Major League Soccer is returning to the sort of postseason format with which American fans will be intimately familiar: a best-of-three series. At least for Round 1.
Higher seeds can expect two home playoff matches in this round, should they need them, before the conference semifinals, conference finals and MLS Cup return to the single-elimination arrangement most soccer fans are most accustomed to.
Will more games mean more excitement? More opportunities for upsets? With Round 1 kicking off on Saturday and potentially running all the way through Nov. 12, ESPN breaks down every matchup across the Eastern and Western conferences.
4. Philadelphia Union vs. 5. New England Revolution (Game 1: Saturday, 5 p.m. ET)
This matchup features a set of sides near-deadlocked on results: each enters the postseason with 55 points, 15 wins, 10 draws, and nine losses.
The most recent of those results, of course, came against one another. The pair finished their long seasons with a Decision Day contest that swung 3-2 in New England’s favor (Gustavo Bou‘s brace tilted fate), launching what could become a four-match span of playing only one another.
Thanks to goal differential as tiebreaker, the Union are fortunate to abscond with the No. 4 seed, meaning two of the three playoff matches take place at Subaru Park. That home-field advantage may prove pivotal: Jim Curtin’s scrappy side is a good team this season, and they certainly know how to win ugly at home. The Union have won 10 home games and lost just one this year while playing at Subaru Park.
Neither team in this matchup enters the postseason in their hottest form. The Revolution have seen a measure of disarray in the latter half of their year, with former manager Bruce Arena resigning after he was placed on administrative leave by MLS for what it said were “allegations that he made insensitive and inappropriate remarks.” Prior to defeating the Union on Decision Day, the Revs had won just one game since Arena’s departure.
While they also sometimes miss their former MLS All-Star keeper Djordje Petrovic (who signed for Chelsea at the end of August), they have plenty of quality left in their ranks, from Bou to Carles Gil, to overcome the Union in this series.
The Union have held off teams defensively, but they lack a clinical, final punch, collecting six draws (alongside two wins and a loss) from their final nine matches stretching back to early September. Their defense remains among the best in the league, as their savvy center-backs and disciplined positioning lead the league in interceptions, but their lack of offensive depth could be a downfall. — Megan Swanick
This will be a tightly contested affair, with two proud sporting towns lining the American Northeast going head-to-head in what may swing in Philadelphia’s favor, for the sake of its home-field prowess if nothing else. — Swanick
These teams are almost mirror images of each other in terms of records and goal-scoring stats. Margins are razor thin and one gets the sense the penalties will factor heavily. Philly is in good hands with Andre Blake, and the Jamaica international will make the difference as Philly will win in three games. — Arch Bell
The Union’s #StalemateSeptember string of draws is concerning, but what we saw in tournament play in Leagues Cup, plus the general uncertainty surrounding the Revs, should see them through. — Jon Arnold
The Union have turned their home ground into a fortress and should be able to gain an advantage. — Cesar Hernandez
1. FC Cincinnati vs. 8. New York Red Bulls (Game 1: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET)
FC Cincinnati lifting the Supporters’ Shield (and coach Pat Noonan’s comments after) kicked off another round of debate about whether the Shield or the MLS Cup is the most meaningful trophy in MLS. The debate about the best team in the league starts and ends if a team can win both.
Eight teams have done the double in MLS history, most recently LAFC last season. Now, Noonan’s side starts its quest to be the ninth. They’ll have to do so against a red-hot New York Red Bulls team that showed in Wednesday’s 5-2 wild-card win over Charlotte FC that it can certainly cause headaches for opposing backlines but also will leave plenty of chances for rival attackers to do their damage.
That’s great news for Cincinnati, with Luciano Acosta finishing the season in MVP form after scoring 17 goals (second best in the league), assisting another 14 (fourth best) and also finishing with 87 key passes (third). His creativity and ability to control the pace of a push forward have put him in another category this season and has Cincy a title favorite.
Why NY Red Bulls were the big decision day winners
Sebastian Salazar makes the case for the New York Red Bulls having the best result on MLS decision day.
With Acosta leading the attack, Obinna Nwobodo protecting the backline and a good defensive unit in front of goalkeeper Roman Celentano, it’s easy to see why Cincinnati excelled. With the Shield in tow, FCC doesn’t need to prove it’s a great team, but will need to prove it can deal with the idiosyncrasies of the playoff format and show its excellence just a few times more to join the elite club of teams that aren’t worried about which trophy matters more because it has both in the case. — Arnold
The Supporters’ Shield winners have been far too good this regular season to take an early stumble. — Arnold
Credit to the Red Bulls for their five-goal tally on Wednesday and for defeating Cincinnati this month, but recreating that attacking magic will be significantly more difficult against the Shield winners. — Hernandez
The Supporters’ Shield winners have just way too much talent and quality. — Bell
The Red Bulls will be a scrappy challenger to the Ohio side, but Cincinnati’s quality will almost certainly break through this round, dropping at maximum just one of the three potential matches as Acosta & Co. carry on a deeper run. — Swanick
2. Orlando City SC vs. 7. Nashville SC (Game 1: Monday, 7 p.m. ET)
There is nothing that quite captivates MLS fans like a kid who goes from anonymity in college soccer to MLS rookie sensation in less than a year. Such is the case with Duncan McGuire of Orlando City, who has 13 league goals this season and five in his past five games, including this scintillating score in the team’s regular-season finale against Toronto FC.
The question now is whether McGuire’s scorching form can carry into the postseason against a seasoned Nashville team with center-backs Walker Zimmerman and Jack Maher. McGuire got the best of them in their last meeting on Oct. 4, a 1-0 win for Orlando, but the stakes are higher now and the postseason is uncharted waters for the former Creighton man.
It’s not all McGuire in Orlando, of course, with Facundo Torres and Martín Ojeda among the other attacking options, plus a defense that conceded only 39 goals. Coach Oscar Pareja has led this team to 14 wins and seven draws in its final 24 games, while setting a record for points (63).
However, Orlando City’s poor playoff history lingers in the background. The Lions have won just one postseason series in their nine-season history and have exited in the first round in each of the past two years. They will have to contend with a Nashville team that can turn to 2022 MVP Hany Mukhtar for inspiration. The German playmaker once again posted excellent numbers in 2023, with 15 goals and 11 assists, and will prove a difficult man to stop. — Bell
McGuire Magic is real, but so is Orlando’s stout defensive line. Mukhtar will do enough to deliver a home win for Nashville, but Orlando will take its two home games to advance. — Bell
Nashville is a strong tournament team, but they’ve yet to enthusiastically deliver in the regular season. While the playoffs could ignite a new gear, Orlando looks most likely to come away the victor here, running on strong form (losing just one regular-season match since early July) and McGuire coming in hot with a Decision Day brace. — Swanick
Pareja has managed his roster exceptionally well and should be able to push them to at least the conference semis. — Hernandez
Orlando has won its past four, with an away win over Nashville included in that. Plus, memories of last year’s playoff meeting will be rekindled, giving Pareja the motivational fuel needed. — Arnold
3. Columbus Crew vs. 6. Atlanta United FC (Game 1: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Here’s a worrisome stat for Atlanta United: The Five Stripes are winless in their past six matches (including the U.S. Open Cup) that haven’t featured star attacking midfielder Thiago Almada.
With a one-game suspension given to the 22-year-old Argentina international for a second yellow earned in the last match of the regular season, Atlanta will now seek to end that Almada-less winless run when it visits the Columbus Crew for Game 1 of their Round One series on Wednesday.
Atlanta’s well-rounded and highly involved attacking leader will be back by Game 2, but will he be doing so for a side that could lose serious momentum by then? As seen through Columbus’s league-leading tally of 67 goals, and the immense influence of Cucho Hernández‘s 16 goals and 11 assists, the Crew are likely going to dish out some serious tests for the underdogs from the get-go.
And while Atlanta’s efforts in the final third are more than just Almada — striker Georgios Giakoumakis notably finished the 2023 regular season with 17 goals alone — there’s also the additional worry regarding goalkeeper Brad Guzan. According to research from TruMedia/StatsPerform, Atlanta’s captain earned the worst goals prevented tally (-4.79) from MLS keepers in 2023.
Will Round 1 prove to be an uphill battle for Atlanta? Or will coach Gonzalo Pineda help his roster survive the first match and set up Almada perfectly to close things out in Game 2 at home? — Hernandez
Not needing to play against Almada until Game 2 will be the difference-maker, and although there are questions regarding the Crew’s defensive efforts, their frontline will have no problems. — Hernandez
With two losses in its past 10 matches, both away from home, Columbus might be the league’s hottest team. Teams gathering steam at the right time often advance, especially when the opponent’s best player will miss the first game through suspension. — Arnold
This one will come down to the wire. Both teams have played well since Leagues Cup, with Atlanta in particular hitting its attacking stride and Giakoumakis banging in goals. Columbus is pretty much unbeatable at home, but Almada’s creativity upon his return from suspension swings this to the Five Stripes. Atlanta will win in three. — Bell
Coach of the Year candidate Wilfried Nancy will like his team’s chances in the first match, as Atlanta will be without the irreplaceable Almada. The second test will be a must-win affair for the Five Stripes, who have the talent to pull it out. In among the closest contests we may see this round, I think Atlanta (narrowly) pulls it off. — Swanick
3. LAFC vs. 6. Vancouver Whitecaps (Game 1: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
When looking back on all 20 regular-season goals from LAFC’s Denis Bouanga, the Gabon winger provided a wide breadth of strikes that emerged from distance, a header, short range, opposition mistakes, one-time shots, volleys and penalties.
“He knows how to score and he knows how to make the difference in games,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo after Bouanga’s 20th goal in last week’s 1-1 away draw with the Whitecaps. “We’re hoping for more in the most important part of the season.”
Despite the growing skepticism of the titleholders, whose form has dropped in 2023, and the scoring drought of player Carlos Vela, Bouanga has stepped up when needed, with six goals and an assist in his past three appearances.
That said, Vancouver also has some momentum of its own, holding LAFC to the aforementioned 1-1. Coach Vanni Sartini and his players are undefeated in their past five, they’ve lost only twice since late August, and DP Andres Cubas could soon be back in the XI after reportedly being back to full fitness.
Goal scorer and chance creator Ryan Gauld has also been fun to watch in 2023, but perhaps in a sign of how things could go for the Whitecaps, the Scottish player failed to put either of his two penalty attempts into the back of the net in the draw at home with LAFC. — Hernandez
The Bouanga Show will continue into the playoffs as LAFC will look to retain their title. It also wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Vela suddenly steps up his level in the postseason. — Hernandez
LAFC are a better team, in practice and on paper, although they lack the bite of last year’s MLS Cup-lifting side. All the same, LAFC’s quality is likely to shine overall in this matchup. — Swanick
The defending champions have been feast or famine, but the tandem of Vela and Bouanga will be too much for Vancouver. LAFC to win it in two games. — Bell
It doesn’t look like the all-conquering team of 2022, but LAFC are still loaded with talent. — Arnold
4. Houston Dynamo FC vs. 5. Real Salt Lake (Game 1: Sunday, 6 p.m. ET)
There is a very strong argument that the Houston Dynamo are the best-performing team in MLS. “Benny-ball,” inspired by new coach Ben Olsen, has morphed into an exciting brand of soccer with Héctor Herrera and Adalberto Carrasquilla orchestrating a symphony in midfield.
The Dynamo’s ball movement has been extraordinary in the second half of the season and it is going to take something special to slow them. The likes of Amine Bassi and Corey Baird up top are taking full advantage of the work put in by Herrera (17 assists), Carrasquilla and Artur. Bassi finished the season with 10 goals, while Baird had eight. Overall, the Dynamo bagged 25 goals in their final 11 league games.
Houston has also shown that it has the mettle to go on the road and win, doing so at Inter Miami in the U.S. Open Cup final and then against the Portland Timbers on Decision Day.
Pablo Mastroeni’s Real Salt Lake is an anomaly in that it is actually better on the road than at home, but that might not matter against a Houston team that drilled RSL in back-to-back games in late August, 3-1 and 3-0.
RSL’s defense was leakier than usual during the regular season, conceding 50 goals, but it has been much better in the second half of the season. Mastroeni does have the players to test the Houston defense with Cristian Arango, Jefferson Savarino and Diego Luna, but it is hard seeing anyone slowing the Dynamo right now. — Bell
High-flying Houston will march on with two wins in the first two games. — Bell
Securing home-field advantage (ironically with a road win) was huge for Houston, a team nearly unbeatable at Shell Energy Stadium and vulnerable everywhere else. — Arnold
This year’s Open Cup winners come as a surprise to many pundits, but are a cohesive, exciting team running on rampant veteran talent and clear team cohesion. These teams played one another twice in August, with Houston the victors then and likely the victors now, especially with RSL’s star talent, Arango, nursing a muscle injury. — Swanick
The U.S. Open Cup winners have already showcased in 2023 that they can thrive in a knockout round and since lifting that title last month, they have yet to lose. — Hernandez
1. St. Louis City SC vs. 8. Sporting Kansas City (Game 1: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET)
Ah, what a glorious chance of fate this matchup sends us. It’s the battle for the Midwest pits the top-ranked newcomers against a veteran side that has arrived in the postseason by the skin of its wild-card teeth and despite the separation in standings, there remains potential here for an upset. Their season-long banter besetting two immediate rivals over whose city lays rightful claim to being the “soccer capital of America” now adds a three-match playoff meeting, infusing glorious intrigue to an already-testy affair.
St. Louis is 2023’s expansion side Cinderella Story, as the newest addition to the league tore through myriad skeptical expectations from spectators and pundits alike, ending the year first in the Western Conference with 56 points.
Lead by Coach of the Year finalist Bradley Carnell, St. Louis is a counterattacking side stocked with individual talent, from Goalkeeper of the Year finalist (and former Borussia Dortmund No. 1) Roman Bürki and Defender of the Year finalist Tim Parker, through to its varied goal-scoring threats, including Newcomer of the Year finalist Eduard Löwen, Nicholas Gioacchini and João Klauss.
Unlike the start of this season, expectations are certainly in St. Louis’ corner now. In its three head-to-head meetings with SKC in 2023, STL came away with two victories and one loss. That said, Carnell’s squad enters the postseason looking like a team that could be toppled, collecting just three wins from its final 10 matches.
By making the playoffs, longtime MLS managerial veteran Peter Vermes redeemed a staggering start to the season for Sporting Kansas City, leading an equally veteran squad to relative redemption. Their form moves in the right direction as they meet the postseason, having squeezed into the playoff spots, then scraped past the San Jose Earthquakes in the wild-card match via penalties at home. The emotion of this season-long rivalry might add intrigue, and Vermes might yet have a point to make. — Swanick
SKC advances on penalties over San Jose
Sporting Kansas City wins the penalty shootout 4-2 to win the Western Conference Playoffs Wild Card game in MLS.
I think this is a close one, and a wildly entertaining one, that ultimately settles in favor of the St. Louis debutantes. — Swanick
The Don Denkinger Derby! (The over-45 crowd will know). Would a St. Louis win avenge that bad call in the 1985 World Series? Uh, no, but St. Louis does have a great goal scorer in Klauss and a midfield creator in Löwen to sweep away Sporting KC in two games. — Bell
Sure, St Louis thrashed SKC 4-1 last month, but that marked just one of its two wins since September. It’s a risky pick, but I’ll go with SKC’s momentum and desire for a comeback against its neighbors to the east. — Hernandez
The Missouri memes are going to be impeccable for this series, but St. Louis’s style and unity should prevail at the end. — Arnold
2. Seattle Sounders FC vs. 7. FC Dallas (Game 1: Monday, 9 p.m. ET)
Nicolás Lodeiro is leaving Seattle at the end of the season — at least, he says he is. Raúl Ruidíaz turned 33 this summer. Stefan Frei no longer is competing for Goalkeeper of the Year awards. It feels like the Sounders of old are, well, old.
Yet, dig a little deeper and you wonder if it’s just Sounders fatigue. No team in the West ended the season with fewer losses, no team allowed fewer goals, no team had 14 clean sheets and perhaps no team in the conference can match the playoff experience Seattle boasts.
That’s certainly the case for FC Dallas, a team that won a playoff game last year, but is dependent on new arrivals like Asier Illarramendi, the former Real Sociedad midfielder who was critical to FCD’s playoff push, and young players like Bernard Kamungo, who scored twice in the club’s Decision Day romp over the LA Galaxy. Dallas also needs its young attacking stars — forward Jesús Ferreira and midfielder Alan Velasco, in particular — to find a level of consistency in the postseason they weren’t able to sustain during the regular-season campaign.
An excellent group of young players, plus the commitment to winning the front office has shown over the years, mean that the Sounders aren’t going to see a huge drop-off when this era does end. Yet, it’s worth watching if this is the swan song for many of the key players we’ve long associated with Seattle and just how beautiful that song can be. — Arnold
FCD’s road form is sneaky good, especially when you look at the disappointing draws it has settled for at home. Still, with a stingy Sounders back line, Seattle should be able to avoid the upset, even if it takes three matches. — Arnold
It hasn’t been a vintage season for Seattle, but a strong defense can carry you far in a knockout round. Let’s see if Ruidíaz is also fit and ready for at least one or two more clutch goals in big games. — Hernandez
This postseason matchup could prove as deadlocked as their regular-season meetings (a pair of 1-1 draws), but if ever there was a playoff-veteran club ready to muster the quality to make yet another deep run, it’s this season’s Seattle Sounders, running on sound (forgive me) end-of-season form. — Swanick