The MLS Cup playoffs are finally here. If you need a refresher, the playoffs go like this: The third-place through sixth-place teams of each conference have to go through a single-game knockout round to advance into the home-and-away playoff series. There, they will be joined by the top two teams of each conference and a normal two-leg playoff format will resume until the one-game MLS Cup. The fun gets started this week on Wednesday and Thursday, and here are our picks for each play-in game.
Wednesday: Toronto FC vs. the Philadelphia Union
There's very little reason to give the Union the benefit of the doubt here. They are winless in their last seven and those results include shutout losses to the Chicago Fire and Orlando City, two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia have looked flat while Toronto have been competitive and keep scoring goals, even if they don't ultimately get the win. Jozy Altidore continues to be in great form for TFC and Sebastian Giovinco has two assists and a goal in his first two games back from injury. He should only get better from there.
The difference in quality between these two teams is clear, and the Union should have a very short playoffs.
Score prediction: Toronto 2-0 Philadelphia
Wednesday: LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake
The Galaxy and RSL are probably a bit more alike than they seem. Both teams have been underperforming as their goal-scorers have failed to deliver and both teams will need to be better than they have been lately. RSL still haven’t won a match since August and leading goal-scorers Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan haven't been able to make much impact. The Galaxy have done a bit better, winning three matches in that same stretch, but they have had some trouble with players like Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard both being injured and not performing all that well, not to mention Gyasi Zardes being out.
Still, player for player, the Galaxy are the more talented team and RSL's form lately is a concern.
Score prediction:LA 2-1 Salt Lake
Thursday: D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact
D.C. United were supposed to be riding their hot streak into playoffs, but then they got beaten pretty badly by an Orlando City team that had nothing to play for on Decision Day. It probably doesn't matter though – knowing that his side couldn't topple the NY teams and earn a play-in bye, Ben Olsen benched all but two starters in this weekend's games. Montreal coach Mauro Biello took a similar approach in their loss to the New England Revolution, so it's probably most useful to look at each team's pre-Decision Day form.
D.C. United are clearly the better side, riding a four-game winning streak into their final match of the regular season. But Didier Drogba as a substitute could be a game-changer for Montreal, assuming the issues with the star striker are really resolved.
Score prediction: D.C. 2-2 Montreal (D.C. wins in penalty kicks)
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Thursday: Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City (7:30 pm ET, FS1)
These two teams look very different at the moment. Although their recent batch of games show a mixed bag of results for both teams, the Sounders have been in great form, nearly winning a recent match against No. 1 FC Dallas they ended up losing and generally playing well. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer will surely remember that it was a butt-whooping at the hands of Sporting Kansas City that got his predecessor Sigi Schmid fired, and he will surely be keen to prove he deserves to keep the job and drop the interim tag.
Sporting Kansas City, on the other hand, just haven't looked very convincing, results aside. When you include CONCACAF Champions League, they head into Thursday with back-to-back wins and momentum can be a powerful thing in MLS. But at the same time, it will be Kansas City's fourth game in 10 days and, despite resting starters for the CCL match, it could catch up to an SKC that already hasn't been playing great.