MLS analysis

Thoughts on the playoffs so far as experience, home field advantage, and DPs tell the story

ASN's Brian Sciaretta offers up his thoughts on the first seven games of the first round of the MLS playoffs where we are seeing the benefits of homefield, expereince, and big-time designated players. In other words, things we should widely expect. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 01, 2023
6:10 AM

THE FIRST LEG of the first round of the MLS Playoffs is nearly complete with seven of the eight series having played their opening game. There is a lot to unpack from these seven games and most of the teams that won are now heavily favored to advance to the second round.

Some things are obvious. First, the homefield advantage was huge. Six of the seven teams that won, were home teams and none of the games ended in penalties (thankfully). Five of the seven games have been multiple goal wins and the two one-goal wins haven’t been terribly even (Orlando had nearly 60% possession and Houston had 71% possession). There has been a lot of debate over the new playoff format, but thus far the results have the favored team perform well - and it does seem to place a much greater value on the regular season. Hosting playoff games is such an advantage. 

There hasn’t been much drama, but there has been convincing play.

Another point that bears emphasis is that the playoffs are different than the regular season in that the emphasis shifts from depth to the designated players in the postseason. At this time of year, the designated players and true stars of the league tend to make the differences between wins and losses. This year has been no different.

So far in the first round, we have had 25 goals and 13 of the goals have been scored or assisted by designated players or former designated players. Even beyond the goals, the productivity from the top players has been key.

In terms of the first games from the first legs, here are some thoughts.


Philadelphia Union 3-1 Revolution


My biggest takeaway from this game is that the Philadelphia Union looked hungry. Despite some concerns over how the players perceive the front office with the news over Alejandro Bedoya not being offered a new contract, the team looked motivated. Meanwhile, the Revolution continued to look like a mess ever since the Bruce Arena saga ended with his suspension and his eventual departure.

Each team had a distraction (albeit the Revolution’s distraction was far more significant) but the Philadelphia Union did not let it affect the performance.

"It's a good reminder we're still a good team," Union head coach Jim Curtin said. "We can beat anybody. Don't forget about us... This format, it suits us."

The Union are also unbeaten in 17 out of 18 home games this season. When you combine that with their designated players doing well in Daniel Gazdag and Mikel Uhre, the Revolution having been in disarray for two months, top Revs player Carles Gil picking up an injury, and Union feeling slighted with all the post season picks in favor or Cincy, Orlando, Columbus, or even Atlanta, it makes for a more dangerous Philadelphia team. The team might be upset about Bedoya, but they’ve compartmentalized it well or have simply channeled their anger to on the field.

The only problem with Philadelphia is that top defender Jakob Glesnes will be out for likely the duration of the playoffs with surgery to repair a sports hernia.

There is a lot to like about Philadelphia right now.  


LAFC 5-2 Vancouver Whitecaps


LAFC must have heavily scouted the Vancouver Whitecaps’ set piece defending and found weaknesses because Steve Cherundolo’s side scored four goals off set pieces.

As Charles Bohem correctly pointed out, LAFC had a huge advantage in that former Whitecaps manager Marc Dos Santos is now an LAFC assistant and is running LAFC’s free kicks. Is it a coincidence that this led to four goals? No.

Things were fairly even from the run of play and LAFC has some room for improvement defensively and from the run of play, but set pieces are ridiculously important in knockout soccer.  That is how teams often win silverware.


Another takeaway postgame is that LAFC said they feel rested and ready after a long season.

“The season was such a grind,” said Ryan Hollingshead, who scored two goals. “There's so many highs, so many lows, and you get to this point now where games are spread out every week, you're not playing these midweek games, we've got everybody back healthy for the most part. And that's where LAFC is at its best.”

LAFC has a big edge in talent on Vancouver and most other teams, but they are older. If the playoff format allows LAFC to be at their best, then they’re in great shape with Carlos Vela, Denis Bounaga, and Giorgio Chiellini being able to play at full strength.


Houston 2-1 Real Salt Lake


This game was closer than it should have been as Houston had 23-7 edge in shots and a 71-29 edge in possession. Houston completed 619 passes in this game and RSL completed just 210.

The only reason why this game was close is that Diego Luna was able to get open on a nice run off a corner to equalize the game in the 54th minute. Luna continues to look like a good option for the United States U-23 Olympic team.

Yes, Chicho Arango wasn’t there for RSL, but this game showed that the problems are deeper for Pablo Mastroeni’s club. Arango would have been starved for service even if he played.


Returning to the mountains for game 2, RSL should be more comfortable at home but Houston has a big edge in talent in this game. I love the way their central midfield plays with Hector Herrera, Artur, and Amine Bassi. That trio just opens the game up beautifully.

Ben Olsen has done such a great job with Houston. The mentality of this group has been impressive given how they experienced no letup at all after winning the Open Cup. That’s very hard to do for teams that win a midseason tournament.


Cincinnati 3-0 Red Bulls


After a great month to end the season and the wildcard play-in game, the clock struck midnight and the Red Bulls turned into the club we all figured they were throughout most of the regular season. The Red Bulls created chances in this game but didn’t have the guns to compete with the superiorly talented FC Cincinnati team.

Then when the frustration kicks in, so do the mistakes. Andres Reyes had a comically bad 40-yard header backpass that began the calamity the led to a Luciano Acosta goal for a 2-0 lead.

After the game, Red Bulls midfielder Peter Stroud explained where the Red Bulls fell apart tactically.

“I think they dropped [Álvaro] Barreal back a little deeper which kind of tweaked our pressing,” Stroud said. “It's always difficult when the team drops a fullback a little deeper. That means we have to set our line at a different spot and then there's also a lot more ground to cover to get pressure on the ball, and that's how we want to play obviously. So it took time to figure that out for sure. And they were kind of hurting us down that side. But I think we figured it out in the second half, and I think we gave them a run for their money here. We had a couple more shots than in the second half. We just can't start like this on Saturday.”


True enough.

Red Bulls manager Troy Lesesne deserved a lot of credit for the team’s win midweek against Charlotte in the play-in game. He tweaked their signature press a little to allow Charlotte to possess the ball for a few passes before the press. This threw Charlotte off.

In this game, Lesesne said he had the game plan for Cincinnati but it wasn’t executed. He also said he doesn’t plan to change it much. Now, it will just be a question whether the Red Bulls can finish chances, come out stronger to start the game, and cut out the mistakes.

The last month has shown us they have the ability to do that. But the totality of the 36 MLS games, the four Leagues Cup games, and the five Open Cup games shows us that while possible, it is unlikely. Especially when Cincinnati showed us they are ready for the playoffs and wouldn’t experience the letdown that has affected some of the top seeds historically.

“I'd say eliminating unnecessary mistakes,” Lesesne said of what needs to change in the next game. “That doesn't just mean the things that happen on the goals. So much so, the details of what our match plan was. I think our match plan was there. We didn't execute it fully. So that's what going to get to in preparation going into the next match, because not a lot is going to change. I think there's going to be some small adjustments. It's kind of a unique situation. It's the same opponent back-to-back matches.”


St. Louis 1-4 Sporting KC


This was the big game of the first leg and the only time from the first seven games that a visiting team has won. I predicted that St. Louis could be in trouble in this series and it wasn’t an earthshattering pick. It just takes a few basic understandings of knockout soccer and momentum.

First, knockout soccer is just different than regular season soccer. For knockout soccer, things are much less forgiving. Everyone knew St. Louis was going to win the top seed and St. Louis wasn’t under much pressure. Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, is a much more veteran savvy team with a veteran savvy coach. They’ve been in these situations before and it shows. But whenever St. Louis was playing in knockout pressure, such as in the Leagues Cup and the Open Cup, they were not nearly as strong as they were in regular season games.

Second, Sporting Kansas City’s seed in the playoffs is misleading. They had a terrible first 10 games of the season but since then, have been among the better teams in the Western Conference. But because of that poor start, there was a lot more pressure on them for most of the remaining games this season to make the playoffs. They’re used to playing games they cannot afford to lose. They’re used to playing with intensity.


Peter Vermes hinted at this.

“So every game that we went into, we've had to get a result, we've had to get points,” Vermes said. “As the season wound down, there was less and less room for mistakes or [poor] results. So, the guys had to find a way to battle, time and time again.”

Third, and just building off what Vermes said above, St. Louis isn’t just absent pressure, they came into the playoffs playing poorly having lost their last two games. Momentum is also critical in the playoffs and St. Louis has no momentum while Sporting has a lot of it.

When you add all this together, the 4-1 win for Sporting was not surprising. St. Louis looked like a deer-in-the-headlights. Sporting looked like a team on a warpath.

Does St. Louis have what it takes to now head to Kansas City and win on the road? Sure, they have more than enough talent. But nothing else is trending in their favor right now.


Orlando 1-0 Nashville


Nashville was a tough matchup for the upstart Orlando City team that was a trendy but justified pick to make MLS Cup. But Orlando was able to prevail in the first game 1-0 thanks to a spectacular Wilder Cartegena goal in the first half. From there, Orlando buckled down and played a perfect road game model, despite playing at home.

But that reflects the nature of Nashville, a steady defensive team that is tough to breakdown and still has enough individual talent – aka Hany Mukhtar - to pick off wins. In fact, Mukhtar hit the crossbar on a incredible 40 yard shot.

Orlando deserved the win, but of all the home teams that won so far in the first round, Orlando still feels like the most vulnerable. Nashville can very well win at home. If that happens, the third leg could again be a close one where maybe Mukhtar doesn’t miss and pulls off something spectacular.


The xG in this game was relatively even, so Orlando still has a lot of work to do and needs a lot of improvement to advance.

The good news for Orlando is that they have far more scoring options than Nashville. Nashville might have a better defense, but Orlando is a tough team to contain.

I have a feeling this series is going to be very, very close.


Seattle Sounders 2-0 FC Dallas


Credit to Dallas, they had their chances to win this one and the penalty they conceded was correct, but it was also not a horrendous mistake they’ll make again. Jesus Ferreira had three good shots inside the box when the game was within reach.

But the big story is the injury to Alan Velasco in the 18th minute that forced him out of the game. That greatly impacts Dallas’ chances to make a comeback in this series against a veteran-savvy Seattle team. The question for Seattle is what level of an impact Nicholas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz will make off the bench.


Seattle is now the clear favorite because Dallas needs to be firing on all cylinders to make this a series, and right now it doesn’t look like that will be the case because in addition to Velasco, Bernard Kamungo wasn’t able to start this game after picking up an ankle injury in the season finale win over the Galaxy (where he scored two first half goals to essentially clinch the playoffs). Despite Dallas missing some great chances, Seattle had long stretches of control where they didn’t even have to get out of third gear.

Seattle is a longer shot pick to win MLS Cup given their age and the decline of Lodeiro and Ruidiaz, but they’re in good shape in this series.


Columbus vs. Atlanta on Wednesday


The Columbus Crew host Atlanta United on Wednesday. All eyes are on Atlanta United which has a ton of talent and some of the best players in the league, but who enters the opening game the underdog, for three reasons.

First, Columbus also boasts a lot of talent but they are also more consistent. Second, Atlanta United is without Thiago Almada who is suspended for the opening game. And third, Atlanta Untied’s defense is simply not what championship teams are made of, and it will take a championship-level effort to beat Columbus in a three-game series where two games are scheduled to be in Ohio if the series goes the distance.

We know Atlanta can still score even without Almada. But when watching this game, the telling sign will be how well Atlanta’s defense holds up against an elite Crew attack led by Cucho Hernandez and Diego Rossi. If Atlanta can contain these players, they’re be in excellent shape. If not, it could be a quick exit for the Five Stripes.

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