Preview: MLS Knockout Round

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

MLS_logo.svgMajor League Soccer is considering shifting its playoffs to a single-elimination games throughout, according to some reports. That’s already the situation facing the eight teams involved in the knockout round, with games on Wednesday and Thursday. After a 34-game regular season, the season comes down to 90 postseason minutes over the next two nights. (All times Eastern)

Chicago vs. Red Bulls (8:30 p.m. Wednesday; FS1)

No team experienced a turnaround like the Chicago Fire, who went from the league’s worst record in 2016 to its third-best this year. Bastian Schweinsteiger was the high-profile addition, but on the field he’s been overshadowed by Nemanja Nikolic, who won the league’s Golden Boot with 24 goals in his first season in MLS.

The Red Bulls haven’t quite clicked the way Coach Jesse Marsch wanted in 2017. They dropped to sixth after finishing in first place the past two seasons in the Eastern Confernce. Sacha Kljestan again led the league in assists (17) and Bradley Wright-Phillips put up 17 goals, but the team struggled defensively and as a whole when Daniel Royer, who has emerged as a key player, was missing because of injury.

The trade of Dax McCarty from New York to Chicago was the storyline heading into the first meeting between these teams in April. The Red Bulls won that game, and some of the emotions surrounding that deal have softened since. The two sides played to a 1-1 draw in September

Vancouver vs. San Jose (10:30 p.m. Wednesday; Unimás)

After a one-year absence, Coach Carl Robinson has Vancouver back in the playoffs. Kendall Waston was named the captain at the start of the season, and has been a rock in the center of defense, while he is also a threat on set pieces. Fredy Montero leads the team with 13 goals.

San Jose is in the playoffs, somehow. It took a midseason coaching change and a dramatic goal on the final day, but the Earthquakes have squeaked into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The numbers do not flatter San Jose: among playoff teams they have the fewest points (46), the fewest goals (39) and the most goals allowed (60).

The teams drew at Vancouver two weeks ago. Back in March, San Jose came from behind to win a 3-2 thriller against the 10-man Whitecaps.

Atlanta vs. Columbus (7 p.m. Thursday; ESPN)

Everything about Atlanta United’s first season has been big. From the record crowds, to goals scored (70), they have raised the bar for what an expansion side. Coach Tata Martino‘s team is the first expansion team to reach the playoffs since Seattle in 2009. Its overwhelming attack is led by Josef Martinez (19 goals).

If Columbus can win, the Crew will be returning home to a fanbase angered by recent reports that the owner Anthony Precourt plans to move the team to Austin in 2019 if the club cannot secure a new stadium downtown. The Crew missed the playoffs last year, but have returned to form in 2017 playing Coach Gregg Berhalter‘s possession-style soccer. Justin Meram has had a career year with 13 goals and 7 assists, and Ola Kamara has 18 goals, two better than last year.

Atlanta won both of its games against Columbus earlier this year, 3-1 at home in June, and 2-0 on the road in July.

Houston vs. Sporting KC (9:30 p.m. Thursday; Unimás)

In his first season on the job, Coach Wilmer Cabrera has led Houston to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. It’s quite a turnaround for a side that finished last in the Western Conference in 2016. Attacking firepower has made the difference for the Dynamo; they are the only team in MLS to have three players who each scored 10 or more goals: Cubo Torres (14), and by Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis (10 each). All three are under 25 years old.

Kansas City is going on the road in the knockout round for the fourth straight year. Once again, Sporting’s strong start to the season has given way to a fall swoon, the side-effect of a high-pressure style of play that Coach Peter Vermes‘ squads have struggled to maintain. SKC has lost at this stage by narrow margins each time: there was the “double post” in Portland two years ago, and an offside goal last year in Seattle. Can they find better luck this year?

These two sides played three times in the playoffs early this decade, when they were both in the Eastern Conference. They’ve played twice already this month. Houston came from behind to win at home on the Oct. 11, and held Sporting to a scoreless draw a few days later. Scoring has been the issue for SKC; it has only scored four goals in the five-game winless streak that ended the regular season. Gerso leads the team with seven, but only two of those have come since June and the trade of Dom Dwyer to Orlando. That would seem to be a bad match for a Dynamo attack that has been particularly potent at home: 43 of Houston’s 57 goals this season have come at BBVA Compass Stadium