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MLS Cup 2022: Each team's outlook heading into playoffs

3:57 AM SGT 11/10/22
LAFC celebrate 2022
GOAL divides the 14 playoff teams into four tiers to assess what to expect in the postseason

There is perhaps no more purely unpredictable disaster of a soccer tournament on planet Earth than the MLS Playoffs.

Every year, teams assemble after surviving a grind of a regular season which should give us a pretty good idea of where teams stand. And, ever year, it all rapidly turns into complete chaos as contenders drop like flies in games that descend rapidly into madness.

It's one of the most lovable things about soccer in this part of the world, the unpredictability of it all. As big clubs continue to dominate in Europe, there's something special about what goes on in MLS, where nothing matters except which team can get hot at the right time.

Because of that, predicting winners and losers is never an easy task, but we can assess what to expect from the 14 teams that make up this season's playoff participants.

Here's a look at each team's outlook heading in the postseason:

  • MLS Cup

    The tiers

    To give a better picture of where each team stands, we'll be dividing them into four easily- understandable tiers.

    Tier 1: Championship or bust. We all know what this means. If this team fails to win MLS Cup, everyone involved will be very disappointed.

    Tier 2: Got a shot. Teams that have a realistic chance of making a run and could theoretically lift the trophy at the end of all of this madness.

    Tier 3: Could make a run. Probably not MLS Cup contenders, but they could certainly take one out at some point.

    Tier 4: Good luck. Hey, they made it this far. A win would be fantastic, but just making the playoffs is a victory.

  • LAFC celebrate 2022

    LAFC

    When you put together a roster like LAFC's, there can only ever be one expectation.

    LAFC have essentially assembled the Avengers in Hollywood, somehow skirting salary cap rules to bring in megastars for one big playoff push. Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini and Christian Tello joined on relatively cheap deals, joining a team that was already loaded with starpower. Then, just for good measure, they brought in another Designed Player, Denis Bouanga, to join Carlos Vela and co. in the attack.

    It's an absolutely sickening amount of talent for an MLS squad and LAFC, as expected, marched right to a Supporters' Shield. But that isn't the trophy any of those players are here for and, with that in mind, they can only go in one tier.

    Tier: MLS Cup or bust

  • Julián Carranza Leon Flach Philadelphia Union

    Philadelphia Union

    The Union have built something so, so special.

    Basing their identity on developing young talent, the Union have constructed a pipeline that seemingly never stops. Young stars sign, young stars shine and young stars leave, only to be replaced by ones that are seemingly better than before.

    When you take that and add in signings like Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre and Kai Wagner, you have a machine that can go out and beat teams by a handful of goals, which is something the Union did several times this season.

    The Union legitimately have All-Star level producers in goal, central defense and in the midfield. The attack, meanwhile, is deep with guys that can score. You could realistically say they have the best defense and attack in MLS.

    That said, it feels like its a step too far to put them in "MLS Cup or bust" territory. It could be argued that they could be the favorites to win it all, but it doesn't feel like it would be doom and gloom if they didn't. They may be the best team, but the Union failing to win it all wouldn't have the same consequences as LAFC would.

    Regardless, they're right on the line and have plenty of reason to think they should lift the trophy at the end of it all.

    Tier: Got a shot

  • Sebastian Driussi 2022

    Austin FC

    What a turnaround from Austin FC, who went from wooden spoon contender to MLS Cup contender in one year.

    Lots of credit will go to Sebastian Driussi, a legitimate MVP candidate who is among the best players in MLS, but this is a team that is ready for the big stage. They have MLS experience all over the roster in players like Maxi Urruti, Diego Fagundez, Ethan Finlay and Alexander Ring. And then there's Driussi, who is that player that all MLS teams need: a difference maker.

    Do they have enough pure talent to compete with the best of the best in a one-off game? That remains to be seen. But when you have someone like Driussi leading the line and a team that is built to understand the nonsense of the MLS playoffs, you won't be afraid of anyone.

    Tier: Got a shot

  • Victor Wanyama o CF Montreal and Kenya.

    CF Montreal

    Not the team many would have expected to be second in the East.

    But here they are with a very real chance of pushing on to make this a season to remember.

    Montreal lacks the starpower that many of those teams in this echelon possess, but they are a deep team with real MLS experience. Their three leading scorers - Romell Quioto, Kei Kamara and Djordje Mihailovic - are all MLS veterans, while ex-Premier League midfielder Victor Wanyama also won't shy away from a big moment.

    Still, Montreal doesn't necessarily have that go-to, big-money, game-changing star. Few teams win MLS Cup without one. Add in the health concerns surrounding Quioto and Mihailovic and there's certainly an underdog element to Montreal, despite their regular season success.

    Tier: Got a shot

  • Jesus Ferreira FC Dallas 2022 celebrate

    FC Dallas

    FC Dallas will hope their American stars can push them on.

    Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola are the first pair of American teammates to score 10 goals each in an MLS season since Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin in 2017.

    And it's those two USMNT World Cup hopefuls that will likely determine how far FC Dallas can go.

    They've lost just one of their last six, with one of those matches being a massive 3-0 win over their first-round opponents, Minnesota United.

    That bodes well, but regular-season form usually doesn't matter too much in the postseason. What does matter is goals, and FC Dallas scored the fewest of the top 5 Western Conference teams. Can Arriola and Ferreira get the ones needed to push them on?

    The answer is probably not, so look for Dallas to try to grind out a run, which may prove difficult aganst the West's heavy-hitters.

    Tier: Could make a run

  • Johnson NYCFC MLS Cup 2021

    NYCFC

    The defending champions return with many familiar faces, but its the one that's missing that will be discussed most.

    Taty Castellanos is gone, and so too are all fo the goals he brought to this NYCFC team. The Argentine was one of the best goalscorers in MLS before heading on loan to Girona, so filling his spot is no easy task. He left in the summer, and he finished the season with five more goals than anyone else on the team.

    That said, NYCFC do have the talent to survive. Veterans Sean Johnson, Maxi Moralez and Alexander Callens have been here for years, while Talles Magno, Heber and Santiago Rodriguez can pick up the attacking slack.

    It's going to be a tough road for NYCFC, though, who won't even play their first home game in their own stadium due to the MLB playoffs.

    Tier: Got a shot

  • Chicharito point LA Galaxy 2022

    LA Galaxy

    The Galaxy have the talent to compete, but can they get goals from anyone not named Chicharito and can they actually defend a good team?

    The Mexican star has been the only Galaxy player that can reliably put the ball in the back of the net. In some ways, that's great, because that is his job. In others, it would be nice if someone could step up and help him out, especially come playoff time.

    The good news is that the Galaxy now have Riqui Puig, who is incredibly talented. They also have Gaston Brugman, who gives them a No. 6 that can actually protect the backline.

    But the Galaxy's fate will be determined by their ability to avoid wasting chances and their ability to avoid the catastrophic defensive mistakes that have haunted them.

    Tier: Could make a run

  • Tolkin Red Bulls 2022

    New York Red Bulls

    We know what the Red Bulls are and how they play: young, pressing, Red Bull soccer.

    We also know what they are not, and it's those deficiencies that will likely cost them.

    They still don't have a true starting No. 9. Luquinhas, their best player, has struggled. And the team, as a whole, is super young, which never bodes well in the playoffs.

    That said, what the Red Bulls do have is an identity, which is always nice. The problem is that that identity hasn't yet translated to real, postseason success.

    This group isn't as talented or as successful as years past, so it's going to be tough. Can they beat a team or two? Sure, but everyone who follows MLS knows who the Red Bulls are, and the history that follows them once postseason play begins.

    Tier: Could make a run

  • Mukhtar Nashville 2022

    Nashville SC

    They say you are what your record says you are, but Nashville are not the fifth-best team in the West.

    This is a playoff-proven team led by a player that won the Golden Boot and could very well win the MVP award. What else could you need?

    The answer is not much. With Hany Mukhtar on the field, Nashville will have a chance against anyone simply because the German star can absolutely dominate a game. Even if those around him struggle, Mukhtar can shoulder a load heavier than most in MLS.

    With veterans surrounding Mukhtar, Nashville are built for postseason play, even without a real contributing No. 9. They are that good.

    They beat LAFC on Decision Day despite a somewhat underwhelming regular season and should once again have expectations of a good run.

    Tier: Got a shot

  • Luciano Acosta 2022

    FC Cincinnati

    Cincy scores in bunches, with only the Union, LAFC and Austin FC scoring more.

    So why won't they be in that same tier? Their defense.

    Led by an attack featuring Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, Cincy have firepower to go toe-to-toe with most. Acosta, in particular, is one of the best playmakers in the league and can take over a game in a big way.

    But this team is a disaster waiting to happen defensively, especially when they already have a lead. That is the exact opposite of what you want to be in the playoffs.

    In the postseason, you're always one catastrophe away from elimination, and the odds say that it will come at some point for Cincy. The question is how long they can avoid it.

    Tier: Could make a run

  • Emanuel Reynoso Minnesota 2022

    Minnesota United

    Minnesota do have one thing going for them: a player that can go absolutely nuclear in a postseason format.

    Emanuel Reynoso did that a few years back, providing seven assists in just three games in 2020. But living and dying by that level of production just isn't sustainable.

    The Loons were poor down the stretch, squandering what was a good summer with a bad, bad winless run in the season's final weeks. Their level is probably somewhere in the middle: not elite, but decent enough.

    They have Reynoso as well as Dayne St. Claire, and there are few things more valuable than a good No. 10 and a good goalkeeper. But it's still probably not enough for the Loons.

    Tier: Good luck

  • Gonzalo Higuain Inter Miami

    Inter Miami

    Gonzalo Higuain is the league's most in-form attacker. He also may just have the soccer gods smiling down on his swansong.

    But it's going to take a lot of smiling and a lot of Higuain goals to make this happen.

    Miami have been much better since Higuain's resurgence, which really coincided with Alejandro Pozuelo's arrival. But they still can't really defend, with Higuain and Pozuelo both offering nothing in terms of pressing.

    What Inter Miami has is a team that could beat some teams, but definitely can't beat all of them. But, hey, maybe those soccer gods give Higuain the send-off he deserves with one improbably playoff push.

    Tier: Could make a run

  • Real Salt Lake 2022

    Real Salt Lake

    Here we are again with RSL in the postseason.

    The eye test says that there's no way they should be here. A quick look at their roster would produce the same conclusion. But again, here we are.

    RSL don't have much firepower, which will be a problem in Round 1 against Austin, who have a ton. It would be surprising to see RSL survive the weekend.

    However, anyone who follows MLS knows what happens when you say something like that. So maybe RSL could surprise a few people because MLS is, in fact, MLS.

    Tier list: Good luck

  • Facundo Torres Orlando City 2022-23

    Orlando City

    They've already won one trophy this season by surviving a grueling and upset-filled tournament. Can they do it again?

    Probably not.

    They took advantage of a Columbus Crew collapse to book their spot, having looked like they spent everything they had to win the U.S. Open Cup. Now that they're here, though, maybe that Open Cup run could help a club that has already played through several big one-off games this season.

    Still, there's a reason Orlando is the seventh seed, and that's because they aren't quite at the level as many of those around them. The Open Cup was one thing, but the playoffs are a different animal.

    Tier: Good luck