The 2020 Major League Soccer season was two games old when everything changed. The sport ground to a halt across the world as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Even as some European divisions, such as the Bundesliga, started to play again, albeit with no fans in the stands, MLS had to wait a little longer to return.
When MLS did come out of cold storage in July, it emerged out into the warm Floridian sunshine for an improvised mini-tournament staged in Orlando. Held at Walt Disney World, the MLS Is Back Tournament was unavoidably weird. From the setting to the knockout format in the middle of the regular season to the absence of Nashville due to positive Covid-19 tests, this was something out of the ordinary.
In the end, the MLS Is Back Tournament did deliver in providing soccer fans with some much-needed spectacle in bleak times and in jump-starting the league's return, even if it was in a Floridian bubble inaccessible to supporters. It also fragmented the 2020 season in a way that meant inconsistencies were inevitable for the rest of the campaign.
This manifested itself in the league’s decision to expand the playoffs to include 18 teams and in the regionalization of clubs at various venues across the United States. The Montreal Impact, for instance, played a number of ‘home’ games at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey as concerns over travel and higher risk of virus transmission lingered after exiting the Orlando bubble.
And this was after the regular season was reduced from 34 matches to 23, with MLS also confirming playoff seedings would be determined by points per game. An unusual season was always likely to be decided in unusual ways, but at least the playoffs will offer some sense of normality, even if the route to this point was anything but normal.
What we have now is, in essence, a second mini tournament this year. The Philadelphia Union enter the post-season as the Supporters’ Shields winners, lifting the first piece of silverware in franchise history on Sunday, while perennial contenders Toronto FC are seemingly the second strongest side in MLS right now.
The Union are a well balanced team, with Kacper Przybylko, Brenden Aaronson and Sergio Santos giving Jim Curtin some cutting edge to utilize in the final third. They lack post-season experience, though, and the same can’t be said of Toronto, who have made it to three MLS Cup finals in recent memory. They know what it takes to go all the way.
Sporting KC are red hot, having won six of their last eight games heading into the playoffs. The Seattle Sounders can’t be discounted such is their recent track record of finding their best form in the post-season. Indeed, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz have the firepower to blow away any opponent on their day.
Orlando City might well be MLS’s most improved outfit in 2020, with the Central Floridian team taking part in their first playoff series as a franchise. Inter Miami have not had such a long wait for a post-season place, making the playoffs in their first ever season, although they had a lower bar to clear than is typical.
MLS’s playoffs are notoriously difficult to predict. Last year, Los Angeles FC were clear favorites to clinch the MLS Cup having strolled to the Supporters’ Shield. And yet when it mattered most, Bob Bradley’s side couldn't carry over their pre-playoffs success. The best team of the regular season very rarely go all the way to take the big prize, which doesn’t bode well for the Philadelphia Union.
LAFC still have the rest of the league beat for firepower. Carlos Vela has spent much of the year sidelined through injury, but the Mexican is finding form and fitness at the right time. Diego Rossi is another who could see the Californians make amends for the playoff failure of last season, with Bradley Wright-Phillips giving Bradley a true goalscorer.
New York City FC could be contenders if they can eliminate the sort of defensive breakdowns that saw them concede three to the Chicago Fire on the final day of the regular season. Ronny Deila’s side have become a different team since the return of Maxi Moralez to the lineup. They shouldn’t be discounted.
It might not be until the latter stages of the playoffs that the drama truly reaches a crescendo. The expanded post-season means there are some substandard teams involved that ordinarily would have been left behind in the regular season. Nonetheless, MLS has a level playing field for its teams to compete again.
MLS Playoff Schedule
Saturday, November 21
Orlando City vs NYCFC, 12:00 pm ET
Columbus vs NY Red Bulls, 3:00 pm ET
Sunday, November 22
Sporting KC vs San Jose, 4:00 pm ET
Minnesota vs Colorado, 7:30 pm ET
Portland vs FC Dallas, 10:00 pm ET
Tuesday, November 24
Toronto FC vs TBD, 6:00 pm ET
Philadelphia Union vs TBD, 8:00 pm ET
Seattle Sounders vs LAFC, 10:30 pm ET