MLS Cup playoffs: Who’s in, who’s out and the matchups if the postseason began today


With just over a week until the 2021 Major League Soccer season concludes with Decision Day (stream games LIVE on ESPN+), the race for postseason places is on. Five teams have locked up places and seven more know they’ll watch from home, but 15 clubs remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.

The top seven from each of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference make up the 14 postseason participants — the top seed in each conference earns a first-round bye — and, with berths being clinched, we’ll update you on who has qualified and who has been eliminated.

Plus, we’ll take an early look at potential matchups for Round 1, based on current standings. The MLS Cup playoffs begin on Nov. 20.

Who’s in, who’s out

Clinched playoff place:

Eastern Conference: New England Revolution, Nashville SC
Western Conference: Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders FC, Colorado Rapids

Eliminated from postseason contention:

Eastern Conference: FC Cincinnati, Toronto FC, Chicago Fire FC
Western Conference: Houston Dynamo FC, Austin FC, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes

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Who can clinch this weekend

Atlanta United: Atlanta can complete its shocking turnaround, from bottom feeders to playoff bound, with a win over Toronto and some help. The Five Stripes need the three points from a victory and Orlando dropping points to Nashville and Montreal dropping points to the Red Bulls and D.C. dropping points to Columbus.

LA Galaxy: The Galaxy are another side who can clinch with a win and some help. They’ll book their playoff place with a win over Seattle and Minnesota dropping points to Kansas City and LAFC dropping points against Vancouver.

New York City FC: There are a lot of ways for NYCFC to confirm their spot in the postseason. If they beat Miami, they’ll need the Red Bulls to lose to Montreal or D.C. to drop points vs. Columbus or Orlando to lose to Nashville or Atlanta to lose to Toronto or the Red Bulls and Montreal drawing and Atlanta and Toronto also sharing the spoils. If NYCFC draw with Miami, they can still book their postseason place by Montreal dropping points to the Red Bulls and Orlando dropping points against Nashville and D.C. losing to Columbus.

Orlando City: Orlando has to beat Nashville to clinch a playoff berth, and either of the following scenarios to play out: D.C. dropping points to Columbus and the Red Bulls and Montreal not drawing, or D.C. dropping points to Columbus and the Red Bulls and Montreal drawing and Toronto defeating Atlanta.

Philadelphia Union: So long as Philly doesn’t lose to the worst team in MLS, FC Cincinnati, the Union are in. If they do somehow manage to be defeated, they can still clinch a playoff place with any of the following scenarios unfolding: D.C. dropping points to Columbus and Montreal-Red Bulls doesn’t end in a draw; the Red Bulls lose to Montreal and Orlando drops points to Nashville; the Red Bulls and Montreal draw and D.C. drops points to Columbus and Orlando drops points to Nashville; the Red Bulls and Montreal draw and D.C. drops points vs. Columbus and Atlanta loses to Toronto; Montreal and the Red Bulls draw and Orlando drops points against Nashville and Atlanta loses to Toronto.

Portland Timbers: The Timbers are in if LAFC drop points vs. Vancouver or the Galaxy lose to Seattle and Minnesota drops points against Sporting KC.

Real Salt Lake: To book a playoff place before Decision Day, RSL need to beat San Jose and get some help: Minnesota losing to Kansas City and LAFC dropping points to Vancouver, or LAFC dropping points to Vancouver and the Galaxy dropping points to Seattle.

Vancouver Whitecaps: It’s pretty simple for Vancouver — beat LAFC and it’s in.

Who can be eliminated this weekend?

Columbus Crew: The defending MLS Cup champions will be eliminated from postseason contention if they lose or draw against D.C.

LAFC: The Black and Gold can be eliminated from the postseason race if they lose to Vancouver and any of the following scenarios play out: the Galaxy get a point or more from Seattle and RSL beat San Jose; the Galaxy beat Seattle and Minnesota beats Kansas City; RSL beat San Jose and Minnesota beats Kansas City.

Inter Miami: If Miami drops points to NYCFC, it’s out. Regardless of their result against NYCFC, the Herons can be eliminated if D.C. gets a point or more out of Columbus or the Red Bulls and Montreal don’t draw.

Minnesota United: The Loons’ season will end on Decision Day if they lose to Kansas City and Vancouver beats LAFC and the Galaxy beat Seattle and RSL beat San Jose.

Round 1 byes

New England Revolution: You’re undoubtedly used to seeing the Revs here, as they’ve been locked in as the East’s No. 1 seed for weeks on end, but something’s changed in the past few days: Bruce Arena’s team now holds the MLS record for most points in a season with 73, thanks to its midweek win over Colorado — and there’s still another three points on offer from its regular-season finale against Miami.

Sporting Kansas City: Sporting and Seattle have been jockeying for Western Conference supremacy all season, and with Decision Day now just a week away, it’s SKC who’ve reclaimed the conference’s No. 1 seed on goal differential. The two sides faced off against the two clubs from Los Angeles on Wednesday, and with Kansas City topping the Galaxy 2-0 and the Sounders falling to LAFC 3-0, Peter Vermes’ team is now positioned for a well-deserved rest during Round 1 — and has a game in hand over its rivals.

Going home

San Jose Earthquakes: Wednesday’s loss in Portland was San Jose’s fifth in its past nine contests, eliminating it from postseason contention — joining Cincinnati, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Austin and Dallas. Since winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2012, the Quakes have made just two postseason appearances: once in 2017, and again last season, in 2020’s expanded playoff field. With Jesse Fioranelli fired in July following an underwhelming four-plus-year tenure, San Jose will appoint a new GM this offseason with hopes of returning to relevancy on a West Coast chock full of perennial MLS Cup contenders.

Matchmaking: Eastern Conference

2. Nashville SC vs. 7. D.C. United: No one in MLS has conceded fewer goals than Nashville, and that’s after allowing three in Wednesday’s trip to Cincinnati — the most NSC have conceded in a game all season. Does that offer a glimmer of hope for the league’s leading goal scorer Ola Kamara? Probably not.

3. Philadelphia Union vs. 6. Atlanta United: It wasn’t that long ago that Atlanta was on the outside looking in on the playoff race, but six wins in its past nine matches has seen them climb to sixth in the East — with a game in hand, which could see them rise as high as fourth. However, of those six victories, just one has come against a playoff team (D.C.), and the three matches in which points were dropped all came against potential postseason rivals in Philadelphia, Montreal and NYCFC. Still, for a Philly team that’s dropped points in three of its past four, Josef Martinez & Co. will hardly be welcomed opponents.

4. New York City FC vs . 5. Orlando City SC: Expansion cousins, assemble! Much has changed since Kaka and David Villa squared off in these clubs’ inaugural match six-plus years ago, but one thing remains: Both outfits are still desperate for relevancy in MLS, despite significant fanfare. This is just Orlando’s second postseason appearance, while NYCFC have rarely looked threatening in playoff play. The Lions have conceded the third-most goals of any Eastern Conference club still in playoff contention, which bodes well for the league’s second-leading scorer Valentin Castellanos, who has registered two goals and an assist in his two games against Orlando this season.

Matchmaking: Western Conference

2. Seattle Sounders vs. 7. Real Salt Lake: These sides met on Sept. 19, resulting in a 1-0 win for RSL. Since then, things have been rather unpredictable for both outfits. The Sounders rebounded by winning four straight in league play, only to falter in the past two weeks, losing three of four to Houston, Sporting KC and LAFC. Salt Lake, on the other hand, has beaten contenders like the Galaxy and Colorado, but was walloped by Portland and fell to cellar dwellers Austin and Chicago.

3. Colorado Rapids vs. 6. LA Galaxy: With just two wins in their past 13, and five points separating fourth through ninth in the Western Conference, the Galaxy can consider themselves lucky to hold the sixth seed as it stands. LA has conceded a whopping 50 goals this season, second most of any team in playoff contention, which should be an appealing prospect for Rapids captain Jack Price, whose 12 assists are third most in MLS in 2021.

4. Portland Timbers vs. 5. Vancouver Whitecaps: You can always count on a Cascadia clash when the playoffs roll around — it’s just not typically Vancouver who’s participating. The history between Portland and Seattle is well documented, but it’s worth remembering that Portland and Vancouver have met 111 times throughout the years, dating back to their first encounter in the NASL in 1975. And believe it or not, the Whitecaps own the advantage in all-time head-to-head meetings, earning 46 victories to the Timbers’ 44. They split this season’s series, each winning on the road, and the goal differential in those meetings is zero. A Cascadia club has represented the Western Conference in every MLS Cup going back to 2015; is this year Vancouver’s turn to pick up the baton?

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