Photo by SounderBruce / Flickr
After a regular season unlike any other, 18 of Major League Soccer’s 26 teams have qualified for the playoffs and will vie for MLS Cup. Ten of the postseason participants come from the 14-team Eastern Conference, including four of the five most successful teams in the regular season from a points per game perspective.
With the MLS playoffs set to get underway when Nashville SC, the New England Revolution, the Montreal Impact and Inter Miami participate in the play-in round on Nov. 20, here are the reason for optimism, reason for concern, x-factor and bottom line for all 10 Eastern Conference playoff teams.
10) Inter Miami (7-13-3, 1.04 PPG)
Reason for optimism: The talent is there
Inter Miami are arguably the most dangerous of the four teams playing in the play-in round despite what their record indicates. Their last four games consisted of a win over Orlando, a blown lead in Dallas, a blown lead against Montreal and a victory against Cincinnati. Few teams in MLS have a pair of players with the international pedigree of Gonzalo Higuaín and Rodolfo Pizarro. David Beckham wanted big names on this team and he now has one in Higuaín. If they get Pizarro back for the play-in game or stay alive until returns from quarantine, a deep run isn’t out of the question.
Reason for concern: Inability to hold onto leads
Inter Miami have scored first in four of their past six games and wound up losing more of those games (2) than they won (1). Brek Shea put them ahead in the 80th minute against Atlanta and the game was tied by the 83rd. Dallas and Toronto both got late winners after falling behind to put Inter Miami’s playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. Their failure to see out games when scoring first has been a consistent theme dating back to the first game of the MLS is Back tournament, when Nani completed Orlando’s comeback in the 97th minute. Playing in a winner-take-all format makes this well-developed pattern even more concerning.
X-factor: Gonzalo Higuaín
Higuaín’s time in MLS has been underwhelming with just one goal in 801 minutes for his new club so far. The 0.34 goals and assists per 90 minutes he is generating is by far the lowest of his 15-year career. While he contributes to the attack in more ways than Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the much-maligned Mexican has scored more goals in fewer minutes for the L.A. Galaxy than Higuaín has for Inter Miami. Any formula for winning more than one game starts with Higuaín becoming the difference-maker he was brought in to be.
Year one has not gone to plan for Diego Alonso’s team, but they snuck into the postseason and gave themselves a chance. Having to play an extra game and then face the Supporters’ Shield winners means no team has a tougher path to MLS Cup. Make no mistake though: The Philadelphia Union will be rooting for Nashville in that play-in game.
On page 2: Montreal Impact