After a pause for the international break, the MLS Cup playoffs resume this weekend with eight teams vying for the cup. Despite the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, St. Louis City SC, being upset by Sporting Kansas City, surprises were scarce in a revamped first round where teams played in best-of-three series to determine advancement. Combining the extended first round with the break, some teams, like Supporters' Shield winners FC Cincinnati, haven't played a competitive game in 20 days.
Long layoffs can be expected in the playoffs, especially for top teams, but there's a chance that the first halves of some matches will see teams working out the rust. The Philadelphia Union did benefit from the layoff as star striker Julian Carranza recovered from an injury picked up in the first round, but, overall, the benefits of the break are limited. Now that the road to the MLS Cup is set and the MLS playoffs are back underway, let's assess and rank the contenders for the cup.
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8. Sporting Kansas City
While Sporting accomplished quite a feat of getting in through the wildcard round, before toppling the top seeded team in the West in St. Louis City SC, they'll have a tougher test heading to Houston. The Dynamo not only had the best home record in the West during the season at 11-2-4, but they also have a midfield that can play through pressure and won't let SKC capitalize on mistakes. If anything, it's just good that Alan Pulido was able to help put a good end on the season by leading all players with three assists in the playoffs. If SKC will make noise in their upcoming clash, the comeback player of the year will play a massive part.
Number to know: SKC not only had the highest shot conversion percentage, turning shots into goals but they also had the highest shooting goals added turning an expected goals total of 2.44 into an expected goals of shots on target of 5.19. They ran hot to get here, if they cool down, things could get ugly.
7. Columbus Crew
Through Cucho Hernandez all things are possible, but the Crew's defense is a massive concern as the quality of attacks that they face will only rise as they continue through the playoffs. Matched against Orlando City, the Crew will be forced to find a way through one of the best defenses remaining in the playoffs. Cucho scored three goals against Atlanta United to open playoffs, but it was a true team attack for the Crew with six different players finding the back of the net to open playoffs. The Crew would certainly be ranked higher if they didn't face Orlando City in this round, but if they can get past the Florida club, they'll rocket up the list of MLS contenders.
Number to know: Forward Cucho Hernandez not only had the second highest xG of the last round at 2.26 but he also registered the highest expected assists total of any player in the opening round at 1.26.
6. Houston Dynamo
Hector Herrera and Adalberto Carrasquilla may highlight the Dynamo midfield, but Amine Bassi and Artur help balance things and ensure that Houston have a team fit for winning on any occasion. Among the best home teams in Major League Soccer, the Dynamo will be a tough out, but they're much more susceptible on the road. Already with a U.S. Open Cup title under their belts, the Dynamo have won one major honor this season but they'll have quite a task to win the double.
Number to know: Not claiming a single cross in the box, goalkeeper Steve Clark punched the most crosses in the first round with three, which may give Sporting Kansas City chances for follow ups if they can keep men forward in the box.
5. Orlando City SC
It wasn't pretty, but Orlando was able to stop Hany Mukthar and Nashville SC in their tracks, showcasing their excellent defense. The only team not to allow a goal in the first round of the playoffs, Pedro Gallese and the defense shined, but more goals may be needed to get past the Crew. In Facundo Torres and Duncan McGuire, Orlando have the attacking power to keep up, but they also can't allow the match to become a shootout.
Number to know: Gallese had seven saves and the highest goals prevented of any goalkeeper at 1.69 during the first round. Facing Cucho Hernandez, he'll be called into action early and often for Orlando.
4. Philadelphia Union
With Carranza and Jakob Glesnes back available, the Union are in better health for a clash with FC Cincinnati, which is good news considering that midfielder Leon Flach is out for the season after undergoing surgery for a hernia and Kai Wagner is stillduring a game. The Union may have the most interesting matchup of this round as Jim Curtin will square off against his former assistant Pat Noonan, but these teams are quite similar even leaving behind the coaching tree. With strong defenses and a dangerous attack, mistakes will be punished and the winner of this tie will be among the favorites to lift the MLS Cup.
Number to know: Nathan Harriel may have been one of the standout performers in defense, but Jamaican international Damion Lowe was fifth among all defenders with five interceptions to help the Union contain the New England Revolution.
The reigning MLS Cup champions are right back in the mix again after absolutely throttling the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first round. After scoring five goals in one game, the Black and Gold were able to essentially end it there. Unfortunately, due to the layoff, they will have had 21 days between their last match and heading to Seattle to face the Sounders. Forward Denis Bouanga was on international duty for Gabon, so their most important player will be match fit, but this is another clash where things are harder than they need to be for the away side due to how playoffs were configured.
Number to know: Bouanga only took nine shots in the first round but he was quite dangerous with his chances, putting five on target and scoring three goals. Quite the test incoming for Stefan Frei.
2. FC Cincinnati
Excellent from top to bottom, how Cincinnati responds without Defender of the Year Matt Miazga will be critical. Miazga collected two yellow cards during their series against the New York Red Bulls to miss the clash with the Union, putting more pressure on Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez and the attack. But, while eyes are on the attack, the most important battle may be between midfielders Jose Martinez and Obinna Nwobodo. Two of the best defensive midfielders in the league, the duo help setup their attacks while also protecting defenses.
Number to know: From only 76 attempted passes, Acosta created seven chances, showing how dangerous both Cincinnati's attacking options are, and how good Acosta's deliveries are.
1. Seattle Sounders
While Cincinnati won the Supporter's Shield, it's impossible to look past Brian Schmetzer and the Seattle Sounders. Always getting hot at the right time, the Sounders have made a few tweaks like putting Jordan Morris at the point of the attack and benching Raul Ruidiaz, It has created a less dynamic, but more balanced, attack with Albert Rusnak keeping things ticking over from deep. It'll be a tall task to defeat LAFC, but it's one that's doable in the friendly confines of Lumen Field.
Number to know: Boasting a possession heavy attack, Seattle has four players (Joao Paulo, Jackson Ragen, Alex Roldan, and Joshua Atencio) among the top 10 players in all of playoffs for touches.
All times Eastern, all games available to stream on MLS Season Pass
Saturday, Nov. 25
Orlando City SC vs. Columbus Crew, Exploria Stadium (5:30 p.m.)
FC Cincinatti vs. Philadelphia Union, TQL Stadium (8 p.m.)
Sunday, Nov. 26
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City, Shell Energy Stadium (7 p.m.)
Seattle Sounders vs. Los Angeles FC, Lumen Field (9:30 p.m.)