallas has a wealth of attacking options who are all playing well.
The Montreal – NYCFC game is the hardest to predict. I think veteran experience is so important this time of year and that’s why I think NYCFC gets it done in a shootout after a 1-1 draw.
That would set up two great conference finals between two league-original teams in the west: FC Dallas and Galaxy. Then on the East, it would allow Philadelphia to seek out revenge against NYCFC after last season’s COVID debacle forced them to play with a makeshift roster.