If you correctly guessed that New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, and Real Salt Lake would be the final four clubs standing in the 2021 MLS playoffs, I recommend you put your psychic powers to better use.
With favorites such as New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders knocked out earlier than expected, this opens the door for all of these teams to win an MLS Cup, silence some doubters, and eradicate their own demons.
Let’s take a look at what most motivates the fans, players, and managers of each club to finish this season at the top of the mountain.
Only four teams remain in the 2021 MLS playoffs
New York City FC
Achievements: 1 Eastern Conference Regular Season Top Finish
Main Motivation: Uncharted Territory
New York City FC has not made it to the semifinals of any competition they’ve competed in since they began Major League Soccer play in 2015. They had to learn the hard way that the presence of established European players wasn’t a guaranteed blueprint for success in MLS anymore.
This current squad is now more balanced, even if it will be tough to make up for Valentin Castellanos’s absence in the Eastern Conference Final. Despite his sending off, the Citizens survived against Supporters Shield winners New England Revolution after a gutsy win at home over Atlanta United. Time will tell if they can keep pushing forward, having cleared a hurdle that tripped this club up for several years.
Achievements: 1 Supporters Shield (2020)
Main Motivation: Reversal of Knockout Tournament Fortunes
3 US Open Cup final losses in 2014, 2015, and 2018 are the closest Philadelphia Union have gotten to winning a knockout tournament, which indicates even less success in MLS Playoffs. This was most apparent during their Supporters Shield winning season when they fell to the New England Revolution 2-0 in the first round.
The departures of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie to Europe left tough voids to fill, but they have been sufficiently filled by Jim Curtin while heroic performances have come elsewhere from the likes of Jakob Glesnes, a center-back with a few bangers in his arsenal of tricks. With Andre Blake at the top of his game as well, the Union are a tough team to beat.
Achievements: 1 MLS Cup (2015), 2 Western Conference Regular Top Finishes (2013, 2017), 2 Western Conference Playoff Titles (2015, 2018), 1 MLS is Back Tournament (2020)
Main Motivation: No Asterisk
Whether it’s fair or not, winning the MLS is Back Tournament upon returning from the COVID-19 pause has not convinced some MLS fans that the Portland Timbers are capable of winning one of the more established trophies, be it a Supporters Shield or MLS Cup. Gio Savarese is a battle tested manager and this stat below is a feather in this cap regarding his ability to win important games.
Not many MLS clubs can afford to trade away Jeremy Ebobisse and still have one of the best attacking cores in the league, but that’s what the Timbers boast. In an MLS Cup Playoffs campaign where they’ve already knocked out the Western Conference Top Seed Colorado Rapids, this is a great opportunity for Providence Park to host an MLS Cup and for them to separate themselves from the 1-time winner pack should they add a second star to their crest. Even without Sebastian Blanco, veteran players such as the Chara brothers and Larrys Mabiala are leading this deep roster into battle valiantly.
Real Salt Lake
Achievements: 1 MLS Cup (2009), 1 Western Conference Playoff Title (2013), 1 Supporter’s Shield (2010), 1 US Open Cup (2013)
Main Motivation: Dawn of a New Era
Beginning MLS play in 2005, Real Salt Lake is the oldest club remaining in this year’s playoffs. The retirement of Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando was thought to bring about a rebuild at the Rio Tinto Stadium, and if not for a wild chain of events on Decision Day, that narrative would’ve been confirmed. From start to finish, their regular season campaign was a roller coaster.
From spirited wins to questionable losses, RSL remains an enigma. Sneaking into the playoffs, they arrived at Lumen Field as a Trojan Horse. David Ochoa, who confirmed his international loyalty for Mexico this year, has leaned into a heel role which is perfect for a Real Salt Lake side defying expectations and spoiling the favorites’ plans of success. Who knows what they are capable of going forward.
If you feel like an oracle and wish to predict who of these four clubs will win the 2021 MLS Cup, let me know on Twitter @IvanOrnelas2, because I could see this playing out in a dozen different ways. This uncertainty makes me look forward to the last three matches of these playoffs even more. Hopefully, you feel the same way too.