Contenders and pretenders in the MLS Cup playoffs

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Decision Day produced its share of drama.

The Philadelphia Union clinched the Supporters’ Shield, the first trophy in their history, by beating the New England Revolution 2-0. At the other end of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Impact and Inter Miami each produced wins to earn their way into the generously expanded playoffs. Out west, only the final placings were at stake, but the Portland Timbers‘ late goal from Jorge Villafana condemned LAFC not only to a draw but a tasty first-round matchup with the Seattle Sounders.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. There are 18 playoff qualifiers, and each of them will feel they have a shot at MLS Cup glory. But to paraphrase George Orwell, “Some are more equal than others.”

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The favorites

Why they could win it all: In a word, balance. The Union have a half dozen players capable of contributing on the offensive end, be it Kacper Przybylko, Brenden Aaronson, Sergio Santos or super-subs Anthony Fontana and Ilsinho. And in Jose Martinez, Philadelphia has the kind of midfield destroyer capable of protecting a backline. The Supporters’ Shield breakthrough will also give them a ton of confidence.

Why they could go home early: The Union, for all of their success this season, aren’t the most talented side in the playoffs, which could leave them vulnerable in the one-off nature of the postseason. And while goalkeeper Matt Freese did well in the season finale, the loss of Andre Blake to a broken hand is a major loss, though he could return.

Why they could win it all: TFC certainly have the championship pedigree from three previous trips to the MLS Cup final, and a balanced side from front to back. They also have a match-winner in MVP candidate Alejandro Pozuelo, who is capable of carrying a team to the title.

Why they could go home early: The Reds are a tad dinged up, and while Jozy Altidore is close to returning to full health, the likes of Pablo Piatti, Justin Morrow and Marky Delgado are further away. Toronto needs Piatti in particular to be at his best and provide that invaluable second attacking option to Pozuelo.

Why they could win it all: SKC are as hot as any team heading into the playoffs, going 6-1-1 in their past eight games. Johnny Russell has been immense on the offensive end with six goals and four assists, while Gianluca Busio has come into his own this year. The backline, led by Roberto Puncec, has solidified as well.

Why they could go home early: The health of forward Alan Pulido looms large after he sustained a sprained MCL prior to the regular-season finale against Real Salt Lake. SKC are 8-3-1 when he plays, and 4-3-2 when he doesn’t. The latter mark isn’t “fall apart” form, but SKC will need their DP to perform in order to go deep in the postseason.

Why they could win it all: Two MLS Cups in the past four years mean this side is used to playoff pressure. Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris are in excellent form, and the defense has improved throughout the course of the season. There is also of course the excellence of Nicolas Lodeiro, who has shown a proclivity for stepping up in the postseason.

Why they could go home early: If you think end-of-season form matters in the playoffs, then the Sounders’ recent patchy play — 2-2-3 in their past seven, which cost them a shot at the Supporters’ Shield — raises an eyebrow. Absences as a result of the international window, and the quarantine that would follow, could mean Seattle is without top players like Gustav Svensson and Xavier Arreaga.

The flawed contenders

Why they could win it all: The Timbers’ attack has been stellar this season, and will remain so even without forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who tore his ACL. Diego Valeri remains ageless and Jeremy Ebobisse and Felipe Mora are more than capable of delivering the goals. Portland has been prolific from set pieces, with 10 goals from dead-ball situations on the season.

Why they could go home early: There are still doubts about Portland defensively. The unit has been inconsistent, and a team-wide penchant for coughing up late goals doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence.

Why they could win it all: This is a team eager to take part in its first postseason. Much revolves around playmaker Mauricio Pereyra. If he’s available — like he has been of late when he’s not suspended for yellow-card accumulation — Orlando is devastating with the help of Nani and Chris Mueller. Otherwise, the goals start to dry up.

Why they could go home early: Even though Orlando boasts experienced players like Nani in the lineup, as a group it’s still the Lions’ first foray into the playoffs. Historically, manager Oscar Pareja has had a tendency to overthink things in the postseason, with head-scratching tactical and lineup changes. Lions fans will be hoping he’s learned his lessons from past missteps.

Why they could win it all: There is loads of talent in this side, with Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes all capable of galvanizing the Crew. Goalkeeper Eloy Room has also looked sharp of late, and could be the difference between a deep run and an early exit. Arthur has been a rather underrated asset in midfield.

Why they could go home early: Columbus just hasn’t been as fluid as it was earlier in the season, as injuries to Nagbe and Zelarayan have disrupted the team’s rhythm. But even with their recent return, the Crew — especially center-back Jonathan Mensah — haven’t quite been themselves. Was the 2-1 victory over Atlanta United FC on Decision Day a mirage or a sign of things to come?

Why they could win it all: No team has more offensive firepower in the league than LAFC, with Diego Rossi, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Carlos Vela making for an absolutely devastating combination. Vela has just returned from a knee injury but the upcoming international break should give him time to gain more fitness.

Why they could go home early: While the addition of center-back Jesus Murillo has helped, the Black and Gold’s defense has been inconsistent all year, and Bob Bradley seems to be rotating through right-backs. Goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer hasn’t distinguished himself either. Lastly, LAFC have been poor on the road all year — going just 1-6-1 — and will need to hit the road in the first round for a meeting with defending MLS Cup champion Seattle.

Why they could win it all: The Cityzens have been exceptional down the stretch ever since Maxi Moralez returned to the lineup, giving NYCFC the goal-scoring punch they craved with the help of Valentin Castellanos. Anton Tinnerholm has been a menace down the right flank, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson has enjoyed an exceptional season.

Why they could go home early: NYCFC have been mostly pretty sharp in all phases, but the Decision Day win over Chicago saw some rather shocking defensive breakdowns. Granted, the game didn’t mean all that much to the Blues, but unless that’s cleaned up, they could be looking at an early exit.

Why they could win it all: In Emanuel Reynoso, Kevin Molino and Robin Lod, the Loons have as dangerous an attacking trident as any in the league.

Why they could go home early: Health, or in this case the lack of it. Ike Opara remains out, as he has for most of the season. Osvaldo Alonso is struggling with an injury as well. On top of that, getting more from the forward spot remains an issue. Striker Kei Kamara has scored just a solitary goal since arriving in a September trade.

Have an outside chance

Why they could win it all: The Revs appear to be healing up at the right time with attackers Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou almost back to full strength. The defensive triumvirate of goalkeeper Matt Turner along with center-backs Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler has been impressive all season.

Why they could go home early: The Revs’ set-piece defending has been sub-par and they coughed up another one (albeit in the second phase) last weekend against Philadelphia. Forward Adam Buksa has shown flashes, but he’ll need to deliver more consistently in the postseason.

Why they could win it all: An intoxicating blend of youth and experience. Okay, the Red Bulls do have some vets in center-backs Tim Parker and Aaron Long, along with central midfielder Sean Davis and attacking midfielder Kaku. Outside of that, they’re doing it with guys who, if not young, are at least short on first-team experience like Dru Yearwood and Tom Barlow. But youth has its advantages in that the team is likely to take a “What do we have to lose?” approach to the postseason.

Why they could go home early: Youth has its limitations, especially in the chance-creation department, where the Red Bulls’ 8.00 chances created per game was the second-worst among playoff teams.

Why they could win it all: Led by center-backs Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler, Dallas has boasted one of MLS’ stingier defenses, allowing 1.09 goals per game, good for sixth in the league. Fafa Picault has been one of the rare attackers to deliver above expectations. The same is true for outside-back Ryan Hollingshead.

Why they could go home early: When it comes to the team’s attack, manager Luchi Gonzalez looks like he’s perpetually trying to put together pieces that don’t fit. Is Andres Ricaurte a holding player or a No. 10? What is Jesus Ferreira‘s best position? The team’s three DPs — Santiago Mosquera, Bryan Acosta and Franco Jara — haven’t quite delivered over the course of the season.

Why they could win it all: The Rapids’ recovery from their COVID-19 outbreak speaks to the team’s resilience. Also some important performers like Kellyn Acosta have begun contributing again, and Cole Bassett has enjoyed a breakout season as part of Robin Fraser’s three-man midfield. The Rapids have also been tough on the road, with their five wins away from home tied for best in the league.

Why they could go home early: Given the COVID-imposed hiatus, it’s tough to tell which missteps are due to the break and which are more systemic. All that said, defensively the Rapids have been all over the place at times. There’s also question of if they’ll get enough quality forward play to make a deep run.

Who the heck knows?

Why they could win it all: The Quakes make opponents uncomfortable. They don’t just do it with their man-marking scheme, but with their ability to possess the ball and by extension wear down opponents. And they have enough quality components in the likes of Jackson Yueill, Cristian Espinoza and the ageless Chris Wondolowski to threaten any team.

Why they could go home early: When the Quakes are good, they’re very good. But my word, when they’re bad, they’re awful, and likely to ship at least three goals, if not more. That isn’t likely to see them reach MLS Cup, but it will be compelling viewing either way.

Just happy to be here

Why they could win it all: Defensively, Nashville has been lights out this season, and its 0.91 goals allowed per game is tied for the best in the league. In the playoffs, where games are typically tighter, it’s unlikely that Nashville will ever be out of a game.

Why they could go home early: What to make of Nashville’s attack? Thanks to the addition of forward Jhonder Cadiz and the rounding into form of Daniel Rios, NSC have scored three goals in a game on three different occasions in the past month. But looked at another way, Nashville also endured a four-game stretch in which it’s scored just three times.

Why they could win it all: This team is loaded with players who have high-level experience, be it Blaise Matuidi, Rodolfo Pizarro or Gonzalo Higuain. Add in the likes of MLS Cup winner Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Lewis Morgan, and Miami appears to have the pieces to go far in the tournament.

Why they could go home early: Miami has struggled to live up to expectations in just about every area of the field. Higuain has just a solitary goal and Matuidi hasn’t been as influential as expected.

Why they could win it all: Sunday’s 3-2 comeback win over D.C. United showed the team’s resilience, especially considering they’ve been playing home games at Red Bull Arena due to COVID-19 restrictions. And with Bojan and Romell Quioto on the field, they can be dynamic in attack, especially in transition.

Why they could go home early: You can’t leak goals at the rate that Montreal does (1.83 per game, tied for third-worst in the league) and expect to go deep in the playoffs.