The 2020 MLS Cup playoffs are upon us. With the 18-team field whittled down to eight ahead of the conference semifinals, ESPN's Jeff Carlisle and Austin Lindberg have broken down the biggest storylines to follow this postseason and analyzed every matchup.
For the first six matches of the MLS Cup playoffs, things went according to plan. There were some near misses, but in every instance, the higher seeds pulled through.
That trend has gone sideways in the past two matchdays. On Sunday, FC Dallas eliminated the Portland Timbers on penalties and two days later Nashville SC and the New England Revolution dispatched Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union, respectively. The Eastern Conference side of the bracket is now wide open, with Columbus Crew SC (No. 3) now the highest remaining seed.
It could have been worse, too. Sporting Kansas City (No. 1 in the West) rode the shootout heroics of goalkeeper Tim Melia to get past the San Jose Earthquakes, and Orlando City SC escaped the clutches of New York City FC in the most bizarre penalty shootout imaginable.
Granted, the sample size is small, but already that makes three upsets in these playoffs and there are still three rounds to go. Last year, the league's first in which it went to a straight-knockout format, there were only four such matches in the entire postseason.
All of which would suggest that home-field advantage in these playoffs isn't as potent as it normally would be because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, the atmosphere is different. While some teams have allowed fans to attend, the numbers have been significantly reduced from what they would be in a normal postseason. Other venues like Toronto's temporary home, Rentschler Field in Hartford, Connecticut, haven't allowed fans at all.
"I feel the [absence of fans] levels everything a bit more for guys that maybe used to be not as comfortable, or not as used to playing in a big atmosphere or big crowds," TFC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg said before the playoffs began. "For us, BMO being such a special atmosphere and everything, it kind of cripples us."
That was evident in the second half of Tuesday's match between the Revs and the Union. With some fans in attendance, there didn't seem to be much in the way of atmosphere at Subaru Park, at least not the kind that would provide the emotional boost needed to inspire a comeback. (It must be said, though, that the Union didn't exactly give the home fans much to cheer about, falling behind 2-0 inside the first 30 minutes.)
Equally, it's possible for a reduced capacity crowd to still do what they can to galvanize the home side. Melia said that was precisely what the crowd at last Sunday's match at Children's Mercy Park did for SKC.
"There was a different energy in that game in that it felt like a playoff game," Melia said. "It felt like each person there was willing us and throughout the entire gameday, you could feel their energy."
The lack of fans hasn't occurred in a vacuum, however, and every matchup has its own wrinkles. Timing can be everything. Nothing impacts playoff momentum like a return to, or the absence of, health. The Revs spent much of the season without designated players Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil. Gil's recovery from a left Achilles tendon injury in particular has provided New England with an immense boost, with the Spaniard contributing a goal in the play-in round win over the Montreal Impact and two assists against the Union.
On the other side of the ledger, LAFC was missing four players due to COVID-19, including Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. Given the way the Seattle Sounders FC played on Tuesday night, it might not have mattered, but it's also clear that the Black and Gold were operating nowhere near their peak.
As the playoffs progress, COVID's impact will continue to loom large, both on the field and in the stands. -- Jeff Carlisle
Eastern Conference semifinal: Orlando City vs. New England Revolution | Sunday, 3 p.m. ET (stream live on ABC)
OUR PICK: Orlando 1-2 New England
Orlando can breathe a sigh of relief in reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning its first playoff game in its first postseason appearance following an exhilarating shootout vs. New York City FC in the first round. That sense of contentment will be short-lived, though, as the Lions will be without starting right back Ruan and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who have been the standouts of Oscar Pareja's defense.
Kyle Smith and Brian Rowe are capable understudies, but Orlando will be hamstrung by the absences of All-Star-caliber players in Ruan and Gallese. How Smith can cope with a Revs side that can be a menace in transition, with a variety of threats from wide areas, could be vital in keeping Bruce Arena's disciplined team at arm's length.
Gil is one of the league's elite playmakers, and his return from an Achilles injury suffered at the MLS is Back Tournament instantly makes New England a far more dangerous opponent. And with Bou also fit again, the Revs are at full strength going forward. Tajon Buchanan was a substantial threat in the the first-round win in Philadelphia but could his determination to get forward prove to be too adventurous against an attack featuring Nani and Chris Mueller on the flanks?
The steadiness of Brandon Bye and Alexander Buttner could go some way toward nullifying the Lions in wide areas, but both were absent in Philadelphia. Arena & Co. could use one or both of their first-choice fullbacks back in the starting XI for the trip to Central Florida. -- Austin Lindberg
Eastern Conference semifinal: Columbus Crew vs. Nashville SC | Sunday, 8 p.m. ET (stream live on ESPN)
OUR PICK: Columbus 1-1 Nashville (Columbus advances on penalties)
The sight of Pedro Santos, Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes getting on the score sheet in the 3-2 first-round win over the New York Red Bulls will come as quite the relief for Columbus, which averaged 1.4 goals for in its final 10 games of the regular season. The Crew will need to be in fine form going forward to better an extremely organized Nashville defense that shut out Supporters' Shield contender Toronto FC for 120 minutes and has conceded more than a single goal only six times all season.
The three goal scorers against the Red Bulls, and 2020 Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan, will need to have big games to see Columbus advance in an Eastern Conference that is now wide open after the eliminations of Philadelphia and Toronto. Having four players test positive for COVID-19, as the club announced Wednesday, will only complicate matters.
Nashville is unapologetic in the way it has succeeded down the stretch this season, often with 10 men behind the ball, hunkered in its own third. Gary Smith has his side well-drilled and he knows what it takes to lift MLS Cup, having done so in 2010 with the Colorado Rapids. With 2020 Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman leading the way, this defense will prove extraordinarily difficult for any opponent to break down.
Should the Music City club manage to keep the Crew quiet, there's every chance of following in the footsteps of the 1998 Chicago Fire and advancing to MLS Cup as an expansion team. The biggest question will be whether any of the club's attacking pieces will be clinical enough to convert the chances that come their way, which looked unlikely (right up until it didn't) against Toronto. -- Lindberg
Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas | Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Seattle 3-1 Dallas
Seattle looked devastating in attack against LAFC, with Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and the incomparable Nicolas Lodeiro all in superb form. Had the team's finishing been a bit sharper, the Sounders would have won the match by double digits. The expected return of center back Xavier Arreaga should also help solidify the Sounders' defense. As it stands, Seattle enters this match as a heavy favorite.
Dallas rode its defense, the goalkeeping of Jimmy Maurer and an opportunistic strike from substitute Ricardo Pepi in defeating Portland. FCD will need a similar recipe if it is to complete its playoff double over Cascadia teams. Can Dallas get it? Sure. In its playoff matchup with Seattle a year ago, Dallas pushed the Sounders to the absolute limit, falling 4-3 in extra time. But this FCD side doesn't seem as dangerous offensively. A similar wide-open affair would favor the Sounders. -- Carlisle
Sporting Kansas City vs. Minnesota United FC | Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET
OUR PICK: Kansas City 3-2 Minnesota
Having survived the aforementioned shootout against San Jose and holding the inside track to hosting MLS Cup, Kansas City will be feeling that this is its year. There's also the fact that the Loons have lost each of their previous matches in Kansas City with a goal differential of minus-10. Whether striker Alan Pulido will recover from his knee injury in time is still unknown, but the fact that SKC still managed to put three goals past San Jose will give it confidence in its attack.
But as New England showed in beating Philadelphia for the first time this year on the sixth attempt, the past counts for little in the playoffs, and SKC will need to be wary. The Minnesota attack looks to be operating close to its peak, especially now that Robin Lod, Kevin Molino and Emanuel Reynoso look to have established some chemistry. It will also benefit from having right back Romain Metanire back in the lineup following his quarantine due to international duty. Given how fragile Kansas City's backline looked against San Jose, the Loons figure to do plenty to threaten the home side. -- Carlisle