Let’s face it: many people subscribed to MLS League Pass because of Lionel Messi. When arguably the greatest player in history joins a league, he brings millions of followers worldwide, and Apple TV carried his and Inter Miami’s dramatic run to Leagues Cup victory to (almost) every corner.
However, when Messi suffered an injury on international duty, his teammates could not keep the feint hope of Miami qualifying for the league trophy alive, suffering elimination from playoff contention with two games to go.
If you count yourself among those whose interest in the league was first piqued by Messi’s presence, worry not: The playoffs are always exciting and unpredictable, and there are more than enough storylines to follow. Here are six of the most exciting playoff teams to watch.
Going for a double
FC Cincinnati’s rise from dysfunctionality to the league’s best team is the kind of rags-to-riches story the global soccer system does not typically allow for. The club was simply atrocious for its first three seasons since its MLS debut in 2019. In fact, all three campaigns from 2019 through 2021 rank amongst the league’s top 10 worst-ever seasons. Two years ago, Cincy failed to win any of its final 20 games of the regular season and conceded five goals from set pieces alone to eventual champions NYCFC. They seemingly constantly hired and fired unsuccessful general managers and head coaches while maintaining a wage bill that rivaled the league’s wealthiest franchises, but failure was consistent.
The hiring of Chris Albright as general manager and Pat Noonan as head coach changed everything. With both coming from the Philadelphia Union, Albright and Noonan have led Cincy to the 2023 Supporters’ Shield – the award given to the club with the best regular season record.
It’s not entirely unprecedented to see an MLS club make such a sharp ascent, but the way Cincinnati stormed to its first trophy is astounding – the club lost star Brazilian striker Brenner to Serie A’s Udinese this summer and hardly missed a beat, securing the Shield with three games remaining in the regular season.
Testing themselves in the playoffs for the first time will be a different challenge entirely, however – Cincy’s players will likely have to face several teams that have already bested them this season on their way to the MLS Cup final. But with home advantage on their side, Noonan’s side is about as safe a bet as possible for the 2023 postseason.
The fairytale story
St. Louis is among the most historic soccer towns in the United States, having developed some of the most influential college programs, professional players, coaches, executives, leagues and teams the country has seen – yet it only became home to an MLS team this season. For that reason, it is perhaps no surprise the team has been embraced with open arms in its first season, selling out their home stadium for every league match this campaign. What is surprising, however, is how they have dominated the Western Conference.
Ahead of the season, St. Louis was near-uniformly predicted to finish at the bottom of their conference. Some off-season additions seemed curious, like signing Brazilian striker Joao Klauss to a designated player (DP) contract, one of three players a club is allowed to sign whose salaries exceed the league’s salary cap, despite a relatively poor goal return in recent years. Former Borussia Dortmund and Switzerland keeper Roman Burki also signed, moving away from convention as MLS clubs typically prefer to recruit for that position from within the country given the historically strong goalkeeper pool. Technical director Lutz Pfannenstiel and head coach Bradley Carnell were proven right, though: both signings, alongside second DP Eduard Löwen, have proven to be masterstrokes.
Arriving from New York Red Bulls, Carnell has adopted many of their footballing principles to build a side that is arguably more effective without the ball than with it. Propelled by an unmistakable identity and fervent fanbase, St. Louis became the first expansion team to win their regular-season conference title in the history of the United States’ five major men’s sports leagues. If they were to win the MLS Cup, this campaign would undoubtedly be the greatest inaugural season in American sports history, surpassing the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The in-form team
The playoffs could not arrive at a better time for Houston Dynamo, arguably the league’s form team heading into the postseason. In early October, the Dynamo clinched a playoff berth for the first time in five seasons a week after winning their first major trophy in five years: the U.S. Open Cup, beating a Messi-less Miami in the final.
Under head coach Ben Olsen and general manager Pat Onstad, the Dynamo underwent a significant roster overhaul in preparation for the season, signing 17 players. But no player has had a greater impact on Houston’s success than a player who arrived last campaign and initially struggled: Hector Herrera. The Mexico international has embodied the hardworking principles of the head coach in midfield, tearing around the field and contributing with an impressive four goals and 11 assists.
If Amine Bassi can find another level in front of goal when it matters most, Olsen has all the right ingredients in defense and midfield to go deep.
The title holders
While success in the previous season has almost zero effect on the following season, it would be unwise to rule out LAFC, one of the few teams capable of blowing any MLS team away on their day.
It’s been a topsy-turvy season for last year’s MLS Cup champions as they aim to become the first team to defend the title since arch-rivals LA Galaxy went back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. Steve Cherundolo’s side came out firing, going eight games unbeaten to start the season and reaching the final of the CONCACAF Champions League – knocking the Union out on the way, the side they beat to win their first MLS Cup. However, since they were beaten comfortably by Club Leon over two legs in May and June, LAFC has struggled to respond effectively to significant roster turnover and a hectic schedule, collecting just six wins from the following 21 league matches.
Despite a tough time in recent months, the Black and Gold sit second in the Western Conference with one game remaining, and will secure their position with a win against a Vancouver Whitecaps side that has already qualified for the playoffs on October 21.
Outside of the experience of winning the trophy already, LAFC’s X-factor is forward Denis Bouanga, a strong candidate for this year’s MVP trophy. The Gabon international, who primarily plays as a left-sided attacker, has scored 32 goals in all competitions this year and currently leads MLS’ Golden Boot race with 19. With five goals in his last two league appearances, he’s hitting form at exactly the right time.
Messi’s international teammate
If you followed Argentina’s triumphant run to the World Cup last year, there might have been a moment where you rubbed your glasses to make sure you were not seeing double as a diminutive attacker stepped on the pitch to replace Alexis Mac Allister against Poland. That player was Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada – the first MLS player to win the World Cup while playing in the league. If none of the teams above have grabbed you, and you’re intent on maintaining some sort of Messi connection in your MLS watching, Atlanta United might be the team for you thanks to Almada’s presence.
Like Messi, Almada does some of his best work in set-piece situations. His free kick against the Portland Timbers in a 5-1 win in March was an early goal of the year contender, striking a ball from more than 30 yards out in a knuckle style more similar to Messi’s great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo.
With arguably the greatest player in history drawing towards the end of his career, Almada is among the candidates to inherit Messi’s role as the primary playmaker in Argentina’s team in the coming years, and with that, he is expected to move to Europe sooner rather than later. The playoffs could be your last chance to see him before the next presumably ascendant phase of his career.
The slow climbers
Orlando City has slowly been working its way up to serious contention for several seasons. Since 2020, when the club reached the COVID-era MLS is Back Tournament quarter-finals, Orlando has consistently qualified for the postseason but fallen at the first hurdle. This year, they are in the best position since joining MLS in 2015 to challenge for the league’s most celebrated trophy.
Oscar Pareja’s side rarely blow teams away (a 4-0 win over bottom-dwellers Toronto FC is their largest margin of victory), but they are seldom blown away either – their sole defeat by three goals or more came four days after that Toronto win. Still, they have shown the ability to beat fellow title contenders in style, defeating St. Louis City, Cincinnati, Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution in a little over a month.
Orlando benefits from being in a prime location for South American players and takes pride in its role in facilitating moves to Europe. 23-year-old Uruguay international Facundo Torres is Orlando’s star attacker and is somebody to keep an eye on as a potential signing for a club in a top-five European league.