All statistics in this article come from the official website of Major League Soccer.
The autumn wind whips around corners, sending bronzed leaves in a dizzying spiral toward the earth. Scattered pumpkins line the pathways toward Georgetown dormitories, in which Hoyas gather conspiring about the perfect Halloween costume, frantically studying for endless midterms, or, like me, eyeing the 2022 finalized Major League Soccer (MLS) table.
On the heels of another thrilling Decision Day, the 2022 MLS playoffs are fast approaching. In an especially competitive year, eleven teams in the west and nine teams in the east were still fighting for the seven playoff spots in each conference as recently as two weeks before the season’s end. Goals abounded in typical high-scoring MLS fashion; expect more in the playoffs with an array of electric offenses squaring off.
Favorites Los Angeles FC (LAFC), Philadelphia, and Montréal look tough to beat, but the clubs below them are more than capable of causing chaos. Let’s take a look at how each club measures up.
1. Philadelphia Union (67 points, 19-10-5): After missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to LAFC on the tiebreaker of total wins, Philadelphia heads into the playoffs to prove they are the best in the MLS. They led the league with a whopping 72 goals scored – the prolific attacking trio of Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre, and Dániel Gazdag combining for 49 as well as 25 assists. What’s more, they only conceded 26 goals, the fewest amount ever in an MLS season. The Union do have a history of choking at the worst possible moment, and a recent 4-0 upset loss to Charlotte FC shows they can be shut down. However, at their best and in front of a home crowd, they are unplayable. The road to the Eastern Conference Final goes through Subaru Park, and the “boys in blue” are unbeaten at home in 2022 (12-5-0).
Key player: GK Andre Blake. The Jamaican international is a perennial MLS goalkeeper of the year contender. This year, he recorded 15(!) clean sheets, and his standout performances this year saved Philadelphia on multiple occasions. His athletic ability and tactical nous between the posts could propel the Union far.
2. CF Montréal (65 points, 20-5-9): If you want a thrill, watch this Montréal team play. With 63 goals for and 50 against, won many close games at the last minute. However, it took a while for this squad to make an “impact.” Midway through the year, Montréal languished in mid table with 8 losses in 19 games played. Since then, they have been the hottest team in the league, going 11-3-1 in their final 15 games. They stuck with embattled manager Wilfried Nancy through a disappointing 2021 season and early 2022, and their persistence has paid off handsomely. The attack, led by wily veteran forwards Romell Quioto (15 goals, 6 assists) and Kei Kamara (9, 7) as well as emerging American talent Djordje Mihailovic (9, 6), has shined, but the squad as a whole has looked excellent. Momentum is key in professional sports, and I think it will take Montréal far.
Key player: MF Djordje Mihailovic. Injured for much of June and July, Mihailovic still managed to make a major impact and is finally hitting his stride. He gets a big money move to Europe this January, with Dutch Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar having shelled out six million U.S. dollars for his services. The American plays a flexible and creative role in this Montréal team and defenses will have to watch out for him in his MLS swan song.
3. New York City FC (NYCFC) (55 points, 16-7-11): The reigning MLS Cup champions enter the postseason as the 3-seed this year with a lot of questions to answer. They looked dominant and led the Eastern Conference for the first few months of the season, but the departure of manager Ronny Deila to Belgian club Standard Liège and, soon after, talismanic forward Valentín “Taty” Castellanos to fellow City Football Group club Girona rocked their form and sent them in a spiral down the table. However, the points cushion they had accumulated and a brief winning run to close out the season leave them in a comfortable position. Interim manager Nick Cushing seems to have found a formula that works, but will it be enough for them to reach their former heights? Recent victories against playoff clubs New York Red Bulls and Orlando City would suggest so, but I still don’t think they will be able to hang with the East’s top two.
Key player: LB/CB Alexander Callens. The Peruvian international has been a rock in the NYCFC defense for multiple years now, as well as a key cog in last year’s MLS Cup run. It is no coincidence that they lost five of the six games he missed due to injury this August. An aggressive defender with an eye for goal as well, Callens at his best can take this team far.
4. New York Red Bulls (53 points, 15-8-11): A perennial playoff team, the New York (technically New Jersey) arm of the Red Bull football conglomerate is the model of consistency. After just sneaking in last year, they have built upon their previous campaign and secured a home game against Cincinnati in the knockout round. They owe this largely to an investment in both homegrown and international youth talent; U.S. U20 international left back John Tolkin has been a particular standout. With 50 goals scored and 41 conceded, the Red Bulls are the perfect example of a good, but not great, team. They can compete with the best teams in the league, but also play down to the worst ones. I predict an early playoff exit for the Red Bulls, but they won’t go down without a fight.
Key player: LW Lewis Morgan. The Scotsman had a largely pedestrian season last year with Inter Miami, but a move up I-95 has revitalized his career. The marauding attacker registered 14 goals and 4 assists from the left wing in league play.
5. FC Cincinnati (49 points, 12-13-9): What a turnaround! After finishing last in the Eastern Conference in its first two seasons in the MLS, former Philly assistant coach Pat Noonan’s arrival as manager this season catapulted the Orange and Blue to a fifth place finish. Their fast-paced offense has thrived on Argentine midfielder Luciano Acosta, who leads the league with 19 assists, sliding in through balls to the strike partnership of Brandon Vázquez and Brenner, who have tallied 18 goals each. This team now looks good on paper, and they have battled to some impressive results. Under the radar, Cincy only lost two of their final 20 league games, beating Noonan’s old club 3-1 at home in the process. Several draws stalled their climb up the table, but if they can keep their form of avoiding losses in the playoffs, Cincinnati will be dangerous.
Key player: CAM Luciano “Lucho” Acosta. As mentioned earlier, he tallied 19 assists this season, but he also scored 10 goals, landing him just behind MLS MVP frontrunners Hany Mukhtar, Nashville (34), Dániel Gazdag, Philadelphia (32), and Sebastián Driussi, Austin (29) in combined league goals and assists. He is beyond instrumental to this Cincinnati offense.
6. Inter Miami CF (48 points, 14-6-14): Miami have a lot in common with Cincinnati: they have also finally made the knockout round in their third year in MLS and they fell just short in the play-in round to Nashville in 2020’s covid-modified season. The Herons had an up-and-down season, with a run of four wins in their final five games sending them flying into the postseason. Phil Neville’s men finally seem to have found a sense of teamwork and belief following a myriad of issues on and off the field in the early days of owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas’s glitzy project in South Florida. These former afterthoughts are on a mission to shake things up this October.
Key player: ST Gonzalo Higuaín. The 34-year-old Argentine legend recently announced that this season will be his last, and boy, has he made it count. He worked through a slow start to notch a staggering 14 goals and 2 assists in his past 15 games. All eyes will be on him as he battles to go out on a high note.
7. Orlando City SC (48 points, 14-6-14): Orlando rounds out the East. A tumultuous season under Oscar Pareja culminating in a barren run of one win in five games was saved with a dramatic 84th minute penalty winner by Facundo Torres against Columbus that sent Orlando to the playoffs at the Crew’s expense. Marquee attackers Ercan Kara and Torres have performed well, but not completely up to expectations. Orlando can beat anyone if everything clicks, but how often will that happen? Ultimately, I think the U.S. Open Cup is the only piece of silverware Orlando will win this year.
Key player: RW Facundo Torres. The crafty Uruguayan has adjusted well to the MLS after a January transfer from Peñarol, finding success both as a finisher and provider with nine goals and ten assists.
1. Los Angeles FC (67 points, 21-4-9): If you ask any non-American about the MLS, chances are LAFC will be one of the first clubs mentioned. This is because the Black and Gold have flexed their financial muscles (within the MLS salary cap of course), Hollywood allure, and business savvy to sign some of the best talents from Europe and Latin America. Combined with excellent coaching from first-year manager and USMNT legend Steve Cherundolo, this resulted in a controlled dominance of the Western Conference for most of the campaign and a second Supporters’ Shield win in four years (quite impressive considering they missed out on the playoffs last year). The genius of Carlos Vela, quiet excellence of Cristian Arango, and emergence of José Cifuentes, among an all-around excellently performing roster and veteran leadership from legends Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale make this team tough to break down and tough to stop. Five losses in their last nine matches, however, show that they are quite beatable and need to work out some kinks fast to back up their status. Nevertheless, as long as LAFC keep winning, the road to the MLS Cup goes through the gorgeous Banc of California Stadium.
Key player: RW Carlos Vela. It’s difficult to choose, but in the end, you have to go with the talismanic Mexican international. The 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP winner is having a “down season” with only 12 goals and 11 assists thus far. His experience, trickery, vision, and eye for a golazo change games for LAFC.
2. Austin FC (56 points, 16-8-10): Not too long ago, we were talking about Austin FC as a very real Supporter’s Shield contender. My, how the times have changed. A late-season skid in which “Los Verdes” only won one of their last seven and scored just six goals was a sharp contrast from their winning and free-scoring ways earlier on. Still, in their second season ever, Austin has been the MLS’s surprise package under head coach Josh Wolff. They flipped from 12th of 13 in the west last campaign to second of 14 this year. Sebastián Driussi (22 goals, 9 assists) and Diego Fagúndez (6 goals, 15 assists) led the way, followed by a fairly even spread of goal contributions throughout the first-team squad.
Key player: CAM Sebastián Driussi. The Argentine took a bit to adjust after joining Austin in 2021, but he has dazzled this year with match-winning performance after match winning performance. His impact has given him a very real chance of taking home the MLS MVP this fall.
3. FC Dallas (53 points, 14-11-9): FC Dallas have quietly been one of the toughest sides in the league to play against, grinding out countless 1-0 wins and 1-1 draws. Their defense, led by veteran center backs Matt Hedges and José Martínez, conceded only 37 goals, the second fewest in the league. They have had a fairly even season, but come into the playoffs off the back of a couple dominant September performances, including a 2-1 win at home to LAFC. On top of that, promising 20-year-old winger Alan Velasco comes back from injury just in time for the postseason. Other graduates of the storied FC Dallas Academy such as midfielders Edwin Cerrillo and Paxton Pomykal start almost every game for Dallas, and as always, they will need to rely on that youth to go far.
Key player: ST Jesús Ferreira. Ferreira, a 21-year-old Colombian-American academy graduate, has had a career year, putting up 18 goals and 6 assists. This form has vaulted him into contention to travel to Qatar with the USMNT World Cup Squad in November, so he will be especially motivated to shine this postseason.
4. LA Galaxy (50 points, 14-8-12): The Galaxy have had a wild season. Two unbeaten runs bookended an stretch in the middle, Rayan Raveloson left for Ligue I, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández scored 18 goals but only converted 4/9 penalties (an all-time MLS low), and La Masia standout Riqui Puig decided to forgo Europe to walk down Hollywood Boulevard. The end result: a genuine contender on the rise with the potential to make waves this October.
Key player: CM Riqui Puig. The unprecedented arrival of the Catalan midfielder from Barcelona kickstarted the Galaxy’s excellent run of form heading into the postseason. Three goals and five assists in 10 appearances promise a bright future ahead.
5. Nashville SC (50 points, 13-11-10). It’s a shame that the beautiful GEODIS Park, newly opened this May, won’t get to host its first playoff match. Nashville tried their best to make that a reality down the stretch, though, closing out the campaign with an impressive 6-2-1 record. During this run, German forward Hany Mukhtar pulled away from Driussi to win the Golden Boot, scoring 10 goals in the last nine games to reach 23. A solid defense, led by U.S. international center back Walker Zimmerman, held down the fort and will need to perform well for Nashville to make a run. However, a second playoff appearance in two seasons of existence is impressive in and of itself.
Key player: LF Hany Mukhtar. I don’t tend to believe in such a thing as a “one-man team,” but you could make a compelling case for that in Nashville. Mukhtar has torn this league apart since arriving from Danish club Brøndby IF as Nashville’s first signing. This campaign, he has scored 23 and assisted 11 more, directly contributing to an absurd 66% of Nashville’s 52 goals and becoming an MVP favorite.
6. Minnesota United FC (48 points, 14-6-14): Like Orlando in the East but on a much more drastic scale, the Loons dove headfirst down the table in September, going 0-5-1 until a 2-0 Decision Day win against Vancouver fastened them to the 6th spot. In the postseason, they still have hope of getting a more significant win than their famous 4-0 drubbing of Premier League stalwarts Everton in a friendly this July. Fun fact: that was Minnesota’s biggest margin of victory this year. Let’s see if the Loons can recapture some of the spirit from that win as well as their early summer league form and make a splash this October.
Key player: CAM Emanuel Reynoso. Yet another Argentinian on this list who serves as the creative hub of his team, Reynoso notched 10 goals and 11 assists in 29 appearances this term. The 5’9” league leader in successful dribbles just signed to a new deal that will keep him in Minnesota for three more years.
7. Real Salt Lake (47 points, 12-11-11): Finally, rounding out our group of 14, seventh place in the West for the second straight year, we have RSL. The only club on this list with no players reaching double digits in goals or assists, RSL has relied on a stellar defense and characteristic resilience to push its way into contention. They do not have the talent to compete with the big boys, but history shows they will hang around.
Key Player: W Jefferson Savarino. CB Justen Glad, always a calming presence in the back, was a good shout, but the edge for me goes to Savarino due to the x-factor he provides. 7 goals and 6 assists in only 19 appearances from the 5’6” winger show that when fully healthy, he can take RSL to the next level.
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Cincinnati
Montréal 4-1 Orlando
New York City 2-2 Miami (Miami win on PKs)
LA Galaxy 1-1 Nashville (Galaxy win on PKs – Chicharito penalty redemption?!)
Austin 3-1 Real Salt Lake
Dallas 2-0 Minnesota
Philadelphia 3-1 Cincinnati
Montréal 3-1 Miami
LAFC 3-2 LA Galaxy (F/ET)
Austin 1-3 Dallas
Philadelphia 3-2 Montréal
LAFC 0-1 Dallas
Philadelphia 2-0 Dallas
It’s the battle for the best academy! In the end, however, I think older players will decide it, with Gazdag and Uhre getting on the scoresheet for the Union. I think Philadelphia has too many good players at every position to not win, as well as the excellent coaching required to get it done. For the first time ever, the MLS Cup is coming to Chester, Pennsylvania.