The captivating 2022 Major League Soccer regular season is behind us, and while we feel for the unlucky fans of the 14 clubs whose campaigns are disappointingly over, we're energized by a fresh looking postseason field ready to contest the MLS Cup playoffs. Supporters' Shield winners LAFC and the Philadelphia Union will enjoy a bye in Round One's opening salvos, leaving the Nos. 2 through 7 seeds in both the Eastern and Western conferences to kick off the postseason beginning on Saturday.
ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Bill Connelly, Dan Hajducky, Cesar Hernandez and Austin Lindberg preview all six Round 1 matchups, predicting which clubs will be moving on to the conference semifinals and whose players should begin booking travel arrangements for holidays in far-flung locales during the all-too-short offseason.
4. New York Red Bulls vs. 5. FC Cincinnati (Saturday, noon ET)
Can we have a moment to celebrate the Orange and Blue? FC Cincinnati took full points eleven times in 2022 after combining for just 14 in their three previous seasons as an MLS club -- a step forward that can't be encapsulated here. Conversely, the Red Bulls haven't missed a postseason since 2009 and this one's in Harrison, New Jersey.
Though New York is favored to advance, it's a pretty even match. The historically stingy Red Bulls back line should have its hands full with Brandon Vazquez, Young Player of the Year finalist Brenner and an FC Cincy offense that finished third in the league in goals scored (64). But it really comes down to a few key factors:
Who concedes first? Cincinnati won one of twelve games when doing so; the Red Bulls are tied for fifth in wins after going down.
Who forces the most errors? New York led the league in fouls committed. Although Cincinnati weren't particularly adept at drawing fouls, a costly mistake could loom large.
Who pushes the pace? Both New York (1.91, 1st) and Cincy (1.63, 6th) are in the six fastest teams -- on a meters-per-second basis -- in MLS. This one will be fought directly, with frenetic pace at goal, and very little crossing play from the flanks.
If anyone's poised to ride out a tie through extra time and dance on by the skin of their teeth, it's Cincy. -- Hajducky
The question here is: How ugly can the Red Bulls make this game in order to thwart Cincy's attack? The answer is plenty, but outside of Lewis Morgan, New York's attack isn't that compelling, while Cincinnati's is. Look for FCC to get a road win here. -- Carlisle
Cincinnati's ability to transform from historically bad to playoff team in one year speaks to one of the best aspects of the MLS structure. I'm not of the mind that playoff experience necessarily matters, either, and like FCC to win a low-scoring game. -- Bonagura
Two regular-season draws hint at the evenness of the matchup, and Cincinnati have been putting up some gaudy goal totals of late. But if playoff experience is worth anything (even bad playoff experience), the Red Bulls hold the slightest of edges. -- Connelly
I'm a sucker for an underdog arc. I think the combo of Brenner and Vazquez up front overpowers New York. On march the Orange and Blue. -- Hajducky
There's a lot to like about the FCC attack that features standouts like Vazquez, Acosta and Brenner. If the defense doesn't collapse, Cincinnati can escape with a win here in their first-ever MLS playoff game. -- Hernandez
The Red Bulls boast the second-stingiest defense in the Eastern Conference, but Brenner is demonstrating why he was so highly touted coming out of Brazil, Brandon Vazquez is scoring goals the USMNT sorely lack from their No. 9s and Luciano Acosta is one of the league's premier playmakers once again. Cincy just have too much firepower for New York to keep up. -- Lindberg
2. CF Montreal vs. 7. Orlando City SC (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN)
The hottest team in MLS over the season's final three months came just two points shy of the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Montreal have lost just once since July 9, and they hold most of the edges over No. 7 seed Orlando unless the gods of single-elimination playoff decide to be particularly fickle.
Montreal boast one of the league's most prolific attacks. They generate high-quality looks from close range -- they had the league's highest percentage of shots from the box -- and the combination of Eredivisie-bound creator and Djordje Mihailovic and veteran forwards Romell Quioto and Kei Kamara has been especially effective. The trio combined for 33 goals and 19 assists from 104 chances created in the regular season. The attack is title worthy, while the defense has been barely playoff worthy.
Orlando were one constant plot twist in 2022. Oscar Pareja's squad won four in a row in August to bolt comfortably into the playoff conversation and, for good measure, won the U.S. Open Cup in early September after a particularly dramatic run. But they lost four of their final six regular-season matches and didn't secure a playoff bid until Facundo Torres' 84th-minute penalty gave them a 2-1 win over Columbus on Sunday. The prolific Torres and fellow newcomer Ercan Kara combined for 20 goals and 13 assists from 60 chances created.
Montreal won their only battle with Orlando this season, turning a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 romp with late goals from Joaquin Torres and Zachary Brault-Guillard in May. Both of these teams want to possess the ball and control the tempo, and both have given up high-quality chances at times. Montreal have been better this season, but it would only take one parry from Torres and Kara to make things interesting. -- Connelly
Montreal have been quietly going about their business all year with a ruthless efficiency. Orlando have been a bit all over the place, even while winning the U.S. Open Cup. In the playoffs all of this matters little, but still look for CFM to get the win over Orlando. -- Carlisle
For the soccer club formerly known as the Impact, this has been without question the best season of their MLS existence, and I'm expecting a run to the conference final. -- Bonagura
Aside from NYCFC, there isn't a bigger first-round betting favorite than Montreal, and the reasons are pretty obvious. Orlando upset Philadelphia and won two shootouts on the way to the U.S. Open Cup final, but we'll say they've maxed out their drama quota. -- Connelly
Let's not overthink it: No team tallied more points after May 1 than Montreal, and Orlando City marches to the Great White North with, per FiveThirtyEight, a 20% chance to advance. Montreal might look past Orlando City toward a fearsome Philadelphia Union squad, but it feels unlikely. -- Hajducky
Their path to the 2022 U.S. Open Cup highlighted that Orlando and Pareja can thrive in knockout situations. Gutsy and capable of closing out games in their favor, Orlando will at the very least make things difficult for Montreal. -- Hernandez
Cesar Araujo's arrival in Orlando last winter flew under the radar amid the high-profile signings of Torres and Kara, yet he's the one who will determine whether the Lions can advance from this matchup, and it comes down to his ability to chaperone Mihailovic. I don't like his odds. -- Lindberg
3. New York City FC vs. 6. Inter Miami CF (Monday, 7 p.m. ET)
After a disastrous stretch from August into September that saw NYCFC, the defending MLS Cup champions, lose seven of nine matches, three straight wins to close the regular season appear to have somewhat righted the ship. Still, as a result of injuries and departures, this team hardly resembles the group that won the Cup last year. The availability of Talles Magno, Tayvon Gray and Alfredo Morales -- all of whom were forced off with knocks in the regular-season finale -- looms large in a game that will be played at Citi Field.
For Miami, Gonzalo Higuain's incredible run of form to end the season -- 14 goals in 16 matches -- has been one of the league's best storylines during the second half of the year. His play has been the most significant single factor that allowed the club to rebound from last year's failure and do so with nearly an entirely reconstructed roster.
The teams split their two matches during the regular season with NYCFC winning 2-0 at home before Miami took their home match 3-2. Miami's win was their first ever in the series after NYCFC won five straight after the Herons entered the league in 2020. -- Bonagura
NYCFC haven't looked the same since manager Ronny Deila left, and are having to play this game at Citi Field, but Miami could be missing Alejandro Pozuelo and Leonardo Campana, which could end up leaving red-hot Higuain isolated. -- Carlisle
The thought of Higuain's final professional game taking place on a Monday night at Citi Field just feels wrong. I think he finds the winner and prolongs things for another round. -- Bonagura
NYCFC were clearly the better team over the full season, but Inter have been the better team over the past two months. There are always surprises in the MLS Cup playoffs, so let's get weird: Miami take down the champs and Higuain's career lasts a bit longer. -- Connelly
Will the impending retirement of Gonzalo Higuain propel Inter Miami past reigning MLS Cup champs NYCFC? It seems unlikely, but the circumstances are there: NYCFC was one of only two MLS clubs to lose seven games from Aug. 6 on -- a complete 180 from the first two-thirds of the season, when they were top three in both wins and goal differential. Miami sink NYCFC, fueled by a legend's send-off. -- Hajducky
After announcing he will retire at the end of 2022, Higuain is closing out his career in a thrilling run of form and should be a key factor against an NYCFC side that no longer have several of the decisive figures that carried them to a title last year. -- Hernandez
The home comforts of Citi Field couldn't keep the Mets from making an early postseason exit, but NYCFC have lost on a baseball diamond just three times this season, and the subject of the venue is clearly on Miami manager Phil Neville's mind. -- Lindberg
4. LA Galaxy vs. 5. Nashville SC (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET)
This is one of those games where each team is content with their opponent's style. The Galaxy are all about possession, and using the likes of Ricard Puig, Douglas Costa and Samuel Grandsir to unsettle defenses and set up Javier Hernandez. That suits Nashville just fine, as Gary Smith's side is content at being defensively sound, absorbing pressure and using the brilliance of Hany Mukhtar to punish teams on the break.
It was the summer arrivals of Puig and Gaston Brugman that pushed the Galaxy into the playoffs, with LA losing just once since Puig made his debut. In spite of the Galaxy's attacking prowess, though, Nashville are a notoriously difficult team to break down. While the Yotes suffered some ups and downs during the season, Nashville have conceded just five goals in their past eight games.
For Nashville, the bigger question is will Mukhtar get any help? C.J. Sapong hasn't scored since May, but links well with Mukhtar. Teal Bunbury has scored as many goals, five, in about a quarter of the minutes, but doesn't combine as well.
The key to the game will be the play of Brugman. If he can stay disciplined, not get sucked too far forward and do his bit to deny Mukhtar service, the Galaxy should be able to carry the day. But such is Mukhtar's efficiency -- his xG was 20.46 against his 23 goals scored -- that all it takes is for him to convert one opportunity and the game can be turned upside down. -- Carlisle
As defensively stout as Nashville are, look for Puig's creativity to carry the day in front of a partisan Galaxy crowd. -- Carlisle
The Galaxy are peaking at the right time with only one loss over their final 11 matches to earn a home playoff match. Puig's arrival has been key and it will be against Nashville, too. -- Bonagura
These teams are very similar, from their creation of high-quality shots to their occasional defensive breakdowns. It makes sense, then, that their last match was a testy 1-1 draw in Nashville, but back in California, we'll say the home team has the edge. -- Connelly
From Aug. 21 through season's end, only Montreal tallied more points than Nashville and only Philadelphia had a better goal differential across the league. The Boys in Gold even edged MLS Cup favorites LAFC last Sunday. The Galaxy have only lost once in league play going back to the first week of August, but expect 2022 Golden Boot winner Hany Mukhtar to book their ticket back to Carson, California. -- Hajducky
As long as they aren't missing any crucial penalties, the attacking combination between Chicharito and Puig should be enough to carry the Galaxy over the line. Chicharito seems especially motivated with four goals in his past four appearances. -- Hernandez
Puig has been a revelation and Chicharito has no trouble finding the back of the net, but do the Galaxy have someone to create something from nothing if a stalemate drags on and the home crowd grows restless? Because Nashville do in Mukhtar. -- Lindberg
2. Austin FC vs. 7. Real Salt Lake (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, stream live on ABC)
A less-than-thrilling debut season in 2021 laid the groundwork for a dream 2022 and an upcoming first-ever playoff appearance for Austin. Led by MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi and his 22 goals, the Verde rocketed up the Western Conference standings, eventually finishing second in the table. In front of what should be another raucous crowd at Q2 Stadium -- tickets for Sunday's game sold out "in minutes" -- Austin will have an invaluable chance to move one step closer to a championship in just their second year.
But will RSL spoil the party? Head coach Pablo Mastroeni and his men closed out the season on an emphatic note with a 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers, while Austin slumped to their third match in a row without a victory after a 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids. Let's not forget what RSL did in last year's playoff run, either. From the same seventh seed, RSL stunned title contenders Seattle in the first round of the playoffs through a win on penalties, later making their way to the Western Conference final.
Austin are the favorites here and should walk away with a convincing result, but that said, Mastroeni and a core of RSL's 2021 roster remain in the club that won't be lacking confidence after what happened last year. -- Hernandez
RSL have been punching above their weight for what seems like forever, and Austin haven't been playing that great of late, with just one win in their past seven, but any team with Driussi in it figures to have enough to win a home playoff game -- even against a side as gritty as RSL. -- Carlisle
RSL's run to the conference final last year is evidence enough that you write them off at your own peril, but this Austin team has too much firepower to expect an upset here. -- Bonagura
Austin clearly aren't the same smoking-hot team they were earlier this season, and Salt Lake hold the edge in playoff experience, but Austin's 3-0 head-to-head win isn't that far in the rearview mirror and it makes it difficult to pick against them. -- Connelly
Hard to imagine the once-red-hot Austin going out this early ... but after their 4-1 drubbing of LAFC at the tail end of August, they only took full points in one of seven. But there's a reason Sebastian Driussi is an MLS MVP finalist; the Verde will come together behind their leader and dispatch Real Salt Lake. -- Hajducky
Driussi has been one of the more impressive game-changers in MLS this year, and even if he and the rest of the frontline aren't at their best, goalkeeper Brad Stuver should be able to keep RSL quiet. Also, with the home crowd behind them, Austin have only lost three times at Q2 Stadium all season. -- Hernandez
Six minutes after tickets for this game went on sale at Q2 Stadium, they were sold out. The Texas capital has been waiting for a moment like this, and Los Verde are primed to feed off what will be one of the most electric crowds of the postseason. -- Lindberg
3. FC Dallas vs. 6. Minnesota United (Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET)
These teams split their meetings this year: the Loons winning in Frisco in May 2-1 and Dallas coming to Allianz Field and earning a 3-0 victory in September. The xG tally illustrates just how little separated these sides over those two games: Dallas' 2.2 to Minnesota's 2.01.
Perhaps tellingly, the three goals that FCD scored themselves (Michael Boxall conceded an own-goal in the September game) all came from incredibly mobile attackers Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola and Alan Velasco. With Sebastian Lletget pulling the strings from the midfield (registering two assists in that September win), Dallas pose considerable threat in transition, with potent quick-strike capability. That may prove problematic for United.
Minnesota are without two first-choice defenders in right-back Romain Metanire and center-back Bakaye Dibassy, and Opening Day midfielder Hassani Dotson is also missing with a torn ACL. Neither Boxall nor Dibassy's stand-in Brent Kallman are particularly mobile, midfield shield Wil Trapp can't count agility or quickness among his strongest assets either, and his expected partner in the engine room is Robin Lod, a converted winger. The Loons look particularly exposed to the threat posed by Dallas' fluid attack.
With so little to separate these teams, this game could well come down to moments of individual brilliance, and there is an argument to be made that no one on the field come Monday night has a lengthier highlight reel in 2022 than Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair. Only Andre Blake and Dorde Petrovic prevented fewer goals this season, according to TruMedia, and if the All-Star Game MVP is to have much hope of reaching the conference semifinals, he'll need to put on a show once more. -- Lindberg
Of the two teams, Dallas is the in-form side, as the Loons stumbled down the stretch. And while Minnesota's Emanuel Reynoso can win games by himself, Dallas' front three of Velasco, Ferreira and Arriola should carry the day. -- Carlisle
Dallas had a strong tendency to play to the level of their opponents, with only three matches decided by more than one goal over the second half of the season. One of those was a 3-0 win at Minnesota, which is enough to make FCD the pick here. -- Bonagura
It's been a while since Dallas made a big playoff run. We'll say they're due. They showed just enough finishing prowess down the stretch, and they'll keep it going on Monday night. -- Connelly
After Philadelphia, no one conceded fewer goals than Dallas. Jesús Ferreira, not 22 until December, netted 18 goals this season. With a World Cup roster call likely, he could follow -- and ideally improve upon -- Ricardo Pepi's European exodus. Look for this MLS Cup to be a sweet send-off. -- Hajducky
Outside of LAFC, no playoff team in the West claimed more points at home than Dallas. Coupled with the intriguing attacking trio of Ferreira, Arriola and Velasco (if healthy), they should be able to cruise to a win here. -- Hernandez
Dallas has too much pace and too many threats from too many different areas of the pitch for Minnesota's midfield and defense to contain. Ferreira might not have much fun in a 90-minute physical confrontation with Boxall, but Arriola and Velasco should find joy in the channels and between the lines. -- Lindberg