MLS – Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview & Detailed Team Guide

MLS Eastern Conference Playoffs

Teams involved (seeding in brackets)
New York Red Bulls (1)
New York City FC (2)
Toronto FC (3)
DC United (4)
Montreal Impact (5)
Philadelphia Union (6)

Playoff stages

The Knockout Round.
Conference Semi Finals (2 legs)
Conference final (2 legs)
MLS Cup Final

The Knockout round comprises of two games. This is a straightforward elimination ‘one off’ match between the teams seeded 3-6. The highest two seeds (3 & 4) hosts the fixture. If the match is level after 90 mins then a 30 mins extra time period is played, possibly followed by penalties.  The matches in this round are Toronto v Philadelphia & DC United v Montreal.

The Conference semi finals contain the top two seeds, who both received a bye in the knockout round. The top ranked seed, which in this instance is New York Red Bulls will play against the lowest ranked seed that progresses out of the knockout round. The second ranked seed, New York City FC will play against the highest ranked seed which progresses out of the knockout round. The Conference semi finals are both two legged ties, with the lowest ranked seed at home in the first leg. Away goals are used if the tie is level after 180 mins. If the teams still can’t be separated then extra time will be played. A quirk of MLS is that away goals are NOT applied in extra time. If the match is still level then penalties will decide the winner.

The Conference final is also two legged, with the lowest ranked seed playing at home first. The same rules apply in the Conference final that were in place for the semi finals. The winner will go through to the MLS Cup final, which is a ‘one off match’ Unlike most leagues, the MLS Cup final IS NOT played at a neutral venue. Of the two teams involved in the final, whoever finishes higher in the Supporters Shield league table would host this match at their own stadium.

Team previews

Philadelphia Union
Eastern Conference seeding: 6
Supporters Shield seeding: 12
MLS Cup best odds: 50/1

For a large part of the season, Philly were the big surprise package in the Eastern Conference and were actually challenging for the division title in the middle of the summer. However, they’ve fallen off the rails in shocking fashion. They’ve won just 3 of their last 15 games, two of which were against sides who haven’t even made the playoffs. They enter the postseason winless in seven games and just seem bang out of form. Jim Curtin’s men have scored goals well this year, a lot of which have been spread around the whole team. However, their defensive record of 55 conceded is the second worst of any team that’s made the MLS playoffs.

Key players

  • Andre Blake (GK). The Jamaican international has to be a contender for MLS goalkeeper of the year. He often saves Philly, making a number of ridiculous and improbable stops. His reflexes are superb. Were it not for him, they’d have conceded well over 60 goals this season.
  • Chris Pontius (LW). The ex DC United man has enjoyed a great rebound year following a nightmare previous campaign plagued with injury. He leads their scoring charts with 12 goals and has also weighed in with 7 assists.
  • Tranquillo Barnetta (AMID). A more familiar name for European readers. The man from Switzerland has scored 5 times and assisted 4 this term. He adds an experienced and classy element to the team. He is leaving the club at the end of this season so will be desperate to go out on a high.

Playoff outlook & prediction

There are a few teams who really limped into the playoffs, no more so than the Union. History suggests that it’s very difficult for sides who enter the playoffs with no momentum. Inevitably, they don't last too long. I would be very surprised if they got past Toronto in the Knockout round. Even if they managed that, a deep run in these playoffs is surely beyond them. They are priced as 50/1 outsiders for a reason. If you backed them and they won the MLS Cup, I’d give you the money myself! Not a prayer.

Prediction: Knocked out first round

 

Montreal Impact
Eastern Conference seeding: 5
Supporters Shield seeding: 11
MLS Cup best odds: 33/1

The Canadian outfit have been in and amongst the play off positions all season. They haven't been spectacular, only winning 11 out of 34 games, but they can be quite difficult to beat. The Impact also possess the third best away record in the Eastern Conference. Proven road ability is essential if you want to go deep into the playoffs. Montreal made it to the Conference semi finals last season, pushing Columbus Crew all the way to extra time. So they have recent experience of what it's like to go deep. They had a poor run of results around August and September and it looked like they were going to limp into the playoffs. However, some recent improved displays and results means they enter the postseason in better mood.

Key players

  • Didier Drogba (ATT). A man who needs no introduction, he’s been in the news recently for ‘refusing’ to play for the team because he was only going to be on the bench. This internal dispute is apparently now resolved which is good news for the club. Drogba has scored 11 goals in just 21 starts and is obviously a big game player who can finish. However, he’s nearly 39 and it’s clear his physical attributes are declining. He’s pretty slow and injuries have plagued him all year. Is the Ivorian reliable any more?
  • Ignacio Piatti (playmaker). ‘Nacho’ has scored a staggering 17 goals and weighed in with 5 assists, which is fantastic for a player who features in attacking midfield or on the left wing. This man has been Montreal's most important player this season and really pulls the strings when he’s in the mood. He has a high skill level for MLS standards and a huge weapon for them.
  • Laurent Ciman (CB). The reigning MLS defender of the year hasn’t been as effective in 2016. He started the campaign well, but a stint at EURO 2016 for Belgium seemed to affect his form. There was a period around August time when he was extremely error prone, making strange mistakes. However, there have been recent signs he’s back on track and he’s a proven big game player who could get his act together in the playoffs.

Playoff outlook & prediction

Montreal are an interesting side, who could potentially be a dark horse. Perhaps their biggest challenge will be getting past DC United in the knockout round. If they can progress into the two legged rounds then they could be very dangerous. They are a balanced team team with playoff experience who have a knack of scoring a goal at the right time, or defending well at the right time. They are the sort of side who could go on the road to the Red Bulls, NYCFC or Toronto and get a result. At home, the Impact are famous for the ‘North Star Bell’ which rings every time they score a goal. Stade Saputo isn’t known for being a fortress but it can be an awkward place to visit and you know they are unlikely to concede many goals or a disastrous result which could knock them out of a tie. They are a dark horse to go deep into the playoffs. However, in this instance I think they've got a pig of a draw away against DC United in a one off match. So on this occasion I'm going to predict their season will end rather quickly.

Prediction: Knocked out first round

 

DC United
Eastern Conference seeding: 4
Supporters Shield seeding: 10
MLS Cup best odds: 24/1

For the majority of the season, DCU blew hot and cold and couldn’t get any consistency together.  They hovered in and around the final playoff spot, and at one stage it looked like they probably wouldn’t make the top six. However, something seemed to click around the month of August. United have only lost 2 of their last 14 games, one of which was at the weekend in Orlando when they fielded a complete second string side, so doesn’t really count. DCU have never really been known for their offensive prowess under the management of Ben Olsen, but they've been one of the highest scoring teams in MLS recently. They’ve netted a total of 34 goals in those aforementioned 14 games, which is a fantastic return! Defensively, they’ve not been very tight but this is a team which has a lot of momentum heading into these playoffs and will believe they can outscore anyone.

Key players

  • Bill Hamid (GK). A serious injury kept him out until the end of May and there was some doubt if he’d be as effective this season. However, he’s been top class as per usual and is one of the best shot stoppers in the league. United would concede a lot more goals if he wasn’t around.
  • Patrick Mullins (ATT). He was traded to the club from New York City FC in July. Deemed surplus to requirements there and someone who lacked the star quality or pizzazz. Mullins has however made a massive impact at DCU, scoring a whopping 8 goals in just 12 starts, also supplying a couple of assists. He enters the playoffs really hot and could be a massive weapon for them.
  • Luciano Acosta (AMID). He has been the leading assist provider for DCU so far this season with 8 in 26 starts. His influence since mid summer has been less vital due to the arrival of Lloyd Sam & Patrick Mullins. However, this man has the ability to pull the strings in the middle of the park and has a high skill level.

Prediction: Eastern Conference champions

 

Toronto FC
Eastern Conference seeding: 3
Supporters Shield seeding: 5
MLS Cup best odds: 10/1

For the second season running, TFC had to start the campaign with eight straight away games. They actually did fairly well during this streak, but then had a poor period which put them out of the playoff places for a while. However, a superb run during the summer during which they won 6 out of 7 games convincingly was the key to securing their playoff berth. A recent five game winless streak which coincided with the absence of star man Sebastian Giovinco raised some doubts and it’s worth noting the only team they've beaten since the end of August has been Chicago Fire (twice), who are one of the worst teams in MLS. Toronto tend to play in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond formation which can have it’s limitations. It tends to feel like they are disjointed at times and rely on individuals. They do however have the star quality to potentially go deep in these play offs.

Key players

  • Sebastian Giovinco (ATT). Probably the best player in MLS, Giovinco is of massive importance to TFC. He’s started 28 games and scored 17 goals, also supplying 14 assists. Quite simply he’s a total stud and one of the leading candidates to be league MVP. When he didn’t feature in those recent five aforementioned games, they seriously missed his involvement.
  • Jozy Altidore (ATT). The American international has endured an injury plagued season but nevertheless done really well to score 10 goals in just 17 starts. In recent weeks, he’s finally managed to get back to full fitness and looks quite sharp. When in the mood, Jozy can be a real handful in MLS.
  • Michael Bradley (CM). He has dropped into a more deeper DMID role this season, protecting the defence with a strong shield. However, Bradley is dynamic and a genuine box to box midfielder. His influence on the team is more mental as well. He is one of their leaders and a great motivator.

Playoff outlook & prediction

Toronto aren’t exactly setting the world alight heading into these playoffs. But with Giovinco now back from injury they can never be underestimated. He is capable of winning any match all on his own but sometimes they rely on him to do too much. TFC should be able to get past Philly in the knockout round which would set up a tasty clash with NYCFC. Thats’ a real 50/50 type of matchup which could go either way. Last year, their first ever appearance in the playoffs ended very quickly and I suspect they could lose out closely in either the semi final or conference finals. It’s worth noting that TFC have only played two away games since the end of August, one of which was in Chicago. They could find it difficult on the road facing some of the better sides like NYC & Red Bulls. On a more positive note, they would host an MLS Cup final against any side from the west other than Dallas or Colorado. But I don’t personally think they’ll make it that far.

Prediction: Knocked out in conference semi finals

 

New York City FC
Eastern Conference seeding: 2
Supporters Shield seeding: 4
MLS Cup best odds: 7/1

It’s been a wild ride for Patrick Vieira in his first managerial season. Expectations are always going to be high in New York and some question marks were raised after he won just 1 of his first 8 games in charge. More pressure was added after NYC got hammered 0-7 at home to city rivals the Red Bulls. However, since the mid way point of the season they’ve been right up there and challenged the Bulls to the Eastern Conference title. No team has scored more goals heading into the postseason, but they've also conceded more goals than any other playoff team. NYC have the best away record in the entire MLS and have proven they can win on the road. The week off thanks to their midweek bye should suit the older players, and because of their offensive strength this is a team capable of anything and can’t be underestimated.

Key players

  • David Villa (ATT). He is the big attacking star in the team and scored a massive 23 goals from 32 starts. Villa probably could’ve bagged close to 30 had he taken more chances. He’s the leader of their offense and a huge class act, one of the best strikers in the league.
  • Frank Lampard (CM). The ex Chelsea man started life out badly in NYC and was plagued with injury. Some poor subsequent performances ensured the boo boys came out in force but he responded magnificently, scoring 12 goals in just 15 starts. He has the great knack of being in the right place at the right time and at MLS level his intelligence really shows though.
  • Andrea Pirlo (CM). Not a lot needs to be said about this world footballing legend. He’s probably the best passer in the whole MLS and obviously a key cog in the middle of the park for NYC. Age isn’t on his side anymore and he lacks the legs compared to most others, but he more than makes up for it in other ways.

Playoff outlook & prediction

In just their second ever season in the league, NYC have made the playoffs. However, this was expected due to their star studded squad. NYC obviously don’t have any playoff experience yet, but they do have some highly experienced key players who have won a lot of trophies during their careers. The big question is how everyone else will perform under pressure, and the same can be said for coach Patrick Vieira who is still very much a rookie manager. This is a team full of goals and who can win away, but they also concede a lot and their defence regularly looks shaky. It’s quite possible they could outscore their way to the MLS Cup final but something tells me they will come short this year and errors at the back might be costly. I see the likes of the Red Bulls & DC United as stronger all round packages, although the extra week of rest could give them the edge on Toronto in the semi finals.

Prediction: Eastern Conference runners up

 

New York Red Bulls
Eastern Conference seeding: 1
Supporters Shield seeding: 3
MLS Cup best odds: 3/1

No team enters the playoffs in better statistical form than the Red Bulls. They are unbeaten in a staggering 16 MLS games, which is a fantastic record in such a home dominant league like this one. This all feels like a bit of deja-vu though. Jesse Marsch’s men are the kings of the regular season and always have been. They have won the Eastern Conference in 3 of the last 4 seasons, which includes a couple of Supporters Shield crowns. They never seen to assert this authority in the playoffs though and always suffer regular disappointment at this stage of the campaign. On the face of things, they have the weapons, the team is playing well and injuries are at a minimum. But something always seems to go wrong and until the Red Bulls shake off this playoff hoodoo, people will always doubt them. They have only ever made it to one MLS Cup final in their whole history!

Key players

  • Bradley Wright Phillips (ATT). He was never much of a hit in England but stateside he has become a dominant force. The 24 goals he scored this season was the second time he picked up the golden boot and the second time he’s bagged 20+ goals in a campaign. Even now though there will question marks about his ability under pressure and he must deliver in the playoffs.
  • Sacha Kljestan (AMID). If BWP is the main scorer, this man is the top assist provider, setting up a huge 15 goals this season! He is a crucial part of their creativity and will take most corners and set pieces, providing excellent deliveries.
  • Dax McCarty (CM). Perhaps the most underrated player in MLS. If Dax is in the mood, there’s nobody better in the middle of the park. He can tackle, mark, drive forwards and just about do everything you want from a box to box midfielder. He’s like a terrier snapping at your heels when the Red Bulls aren’t in possession and his energy and stamina levels are impressive.

Playoff outlook and prediction

The Red Bulls are the Eastern Conference champions but that almost means nothing when you enter the playoffs with two legged ties. They are the rightful favourites to progress to the MLS Cup final from this section and should they make it that far then they’d host the final against anyone other than Dallas & Colorado. Due to their dubious history in the postseason it’s impossible to predict they go the distance though. Something seems to crack whenever November comes around and there are some dangerous teams lurking like DC United, Toronto & city rivals NYCFC. It would be foolish to write them off but I could see them producing a stinker of a match somewhere which costs them dearly and I will make the bold prediction that they won’t be representing the Eastern Conference in the MLS Cup final.

Prediction: Knocked out in conference semi finals