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The Union are always good, but have never lifted the Cup. Is this finally their year? Kyle Ross / USA Today Sports

No Messi, But No Shortage of Storylines: Previewing the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs

Major League Soccer dominated global headlines when Inter Miami brought in Lionel Messi, along with former FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. While the Barça trio didn’t have enough time to lift last-place Miami into the playoffs, there are plenty of young stars and seasoned veterans to watch out for as Round 1 of the playoffs begin. Without further ado, here is a breakdown of where things stand in each conference and how the playoffs will shake out (no promises).

Can budding superstar Thiago Almada and the Five Stripes bring Atlanta its second title in its young history?  Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Conference

F.C. Cincinnati are the favorites to win the East, and the Cup. They finished the season with the most regular season points, winning the Supporters’ Shield to give the club its first piece of silverware ever. Their own Argentine number 10, Luciano Acosta, has been ripping up the league with 27 goal contributions in 32 games, and is all but a lock to win league MVP. 

With all of that said, unlike every other global soccer league, playoffs determine the league winner, meaning it is truly anyone’s game. The New York Red Bulls enter the playoffs on a red hot four game win streak and could put FC Cincy on upset watch right away.

Another major challenger is the Philadelphia Union. The Union (in typical Philadelphia fashion) fell in the Cup final last year to Los Angeles FC, but are always a potent threat. Union fans might be slightly underwhelmed with a fourth place finish the regular season after topping the Eastern Conference in two of the past three seasons, but a stacked, experienced squad of players like Julian Carranza, Daniel Gazdag, Jack Elliot, Jakob Glesnes, and Andre Blake can beat anybody.

Orlando City SC and the Columbus Crew surpassed preseason expectations and are formidable contenders in the East, and there are some sneaky lower seeds in Atlanta United and the New England Revolution that can cause some chaos (more on Atlanta later).

Is this where the fairy tale ends for Klauss and expansion team St. Louis SC? David Carson / Post-Dispatch

Western Conference

St. Louis F.C. has already had the most successful inaugural season for an expansion team as they inexplicably topped the conference in the regular season, ending with a 17-5-12 record. A well rounded and high powered attack saw João Klauss and Nicholas Gioachinni notch ten goals apiece in the regular season. However, experience pays in the playoffs, and that is the one thing they don’t have.

Unlike the talent-packed Eastern Conference, the West is top-heavy this year. Aside from St. Louis, it feels like a three-horse race between the Seattle Sounders, Houston Dynamo, and Los Angeles FC. The Sounders were defensively solid all season, collecting the most clean sheets in the league with Stefan Frei between the sticks, but they scored only 41 goals through the 34 game season (for context, that’s 22 worse than St. Louis). The lack of attacking options could come back to haunt them in the playoffs. The Dynamo were led by Mexican star Hector Herrera, and could make a run in the playoffs if he continues to provide for his teammates.

The defending champions LAFC finished in third place in the West, and their team cohesion and talent makes them primed to repeat.

Move over LA Galaxy, there’s a new soccer dynasty in Angel City Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

MLS Cup Prediction: Los Angeles FC (3) over Atlanta United (6)

If there’s anything that MLS has proven, it is that playoff seeds don’t seem to matter. The Supporters Shield Winner has only also lifted the MLS Cup once in the last decade (and the team to do so was LAFC). 

This is Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada chance to go out with a bang. The highly-touted MLS assist leader and member of Argentina’s World Cup squad is expected to make a splashy move to Europe this offseason, with links to storied clubs like Ajax and Napoli. 

Aside from Almada, Atlanta’s Greek striker Giorgios Giakoumakis has gotten better with every game, notching 17 goals in 27 played this season. Atlanta’s defense, anchored by US Men’s National Team center-back Miles Robinson is strong. Atlanta’s greatest hurdle may be the first round, when they have to play without the suspended Almada. While picking the Five Stripes to make the MLS Cup final is a sleeper pick, they have the talent to go all the way. If they can put together the pieces, the playoffs can be a swan song before their young stars inevitably make big money moves to Europe.

If only it were that simple. With Golden Boot winner Dennis Bouanga paired with former league MVP Carlos Vela up top, Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini anchoring the back line, and an experienced playoff team, LAFC will be hard to beat. The Black and Gold have the firepower required to succeed in the playoffs and become the first back-to-back MLS Cup champions since their rivals LA Galaxy did it with David Beckham at the helm. LAFC 3, Atlanta 1

Round 1 (where the games are now best of three) begins on Saturday with the Philadelphia Union taking on rivals New England Revolution at 5:00pm ET.

Predicted Bracket:

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