Lionel Messi won’t be winning the MLS Cup with Inter Miami – so which club will? The ultimate guide to the MLS playoffs

Eighteen teams remain in the running to lift the trophy in December ahead of the revamped postseason

It’s that time of year. As the fall marches towards the winter, you can smell the chaos in the air. Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to the MLS Playoffs.

Unfortunately, the script writers couldn’t quite fit Lionel Messi into the festivities. Inter Miami dug themselves too deep of a hole before his arrival, one not even the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner could quite shovel them out of. It would have been a wild sight, though: seeing Messi try and help claw Miami through the MLS postseason.

No Messi, no problem, though. As always, the postseason field is wide open, with any number of teams feeling like they can go on a big run. It starts on Wednesday with a pair of Wild Card matches featuring each conference’s bottom two seeds. From there, the first round will be played in a best-of-three format, with each team hosting one of the first two games and the third being hosted by the higher seed, if necessary. After that, it’ll be single-elimination right up until the MLS Cup final on December 9.

So how did we get here and who is likeliest to come out on top? GOAL takes a look at every team as we prepare for the start of the postseason:

Eastern Conference No.1: FC Cincinnati

The league’s best team in the regular season and the Supporters’ Shield winners. It’s hard to ever pick a favorite in MLS, but if you had to, it would be Cincy.

They’re led by the runaway MVP favorite, Luciano Acosta, who contributed an absolutely wild 17 goals and 13 assists this season. He’s not alone, though, as he’ll have U.S. men’s national team star Brandon Vazquez alongside him in what may just be his last go-around before heading to Europe.

Defensively, Matt Miazga may just be the Defender of the Year, while Colombian Santi Arias gives them ridiculously good wing-back play.

Overall, they lead MLS in so many metrics, have playoff experience and will play every game at home the whole way. They’re the team to beat.

First round: vs. Charlotte FC/New York Red Bulls

Western Conference No.1: St. Louis City SC

How in the world did they pull this off? MLS’ newest team has shattered every expectation imaginable, going from expansion side to MLS Cup contenders almost instantly. They had the best record in the West during the regular season, led by Roman Burki, who will win MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

The big question is if this is all sustainable. The club outperformed even the most hopeful of projections and, admittedly, came back down to earth in the final weeks of the season. That’s not to say that the St. Louis we saw for the first few months wasn’t for real, but they are limping into the postseason somewhat.

If this club pulls it off, it’ll be one of the most absurd and unbelievable MLS Cup runs in history. For this league, that’s saying something!

First round: vs. Sporting KC/San Jose Earthquakes

Eastern Conference No.2: Orlando City

Like St. Louis, we have to ask: how the hell did they get this far? The team with the lowest payroll in the league, Orlando City continues to silence the doubters. Head coach Oscar Pareja is an MLS miracle-worker, and he’s done special, special things with this team so far this season.

Duncan Maguire is following the likes of Daryl Dike and Cyle Larin as the club’s great rookie striker, scoring 13 goals and providing three assists in his first season after college. Facundo Torres, meanwhile, is a bonafide star that will be in Europe sometime soon.

Overall, Orlando is a well-rounded, well-coached team, and this may just be Pareja’s best chance at finally turning regular season success into a deep postseason run.

First round: vs. Nashville SC

Western Conference No.2: Seattle Sounders

On the flipside of a few teams we mentioned, the Sounders are a team that are postseason regulars. Somehow, some way, they’re always here.

And this is a team that many thought wouldn’t be. Key stars are aging out, with club legend Nico Lodeiro already having announced that he’s leaving. Rising stars, meanwhile, are too young, with the club having spent this season blooding in some potential key players for the future.The Sounders should be in a rebuilding phase but, instead, they’re going for another MLS Cup.

With their playoff experience, it’ll take complete performances to really bury this Seattle team, one that’ll know exactly what they’re signing up for as the postseason begins.

First round: vs. FC Dallas

Eastern Conference No.3: Columbus Crew

As an attacking force, the Crew are basically unmatched in MLS. On the defensive side… well, different story. So that’ll be the big question for the team during the postseason: can they simply outscore teams on their way to an MLS Cup?

Usually, that’s a tough bet, but you can’t write off this team. Head coach Wilfried Nancy’s style of play is fantastic to watch and, with players like Darlington Nagbe and Aiden Morris in midfield, they should win that battle against many teams.

The key, though, is striker Cucho Hernandez, who may just be the league’s best. Can he be the match-winner of the playoffs? If yes, look out for the Crew.

First round: vs. Atlanta United

Western Conference No.3: LAFC

The defending MLS Cup champions. There’s no Gareth Bale this time around, but they do have plenty of superstars in this team.

Denis Bouanga is the best of them, having already claimed the Golden Boot this season, and this is still a team that features the likes of Carlos Vela in the attack. That’s two match-winners right there in a world where most teams would be happy with just one.

Their MLS regular season was sacrificed a bit for CONCACAF Champions League pursuits, but the focus is now clear for LAFC: a repeat.

First round: vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Eastern Conference No.4: Philadelphia Union

And, following on from LAFC, we get the team that took them to wire in last season’s instant classic. The Union are very much back featuring almost the entire core from last season’s ridiculously-good team. They’ve been a little less good this season, but this Union squad is still one that may just be deeper than any in MLS.

They’ll be motivated, too, having come within just a few minutes of lifting an MLS Cup last season. With much of the team returning, they’ll be eager to finally get over the hump.

And, if you want an extra dose of motivation, the Union head into the playoffs knowing change is imminent, as Alejandro Bedoya and Kai Wagner prepare to leave the club. Can they use that to unite them?

First round: vs. New England Revolution

Western Conference No.4: Houston Dynamo

Huge praise for Ben Olsen, who in many other years would be a shoo-in for Coach of the Year. In this one season, he’s totally rebuilt this Houston Dynamo side, and they already have a trophy to show for it.

That trophy is the U.S. Open Cup, where they beat Messi’s Inter Miami in the final, albeit without Messi playing, of course. It was a huge moment for a club that, for so long, has been an afterthought. Well, they aren’t any longer.

Hector Herrera is one of the best midfielders in MLS and the team around him can get goals from all over the field, led by Amine Bassi’s 10 and Corey Baird’s eight. The question is if they have the match-winner needed to get them a goal when things get hairy.

First Round: vs. Real Salt Lake

Eastern Conference No.5: New England Revolution

How much will losing Djordje Petrovic hurt this team? The superstar goalkeeper joined Chelsea this summer, leaving a huge hole between the posts. Earl Edwards Jr. has been the primary fill-in while Jacob Jackson has gotten some games, but make no mistake, neither can win this team games like Petrovic could.

The club also lost Bruce Arena midseason, leading to plenty of chaos after, but even so, this is a team with plenty of talent. Carles Gil, Tomas Chancalay and Gustvo Bou can paper over many problems while DeJuan Jones and Matt Polster are among the league’s most reliable in their positions. Add in a young star in Noel Buck and you really do have something here.

However, it may very well come down to the goalkeeper position, and one has to wonder where they’d be if Petrovic was still here.

First round: vs. Philadelphia Union

Western Conference No.5: Real Salt Lake

It’s sad to say, but it’s hard to see RSL overcoming the injury bug this season. Pablo Ruiz is out, and star striker Chicho Arango may be, too. If those two were healthy, they’d be feeling good. Arango’s status is TBD, but it may not be enough.

Which is sad, to be honest, because, at 100 percent healthy, RSL are a solid, solid team. Ruiz tallied 10 goal contributions in his 17 matches while Arango is a proven winner from his time with LAFC.

Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on this team, particularly Diego Luna, the young American midfielder that has magic in his feet.

First round: vs. Houston Dynamo

Eastern Conference No.6: Atlanta United

Atlanta has one of the brightest stars in the league, but the team will have to cope without him for the start of this postseason. Thiago Almada’s controversial sending-off on the final day of the regular season means the World Cup winner will miss Atlanta’s playoff opener. Almada, a World Cup winner with Argentina, is a hell of a player, and one of the most dynamic young stars this league has ever seen.

He’s not alone, though. Giorgios Giakoumakis may be the league’s best signing this season, as the Greek striker found the back of the net 17 times. He also, though, may not play in Game 1, having picked up a knock in that same season finale.

It seems like Atlanta will need to weather the storm in their opener and then, perhaps, fight back in Games 2 and 3. If they do, there won’t be many teams that will want to see them deeper in this playoff run.

First round: vs. Columbus Crew

Western Confernece No.6: Vancouver Whitecaps

The Argentinian Messi isn’t in the MLS Playoffs, but ‘The Scottish Messi’ sure is! Ryan Gauld has been a revelation since arriving in Vancouver, showing signs of why he earned that aforementioned moniker while growing up in the UK. He has 11 goals and 12 assists in 2023, with many of those assists heading towards Brian White, one of the league’s most underrated strikers despite his 15 goals.

With a front two like that, you’ll always have a chance. However, an injury to midfield star Andres Cubas will hurt big time. He could be back later in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if the Whitecaps can survive that long.

First round: vs. LAFC

Eastern Conference No.7: Nashville SC

When you have Hany Mukhtar, you’ll always have a chance. Mukhtar probably remains the single most important player in MLS, the most irreplaceable contributor to his team. Now, with Sam Surridge up top, he has a striker to play off of.

Still, Nashville’s results were spotty all year and the team hasn’t quite looked as good as they did last season for long stretches. They had their moments, including in the Leagues Cup, but the body of work isn’t quite there.

Will we get the Leagues Cup version of Nashville SC in the playoffs? Well, we’ll have to if this team is to survive a gauntlet largely away from home.

First round: vs. Orlando City

Western Conference No.7: FC Dallas

It’s a tough road ahead for FC Dallas, but there’s a lot of talent in this team. Jesus Ferreira is a proper goalscorer, while Alan Velasco, Bernard Kumungo and Jader Obrian can get goals as well. They’ll be feeling good after absolutely blasting the LA Galaxy in their final match of the season, but they entered that match off of four consecutive draws.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that they’ve lost just once in the last two months, and if they can turn those draws into wins now, maybe they can pull off a deep run.

First round: vs. Seattle Sounders

Eastern Conference No.8: New York Red Bulls

The longest postseason run in American sports, and it only survived by the finest of margins. John Tolkin’s last-gasp penalty on Decision Day felt fitting, as the club’s latest homegrown star was the player that saved their season. Not only that, but they’ll host the Wild Card game, which is always helpful as they look to get into the postseason proper.

The problem is that there’s very, very little attacking talent in this team. The Red Bull way still works, but it doesn’t produce enough goals with this team. They’ll need to grind out some results, which is a tough way to play if you want to make a real run.

Wild Card round: vs. Charlotte (Winner faces FC Cincinnati)

Western Conference No.8: Sporting KC

Sporting KC were the worst team in MLS for much of the season, but somehow they turned their form around to become one of the best down the final stretch.

After starting the season 0-7-3, SKC now find themselves in the postseason. It’s almost unfathomable that they were able to dig themselves out of that hole, but they did it by going 12-7-5 the rest of the way.

Right now, they’re playing more like the team that pulled off that recovery rather than the one that totally punted on the first third. We’ll find out if they can maintain it in the playoffs, as they feel like a very under-seeded No.8 that could give St. Louis headaches if they get that far.

Wild Card round: vs. San Jose Earthquakes (Winner faces St. Louis)

Eastern Conference No.9: Charlotte FC

They needed to take down Messi’s Miami to book their spot, and that’s exactly what they did. The Crown squeaked out a 1-0 win at home on Decision Day, earning their first playoff berth in their second year of existence.

It’s a good step for the club, one that has been rebuilding on the fly after messing up their initial roster construction. Still, this is a team that feels like its a year or two away from being a real contender.

The thing is that Charlotte have made themselves hard to beat, which can help you earn a result or two when it counts. However, they haven’t proven they can do so away from home, which they’ll have to do if they hope to make this playoff stay last.

Wild Card Round: vs. New York Red Bulls (Winner faces FC Cincinnati)

Western Conference No.9: San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose stumbled into the postseason, having been unable to beat Austin FC at home to book their own spot. That’s a bad, bad sign.

The Quakes aren’t particularly prolific, having scored just 39 goals all season, and their defense isn’t particularly great either. To make matters worse, they only have two road wins all year, and now they’ll have to win in Kansas City.

To put it bluntly, it’ll be tough. They have the pieces to score, though, in Cade Cowell, Jeremy Ebobisse, Matthew Hoppe and Cristian Espinoza, and one of them will have to go nuclear for them to have much of a chance.

Wild Card Round: vs. Sporting KC (Winner faces St. Louis)

GOAL Prediction

Predicting the MLS Playoffs is for idiots. The competition is too chaotic, too crazy. Anyone who has watched MLS games at this time of year knows what you’re signing up for: Pure unadulterated nonsense. However, for today, we can give it a shot.

In the East, it’s hard to look past FC Cincinnati, who are too good at just about everything to be written off. They’re the clear favorites for a reason and, if they can survive a potential clash with the Union in Round Two, they feel like a good bet to come out of the East.

For the West, we’re looking at the bottom half of the bracket. No disrespect to St. Louis, but there is something to be said about having experience in this sort of thing, which both LAFC and the Sounders have in spades. We’ll take the winner of that series and, for the purpose of this exercise, we’ll go with the Sounders.

So that gives us FC Cincy vs. the Sounders in the MLS Cup final in what would be a heck of match. It just feels like this is Cincinnati’s year, so we’ll go chalk and back the Supporters’ Shield winners to pull off a memorable double.