WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Portland takes down Austin: Felipe Mora and Evander found the net for the Timbers as Portland picked up a key road win at Q2 Stadium. The Timbers are now ninth in the West with a one-point advantage on Sporting KC and Dallas. They've earned 10 points from their last four games.
THINKING ABOUT SOME PLAYOFF FATAL FLAWS
As the playoffs get closer, the big question is always whether or not a team can win MLS Cup. Most contenders generally have clear fatal flaws, though. Sometimes they learn how to overcome those at just the right time, but it's normal to see those issues come back to bite teams in the end. These flaws basically boil down to: Do you have match winners? And do you have the ability to manage games in a game with playoff-level intensity? If you've got one of those things, you've got a chance. If you have both of those things, you're a favorite. Or at least a decent bet. Here's where some Cup-run capable teams fall.NEED SOME MATCH-WINNERSOrlando CityI'm on record as thinking the Lions are a great team who can absolutely win MLS Cup. I don't want this to get twisted. I'm just saying it's fair to ask who they're going to turn to in their moment of need in a knockout round game. Duncan McGuire with eight non-penalty goals? Facundo Torres with seven? Martin Ojeda with six? It's great that they're able to find goalscorers by committee, but that typically isn't the formula for MLS Cup-winning sides.Philadelphia UnionIf it feels unfair to put Philadelphia here, that's because it's extremely unfair to put Philadelphia here. There's a point, though. It's not that they don't have match winners, it's that they don't have match winners of the same caliber as the league and continent's best teams. It's why they keep coming up short against teams like LAFC in tournaments. They know how to manage games, they have players who score in bunches, and Jose Martinez scores a banger a month now, but it's tough to expect any particular player to carry this team when they need it. Again, definitely harsh. But they've yet to beat the very, very best.Houston DynamoHector Herrera has been one of the best players in MLS this season, but his skillset doesn't quite fit the definition of match winner. In a moment of need, the Dynamo aren't looking towards HH to save the day. Their best bet is maybe… Corey Baird? Baird has seven non-penalty goals. No other Dynamo player has more than three. Look, they're playing great ball, but let's just illustrate why having an elite attacking talent at the top of the roster is important. Here are the last few MLS Cup winners and their "match winners."
- 2022 LAFC: Like the whole roster by the end of it, but Carlos Vela, Denis Bouanga, Chicho Arango and even Gareth Bale could fall into the "match winner" category.
- 2021 NYCFC: Taty Castellanos
- 2020 Columbus Crew: Lucas Zelarayan
- 2019 Seattle Sounders: Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro
- 2018 Atlanta United: Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron
- 2017 Toronto FC: Giovinco and Jozy Altidore
- 2016 Seattle Sounders: It's still not entirely clear how they pulled this off, but it probably had something to do with Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris
- 2015 Portland Timbers: Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi
We're talking about some of the best playmakers and finishers in MLS history here. It's really tough to get the job done if you don't have that kind of game-changing talent.NEED TO PROVE THEY CAN MANAGE GAMESSt. Louis City SCThe only reason to truly be skeptical of St. Louis at this point (especially in this Western Conference) is because we don't have any data points on what they look like in the playoffs. We do have a relatively uninspiring performance in Leagues Cup, but it's hard to count that. We know they have Eduard Lowen. We know they have Joao Klauss. We know they have Roman Burki. We know they have the top-end talent to make a run. We just don't know what they're going to look like when the pressure is on.LAFCIt's extremely weird to have LAFC in this category, but they're developing a rep for coming up short in big games. Yes, even after winning MLS Cup last year. In 2023, they've face-planted in a CCL final and bombed out of Leagues Cup after going up early on CF Monterrey. They've missed opportunities in big games. They have to re-earn some trust in those moments. It's honestly hard to trust them in general right now. Yeah, they got the win against the Galaxy, but before that they dropped three in a row to Charlotte, Miami and Portland.New England RevolutionThis is the nicest way I can put "I'm not even sure if they're good at soccer anymore." They definitely still have an MLS Cup-caliber match winner in Carles Gil, but they lost Djordje Petrovic. They've lost their head coach. They've lost their first interim head coach. And all that led to them losing to Colorado over the weekend.Columbus CrewThey have the unfortunate distinction of being the inspiration for today's newsletter. Their 4-3 loss to Orlando this weekend had everything about the 2023 Crew on display. They scored beautiful goals, they racked up chances, and they couldn't see out a huge win on the road. Columbus have a bunch of attacking talent, but there are questions defensively. There are questions about whether they have enough experience as a group to hold onto leads. And those questions, like they did for FC Cincinnati last year, tend to point to a team that's a year away from being able to win MLS Cup. Still, they're so good getting forward there's no way you can count them out.Atlanta UnitedThere was always a timeline in 2023 where Giorgos Giakoumakis and Thiago Almada got hot at the right time and carried Atlanta to a playoff run. That reality still exists, but it isn't the only reality where Atlanta makes a run anymore. The supporting cast has improved immensely since the summer transfer window. But it's a group still learning how to play with each other, and they're still a relatively young team. They looked like the full product against Inter Miami this weekend when it comes to star power and game management, but we're still only a few weeks removed from the Five Stripes blowing a late 1-0 lead to FC Cincinnati. They need to put together a few more Miami-esque performances down the stretch before we can consider them the genuine finished product.Vancouver Whitecaps and Minnesota UnitedI'm bunching them together because I didn't make a "probably not good enough to pull it off but definitely have match winners category." Hey, anyone can make it in the West, right? And you can definitely make it if you have Brian White and Ryan Gauld or Bebelo Reynoso – especially if you have Reynoso.HAVE MATCH-WINNERS AND GAME MANAGEMENT ABILITYFC CincinnatiYou know the deal here by now. Lucho Acosta plus one of the league's best defenses equals a team that knows how to win, can pull out ugly results and is on track to clinch the Supporters' Shield any day now. Cincy will be the obvious favorites going into the playoffs.Nashville SCYou might be surprised to see Nashville here, but it shouldn't have been a surprise to see them make a run to the Leagues Cup final. They play elite defense, and they have Hany Mukhtar. That's all you really need in the end to make it through a knockout tournament. A clear plan to limit chances and the reigning MVP.Inter MiamiI'm guessing you know about the match winners. And even if there are concerns about game management, those didn't stop them from winning Leagues Cup and advancing to the US Open Cup final. There's clear proof of concept here. The only real question is whether or not they'll make it into the playoffs at all.WHAT ARE THE SEATTLE SOUNDERS?Seattle SoundersI had no idea where to put them. We know what this team is when they're healthy. They've had outstanding underlying numbers all year. And we're not that far removed from their CCL title. It's essentially the same roster for better or worse. Now, they're something close to healthy, Cristian Roldan is back at just the right time, and I refuse to count them out. Just consider the fact they've been generally mediocre all year by their standards and are still sitting third in the West and second in American Soccer Analysis' expected points metric. At the same time, are they actually healthy? Are any of their talented potential match winners reliable? Is there a reason they can't seem to turn their underlying numbers into consistent wins? Does any of it actually matter? For now, I think the answer is "probably." It wouldn't surprise me if the answer is "no" though.
THE READING RAINBOW
Good luck out there. It's easier with friends.