With the playoffs underway, the fight for the MLS Cup is heating up and this season’s tweaked format has brought an expanded first round, which has (mostly) favored the favorites.
The field will be cut in half over the next week, but first let’s take a look back over the early games from the playoffs, including some big statements from the frontrunners.
The expanded MLS playoffs have moved to an NBA-style for their opening round, with teams playing a three-game series. The move seeks to give a real advantage to the higher-seeded teams, who play two of the three games at home.
That’s gone to plan so far for every side, bar St Louis City. A stellar debut campaign in MLS saw St Louis emerge as the shock top seeds in the Western Conference, winning 17 games in their first season in the competition.
However, they struggled in their first ever postseason, losing 4-1 and 2-1 to be eliminated by Sporting Kansas City. Sporting KC had to win in the Wild Card Round to make it this far, having finished eighth in the West standings.
While St Louis faltered, the top side in the East had no such concerns. FC Cincinnati had the best record in the league this term, lifting the Supporters’ Shield.
They’re in a great position to add the MLS Cup to that, as they’re the +250 favorites to go all the way.
Cincinnati had a dominant performance in their first battle with New York Red Bulls, securing a 3-0 home win in Game 1 of the three-game series.
They sealed their spot in the semifinals with a win on penalties in Game 2.
Cincy won 20 of their 34 regular season games, losing only five times. They wrapped up their playoff spot back in the summer, but they never slacked off down the stretch. They’re reaping the rewards for that now, as they appear to be the strongest side in the postseason.
While Cincinnati are the standout favorites, there are a few sides who will prove to be stern opposition. Defending champion Los Angeles FC are among them, they’re a +275 shot for the cup after a comprehensive start to the postseason.
LAFC won 5-2 at home to the Vancouver Whitecaps, trading strikes with the Canadian side before taking charge in the second half. In Game 2, LAFC won 1-0.
The champions boast regular season top scorer Denis Bouanga and he added to his 20 goals for the campaign with a brace in Game 1 and a penalty goal in Game 2.
The Philadelphia Union - last seasons MLS Cup runners up - finished fourth in the East this term to make the playoffs, and their strong home record helped them to a 3-1 win over New England in their Round One opener. Game 2 is set for Wednesday, Nov. 8, and Philly is +800 to win its first MLS Cup.
Arguably the momentum lies with Orlando City, who are +800 to win MLS Cup and finished the campaign with four straight wins to leap into second in the East. Their winning run continued with a 1-0 victory over Nashville SC, and Game 2 is set for Tuesday, Nov. 7.
With the next round of games seeing the lower seeds returning home, they’re hoping to battle back in the coming days. Atlanta United were beaten 2-0 at Columbus on Wednesday, but the Crew won just four times on the road this term and they face a tricky Game 2 on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
The fourth and fifth-placed sides in the West were split by just a point, so Real Salt Lake should hope to match Houston Dynamo in their return clash on Monday, Nov. 6. However, they managed just six home wins last term, which could allow the Dynamo to finish the job.
Finally, Seattle Sounders beat FC Dallas 2-0 in their opener, but their series will go the distance after Dallas won Game 2 3-1. Dallas lost just three home games in the regular season, while they finished just seven shy of the second-placed Sounders.
The format of the first round was always likely to favor the top sides, which was deserved after a long regular season campaign.
From the Conference semi-finals, the playoffs return to a single-game elimination format. That could see Philadelphia Union handed a tricky visit to Cincinnati, having won just five away trips last term.
Defending champions LAFC are up against it as they’ll be on the road if they progress, and they won just four of their 17 away games. They’ll hope their knockout experience can shade it against the winner of Seattle and Dallas.