Records, Miracles, and Redemption: Previewing the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs

A preview of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

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Major League Soccer (MLS) is often overlooked as one of the world’s biggest professional soccer leagues. In recent years, however, MLS has been steadily improving in quality and viewership, as seen in the 2021 regular season. ABC and ESPN saw viewership increases of 39 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In a league where parity rules, the playoff picture shifted dramatically from last season. The reigning MLS Cup Champions, Columbus Crew SC, failed to finish in the top seven in the East and will miss out on the playoffs. Meanwhile, the New England Revolution had the best MLS regular season ever, racking up 73 points en route to their Supporters’ Shield victory.

This MLS Cup playoff season is primed to be a memorable one. Upset potential, Cinderella runs, and a first-time champion are all possible. Here is who we think will go far:

Eastern Conference Champion: New York City FC

With just over a month left in the regular season, New York City FC was in eighth place, out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They had endured an embarrassing streak of losses and draws that began with a loss to their rivals, the New York Red Bulls. Prior to the streak, NYCFC was as high as third for much of the season but had to fight for a spot to compete for MLS Cup. They rose to the occasion.

En route to clinching the fourth seed, NYCFC looked like MLS Cup contenders, thrashing D.C. United 6-0, drawing the Philadelphia Union with 10 men after Gedion Zelalem picked up a red card early in the game, and setting records along the way. Taty Castellanos scooped up the 2021 MLS Golden Boot after finishing the season with 19 goals, tied with Ola Kamara for the league lead. The Argentinian beat out Kamara by virtue of the assists tiebreaker, a testament to his playmaking ability.

NYCFC faces Atlanta United FC in the first round, with the winners going against a historically good New England Revolution squad. In two meetings this year, NYCFC has gotten the better of Atlanta, with a win early in the season and a tie at Mercedes-Benz last month that kickstarted their comeback campaign. Though NYCFC may have the higher seed, City and United both finished with 51 points on the season, with City earning home field advantage only by virtue of the goal difference tiebreaker. Home field advantage is not something to be understated since NYCFC plays at Yankee Stadium, a baseball stadium with an abnormally small soccer field. NYCFC has lost just seven games in club history at home. If the game was in Atlanta, where United has a huge advantage of its own, the storyline might be different. Expect NYCFC to advance.

The Revolution set a league record for points in the season with 73, but don’t let their record fool you. The Revs have won almost all of their games by tight margins of one or two goals. Out of their five losses in the 34-game season, one was to NYCFC. It is NYCFC, not New England, that is the hottest team in the East right now, so an upset wouldn’t be surprising. The Revs are coming off a humbling Decision Day loss to lowly Inter Miami and could continue the trend of the Supporters’ Shield winner falling short in the playoffs. Once the Boys in Blue advance to the Eastern Conference finals, they could face Nashville SC, which tied an MLS record by losing just four games all season. However, NYCFC is more experienced, which may be the deciding factor that helps lead NYCFC to their first MLS Cup appearance ever.

Western Conference Champions: Seattle Sounders FC

In the Western Conference, the Seattle Sounders have been perennial contenders for a while now. The Sounders hold the second seed in their conference behind the resurgent Colorado Rapids but also hold the edge in playoff experience, with the likes of Jordan Morris, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Raúl Ruidíaz leading the line.

Challenging the Sounders on their path to the MLS Cup first will be the seventh-seeded Real Salt Lake (RSL). RSL snuck into the playoffs with the last seed in the West courtesy of some Decision Day madness. However, the Sounders should be able to easily dispatch a team that has lost as many games as it has won this season.

Awaiting Seattle in the second round will either be third-seeded Sporting Kansas City (SKC) or sixth-seeded Vancouver Whitecaps. Either way, the Sounders should hold the edge given their firepower and regular season meeting results, with SKC and the Whitecaps both losing in their recent matchups with Seattle.

Once the Sounders advance, they will face their biggest hurdle to the Cup: the Rapids. Few expected the Rapids to finish at the top of the Western Conference at the outset of the season, but they surprised the league. Colorado may have finished the season with one more point than Seattle, but in their meetings this year, Seattle has gotten the better of the Rapids. In October, Seattle humbled Colorado with a 3-0 win.

The Sounders aren’t in great form, with their last win coming way back at the beginning of October. However, experience pays in MLS, and Seattle has it in spades. The Sounders know how to get the job done in the playoffs, appearing in four of the last five MLS Cups. They may not hold the top seed, but the Sounders are still the team to beat in the West and in the league as a whole.

MLS Cup Final: Sounders over NYCFC

If the Sounders and NYCFC do indeed meet in the final, the game will be played in Seattle due to seeding. For much of the season and for its time in MLS, NYCFC has ridden the wave of home field advantage but performed significantly worse away from home.

Seattle has several potent attacking threats at its disposal as compared to just one star up top for NYCFC in Castellanos. Especially with question marks at right back without Anton Tinnerholm, it’s hard to imagine NYCFC being able to handle the Seattle attack. This final matchup has the potential to be high-scoring. In the team’s most recent meetings, NYCFC took a 3-0 win and Seattle had a 3-1 win.

Prediction: Seattle 4, New York City 2