The international break has come and gone, and it’s time to get down to business. The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs begin this weekend in Chester, Pa. when Philadelphia Union welcomes in the New York Red Bulls, with the six-game First Round continuing through Tuesday night, when Orlando City will open its postseason run against Nashville SC.
Here’s a rundown of everything you can expect from opening weekend (all times Eastern):
East No. 2 Philadelphia Union vs. No. 7 New York Red Bulls
Subaru Park, Chester, PA
Saturday 11/20, 2:30 p.m., Univision/TUDN/MLSSoccer.com
The winner of this game gets the winner of Orlando/Nashville, so there are pretty direct implications for Lions fans in this one. If City and the Red Bulls both advance, their second round matchup would take place at Exploria Stadium, adding an extra bit of rooting interest.
And there’s plenty of reason to believe RBNY can pull this off. Sitting at 6-11-5 in mid-September after a brutal summer swoon, it looked like the Red Bulls were done and dusted, but Gerhard Struber’s side rallied to finish 7-1-4 over the last 12 games and qualify for the postseason for the 12th straight year. The New York Red Bulls have allowed just five goals over those 12 games with seven clean sheets.
Philadelphia has closed out strong as well. The Union were knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League on September 15, but that seemed to light a fire under Jim Curtin’s squad, as Philly closed the year on a 6-1-4 run to wrap up the second seed in the East. Philadelphia is still smarting after being knocked out in the first round last season as the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners and will be looking for a deep run this time out.
These teams played to two 1-1 draws in the 2021 MLS Regular Season and their games have historically been close over their decade-long rivalry. Expect a similar situation on Saturday.
West No. 3 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 6 Vancouver Whitecaps
Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS
Saturday 11/20, 5 p.m., UniMás/TUDN/MLSSoccer.com
There’s been no more inspiring story in MLS this year than the Vancouver Whitecaps, who looked well on their way to another humdrum season before interim head coach Vanni Sartini and new DP playmaker Ryan Gauld helped lift them to an 8-2-5 closing run and their first playoff appearance since 2017. After starting the year 2-7-3, the Whitecaps have lost just twice in the past four months and have captured hearts and minds on their way to the postseason.
Sporting Kansas City, a perennial playoff power, will be out to spoil the fun. Peter Vermes returns a deep and ball-dominant squad to the postseason, including Landon Donovan MLS MVP Finalist Dániel Sallói and the likely return of star striker Alan Pulido from injury. Can Vancouver start a Cinderella run, or will SKC begin a roll towards MLS Cup?
East No. 4 New York City FC vs. No. 5 Atlanta United
Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, NY
Sunday 11/21, 3 p.m., ABC/ESPN Deportes
Here’s a serious heavyweight slugfest on a baseball field in round one. NYCFC has backed into the playoffs, using its extreme home field advantage at Yankee Stadium to pick up a few valuable results in the final stretch and lock up at least one home game. They do have the league’s 2021 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner in Taty Castellanos, who scored 19 times leading the line for the Pigeons.
Atlanta, meanwhile, looked lost during the summer, but were rejuvenated under interim head coach Rob Valentino and have continued their good form with new permanent boss Gonzalo Pineda. Summer DP signing Luiz Araujo has been sensational, while Josef Martínez appears to be rediscovering his best self down the stretch.
Ultimately, this one could come down to where it’s played. NYCFC went 7-1-2 with an absurd +22 goal differential in 10 matches at Yankee Stadium this year. Atlanta will have an uphill battle to overcome the narrow environs of the House that Ruth Built.
West No. 4 Portland Timbers vs. No. 5 Minnesota United
Providence Park, Portland, OR
Sunday 11/21, 5:30 p.m., ESPN/ESPN Deportes
Portland is yet another team that got hot at the right time, with the return of star winger Sebastián Blanco coinciding with a terrific run of fall form that put them in front of their raucous Timbers faithful for the first round. Blanco is the talisman, but Portland will be hoping for one more run from aging longtime cornerstones Diego Chara and Diego Valeri.
Minnesota will go as far as DP playmaker Emmanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso can take them. Reynoso had a jaw-dropping seven assists in three playoff games last season as the Loons went to the Western Conference Finals. But 2021 was more up and down for the Argentine, with 10 assists in 29 appearances, and Minnesota had to fight through some rough patches to make it to the postseason.
East No. 3 Nashville SC vs. No. 6 Orlando City
Nissan Stadium, Nashville, TN
Tuesday 11/23, 8 p.m., FS1/FOX Deportes
And here we go! Orlando City opens up its run in what is forecast to be a frigid Nashville, Tennessee, with temperatures expected to dip well into the 30s during the evening contest. The Lions will count on red-hot striker Daryl Dike to warm them up. The 21 year-old has seven goals in his last nine games and has scored in three straight appearances against Nashville.
The Boys in Gold, meanwhile, come in having tied the league’s all-time record with 18 draws, but they’ve lost only four times on the season and have not dropped a game at home all year, finishing out their Nissan Stadium slate with an 8-0-9 mark. Hany Mukhtar was named an MVP finalist after leading the league in goal contributions (16 G/12 A).
West No. 2 Seattle Sounders vs. No. 7 Real Salt Lake
Lumen Field, Seattle, WA
Tuesday 11/23, 10:30 p.m., FS1/FOX Deportes
The final game of the first round features Western Conference mainstays Seattle Sounders against an upstart RSL side that can count itself fortunate to have even reached the playoffs. It looks like a mismatch on paper, but RSL boasts a dynamic 1-2 punch in Damir Kreilach (16 G/9 A) and Albert Rusnák (11 G/11 A). That duo has led Salt Lake to 55 team goals on the year, giving it the third-most potent attack in the West.
This is Seattle, though, and there’s a reason the Sounders have been to the MLS Cup Finals in four of the past five years. Head Coach Brian Schmetzer has switched to a 3-5-2 this year to compensate for missing top attackers Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris for most of the season, but those two are back for the playoffs and join ace No. 9 Raúl Ruidíaz and deep-lying playmaker Joao Paulo to form one of the scariest groups in the league.