There is less than a month remaining in the 2021 Major League Soccer season. Already teams are locking up their places in the postseason (hello, New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders), and one team knows it’ll be watching from home (sorry, FC Cincinnati).
In all, 14 teams will qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs — the top seven from each of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference — with the top seed in each conference earning a first-round bye and moving straight into the conference semifinals. A great deal can (and will) change between now and Decision Day on Nov. 7, but we’re not letting that stop us from taking a way-too-early look at potential postseason matchups.
Just two of the league’s 27 teams have locked in a place in the playoffs, and only one has been eliminated from contention, so we can’t emphasize enough: These are hypothetical matchups, potential postseason contests based on the conference standings after Week 30. Every week we’ll bring you updates on who has qualified, who has been eliminated and the matchups that could play out come Round 1. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the games that have us counting the days until the MLS Cup playoffs begin on Nov. 20.
Who’s in, who’s out
Clinched playoff place:
– New England Revolution
– Seattle Sounders
Eliminated from postseason contention:
– FC Cincinnati
Who can clinch this weekend
Sporting Kansas City: SKC will confirm their place in the postseason if they win or draw against the Whitecaps Sunday night in Vancouver. Peter Vermes’ team could also clinch if the Galaxy lose at home vs. Portland or if Minnesota loses to or draws with Austin. Considering the form of LA and the Loons, even if Sporting can’t take care of business in British Columbia, it’s hard to fathom them not locking in their playoff place this weekend.
Colorado Rapids: If the Rapids win against Salt Lake, they’re in. It’s as simple as that. If they don’t win, it gets complicated. If they draw with RSL, they’ll need some help: Vancouver dropping points to Kansas City and the Galaxy losing to Portland; Minnesota losing to Austin and the Galaxy losing to Portland and LAFC dropping points to San Jose; Vancouver dropping points to Kansas City and Minnesota doing the same to Austin. Or, regardless of Colorado’s result, it can clinch a postseason place if Vancouver drops points and Minnesota loses and San Jose drops points.
Who can be eliminated this weekend?
Toronto FC: If Toronto loses to Atlanta, there will be no postseason play for the Reds. A win will keep them in contention for another week. A draw, and they’re still in peril. Earning one point from Atlanta will eliminate Toronto if any of the following combinations occurs: Montreal beats Philadelphia and Columbus beats Miami; Montreal beats Philadelphia and the New York Red Bulls win or draw against NYCFC; Montreal beats Philadelphia and D.C. United wins or draws against Nashville; Miami beats Columbus and the Red Bulls beat NYCFC and Montreal draws vs. Philadelphia and D.C. wins or draws against Nashville.
Chicago Fire: If Chicago drops points to Supporters’ Shield-leading New England, it’s out. Regardless of what the Fire do against the Revs, they can still be knocked out this weekend if D.C. United wins or draws against Nashville. If D.C. wins, Chicago will be eliminated if Atlanta beats Toronto and Montreal beats Philadelphia and Orlando wins or draws against Cincinnati; or, the Fire will be out with a D.C. win and if NYCFC beat the Red Bulls, Montreal beats Philadelphia and Orlando wins or draws vs. Cincinnati. If D.C. draws, Chicago is out if the Red Bulls beat NYCFC and Atlanta beats Toronto and Montreal beats Philadelphia and Orlando wins or draws against Cincinnati.
Austin FC: The expansion side will be out of postseason play with a loss to Minnesota and RSL beating Colorado or a loss to Minnesota and the Galaxy beating Portland and Salt Lake drawing with Colorado and Vancouver beating Sporting KC and San Jose beating LAFC.
Houston Dynamo: OK, it’s complicated in Houston. Well, it is if the Dynamo don’t lose to Seattle: A loss to the Sounders will knock Tab Ramos’ team out of playoff contention. A draw against the defending Western Conference champions will see the Dynamo eliminated if any of the following scenarios play out: RSL wins or draws against Colorado and Vancouver beats Kansas City; Salt Lake wins or draws vs. Colorado and the Galaxy win or draw against Portland and Minnesota beats Austin; RSL wins or draws against Colorado and the Galaxy win or draw vs. Portland and LAFC beat San Jose; the Galaxy win or draw against Portland and Minnesota beats Austin and Vancouver beats Kansas City; the Galaxy win or draw vs. Portland and Minnesota beats Austin and San Jose beats LAFC; the Galaxy win or draw against Portland and Minnesota draws with Austin and Vancouver beats SKC and LAFC beat San Jose. Houston can also be eliminated even if it beats Seattle, should the following take place: Real Salt Lake beats Colorado and the Galaxy beat Portland and Vancouver beats Sporting.
Round 1 byes
New England Revolution: The Revs are so far out in front of the field that before any other club had so much as confirmed a playoff place, they’d clinched a Round 1 bye and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Surely Bruce Arena will use the 43 days between now and the start of the conference semifinals to chill out and establish some good vibes in New England, right? Maybe, but probably not until his team has broken LAFC‘s single-season points record of 72 (the Revolution sit seven shy of that mark with five games remaining in their regular-season schedule), and even then … probably not.
Seattle Sounders: Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps confirmed the Sounders’ spot in the playoffs. As things stand, on top of the Western Conference and five points clear of its nearest rival, Seattle will get a chance to rest up and watch Round 1 unfold from the comfort of its collective couch.
FC Cincinnati: Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Philadelphia confirmed that Cincinnati will not take part in the postseason, and that its disaster of a 2021 season will formally come to an end on Nov. 7. There’s a new GM in town with the appointment of Chris Albright, and he’ll need all the runway he can get if he’s to hire a new coach and get the third-year club up from out of the MLS basement in 2022.
Matchmaking: Eastern Conference
2. Nashville SC vs. 7. CF Montreal: No one in the East has conceded fewer goals that Nashville’s 26 in 28 games, and only one of the conference’s seemingly playoff-bound sides has scored fewer than Montreal’s 40. If Hany Mukhtar and C.J. Sapong are unable to conjure goals, it’s hard to envision the ball finding its way into the back of the net should this matchup come to fruition.
3. Philadelphia Union vs. 6. New York City FC: Presumably there were many Philadelphia fans who’d have snatched at a No. 3 seed in the East in 2021 following an offseason that saw Brenden Aaronson move to FC Salzburg and Mark McKenzie join Genk, yet their reward is a date with an underachieving but exceedingly dangerous NYCFC side. The Union’s stingy defense (second-fewest goals against in the conference) will be put to the test by Valentin Castellanos, whose 13 goals this season are good for joint-third best in the league.
4. Orlando City vs. 5. D.C. United: Orlando’s win over D.C. earlier this month was its first victory since Sept. 4, and capped off a season sweep of the nation’s capital’s club. This contest would bring goals galore, pitting the East’s two worst defenses against one another, and featuring the league’s leading goal scorer in Ola Kamara and one of the most varied attacks in the conference, spearheaded by the ageless Nani.
Matchmaking: Western Conference
2. Sporting Kansas City vs. 7. Minnesota United: Would the “nicest rivalry in sports” live up to its billing in the playoffs? There’s no doubt the denizens of the Cauldron would welcome their counterparts from 550 miles north on I-35, but the likes of Johnny Russell likely won’t offer such a warm reception to the side that knocked Sporting out of last season’s playoffs in the conference semifinals.
3. Colorado Rapids vs. 6. LA Galaxy: Before Sunday’s comeback win in Minnesota, the last time Colorado beat a team in a playoff place was Aug. 21 against Real Salt Lake. The last time the Galaxy beat anyone was a week earlier, against Minnesota. Something would have to give in this potential matchup, and our money would be on an LA back line that has conceded the second-most goals in the Western Conference.
4. Portland Timbers vs. 5. Real Salt Lake: That RSL are in this position to begin with is an achievement on its own. Manager Freddy Juarez stepped down from his role on Aug. 27 to become an assistant under Brian Schmetzer in Seattle, and since that time Salt Lake has taken home 12 of 24 points available. But while the Claret and Cobalt have been treading water, Portland has been pouring it on. Over the same eight-game stretch, the Timbers are unbeaten and have dropped points just once — a stretch that includes a 6-1 hammering of RSL.