The Three Teams NYCFC Will Probably Have to Beat to Win the MLS Cup

And some others they probably won’t.

Three games. That’s it. Thanks to a first-round bye in the new single-leg playoff format, NYCFC only have three games of soccer standing between them and the club’s first MLS Cup. Here are the most likely opponents they could face along the way (with a lot of conditional statements sprinkled in to keep from jinxing anything).

Eastern Conference Semifinals, Oct. 23

Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: Toronto (75%), D.C. (25%)

Red hot Toronto FC enters the playoffs as the favorite to face NYCFC in the conference semifinals, thanks to a league-best 12 points over the final six matches. Greg Vanney’s tactics are unpredictable—he’s used 10 starting formations this season—but Toronto’s homestretch suggests a 4-2-3-1 has become the preferred shape. They’re a team that looks to control the ball, ranking in the top five for possession both home and away, with a cautious buildup that’s toward the bottom of the league for average vertical distance per pass. 

There are two key players in Toronto’s midfield. At the base is Michael Bradley, whose 80.2 passes per 96 minutes were second only to LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta this season. Bradley aims to channel possession in the direction of MLS newcomer of the year candidate Alejandro Pozuelo, whose early season hat trick against NYCFC still causes residual eye twitching among fans. The team is at its most dangerous when Vanney lets Pozuelo roam free in a central attacking mid role, where he’s put up some of the best shot-creating stats in the league. NYCFC’s defensive unit will have a tough task tracking Pozuelo without getting pulled out of shape; Dome Torrent’s best bet may be to man-mark Bradley in hopes of cutting Toronto’s offense off at the source.

If you didn’t think the 4-0 loss to Toronto could get any worse, wait till you hear this comp’s soundtrack.

All D.C. United needed to do to hang onto home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs was beat a nine-man FC Cincinnati. That they didn’t should tell you all you need to know about how to feel if NYCFC is lucky enough to get them in the semis. D.C. scrapes by on defensive heroics but constantly feels like less than the sum of its parts; there’s not much to suggest a long playoff run from a team that finished in the bottom four in the league for expected goal differential. If they meet NYCFC at Citi Field, expect the hosts to dominate possession while Ben Olsen’s team sits deep and hopes for Lucho Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Wayne Rooney to pull something out on the counter.

Eastern Conference Finals, Oct. 30

Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: Atlanta (54%), Philadelphia (28%), Red Bulls (11%), New England (6%)

If the Pigeons manage to take care of business in the semis, chances are they’ll meet the team that knocked them out last year, Atlanta United, in the Eastern Conference finals. NYCFC’s recent 4-1 drubbing of the reigning champs should give them some confidence, but both teams will look dramatically different than they did a few weeks ago (even if Frank de Boer’s tactics probably won’t). For one thing, Josef Martínez will be back—a name that speaks for itself. And Atlanta should also have Julian Gressel and Justin Meram returning to their all-important outside back roles, where they’re two of the league’s top three at the position for open play expected goals plus assists per 96 minutes.

With Anton Tinnerholm healthy again, it’s fair to question how NYCFC’s back line will handle de Boer’s wingbacks without Sebastien Ibeagha at right back this time—a sentence no one ever thought would be written. The matchup should come down to which side can attack behind the other’s outside backs, although a USMNT-camp injury to Miles Robinson may force de Boer to reconfigure his team.

Also returning to full strength are the Philadelphia Union, Atlanta’s stiffest competition for a finals berth, with striker Kacper Przybylko and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya looking set for their playoff opener. The conduit to Jim Curtin’s attack is Haris Medunjanin, an incisive deep lying playmaker (first among defensive midfielders with 8.3 progressive passes per 96 minutes) whose ability to play accurate balls behind the fullbacks has rattled NYCFC’s defense more than once this season.

Drawing the New York Red Bulls or New England Revolution would be a stroke of luck for NYCFC. Yes, playoff derbies are nuts, but New York has never been bluer and Dome Torrent should be familiar with what to expect from Chris Armas by now. Like the Red Bulls, Bruce Arena’s Revs play aggressively direct soccer, playing fewer and longer passes than just about any team in the league. But NYCFC’s increasing ability to bypass pressure with diagonals from the central defenders has helped mitigate the risks of playing out of the back and better prepared them for hard-pressing opponents like these.

MLS Cup, November 10

Projected Opponent, via FiveThirtyEight: LAFC (71%), Seattle (11%), Real Salt Lake (7%), Minnesota (4%), Portland (3%), L.A. Galaxy (3%), Dallas (3%)

If this speedrun gets all the way to the MLS Cup, the likely final boss is LAFC. Bob Bradley’s team is a juggernaut in every way and has a real case for being the best team the league’s ever seen. It’s hard to find flaws in a squad that embarrassed all competition with a goal differential of +48, more than double NYCFC’s second-place total. Their 4-3-3 knifes straight through opposing defenses, moving the ball through the central third a league-high 35% of the time. If you need another sign of how good LAFC is, before a minute of playoff soccer has been played bookies are already giving them coin-flip odds to win the trophy.

LAFC’s distinctive tactical features include square passes, throughballs in the central third, and scoring a shitload of goals.

Carlos Vela has had an otherworldly season, setting a new MLS record for nonpenalty goals, but Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, and Diego Rossi are all up there with him in the league’s top four for expected goal chain per 96 minutes. Potentially losing Kaye, who suffered a hamstring injury against the USMNT this week, would be a significant blow to LAFC’s midfield but probably wouldn’t change many gamblers’ minds. This team has shown it’s deep enough to cope with absences: when striker Adama Diomande missed the end of the season, Bradley casually slotted his new 19-year-old Uruguayan designated player Brian Rodríguez into the attack.

It’s unfortunate that NYCFC fielded its best team ever during the same season that LAFC became MLS’s version of the Monstars. (There’s always a chance the Supporters’ Shield winners won’t make it to the cup game, but there’s also a reason why we’re not bothering to cover any other team from the Western Conference here.) Could NYCFC pull off a historic upset? Sure, but it’d be just that—historic. Let’s hope that didn’t jinx anything. ❧

Image: Honoré Daumier, Don Quixote and the Dead Mule