MLS Playoffs

Thoughts on all MLS opening round playoff games, and the hires of Bradley & Hendrickson

ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks down all six of the MLS first round playoff games and looks at the Bradley and Henrickson hires to fill the coaching voids in Toronto and Chicago respectively. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 24, 2021
8:00 AM

THE FIRST ROUND of the MLS playoffs is complete and somethings went as expected and other things were a surprise. Few, however, would have predicted that the only away team to advance from the first six games was Real Salt Lake over the Seattle Sounders.

What the first round did prove is that hosting an MLS playoff game is very important it does give teams an edge. The value of the regular season was apparent for all to see.

Away from the playoffs, Toronto FC hired Bob Bradley to be its next head coach. It was a smart decision from the Canadian club that will be looking to rebound from a terrible season in 2021.

Here are some thoughts on the MLS playoff games


Phily sink RBNY


The playoff opener was far from pretty, but it was the most thrilling when the Philadelphia Union got a dramatic goal in third minute of stoppage time in the second extra time period to defeat the New York Red Bulls. The goal from Jakob Glesnes won the game in stunning fashion.


Here are a few thoughts.


RBNY finishing let them down


Both teams had the chance to win the game earlier and the Red Bulls, especially, saw their finishing let them down. Kyle Duncan hit the post and Omir Fernandez botched an open header. Patryk Klimala, however, will have a tough offseason as he arrived this season as the team’s expensive import but had two big chances in the second half to score – but couldn’t. The Red Bulls had their chances.

But that has been the Red Bulls problem for most of the season. In the last 20 games of the season, the Red Bulls scored more than one goal on just two occasions. The offense simply hasn’t been there and the team became over reliant on strong defending (Sean Nealis take a bow) or solid goalkeeping from Carlos Coronel. The playoffs were no different.


Philadelphia played with heart


Last year the Philadelphia Union won the Supporters Shield but couldn’t advance in the playoffs. This year, after selling two Best XI players to Europe, the team earned the second seed and advanced. Paxten Aaronson credited this with coaching in that every player knows his role on the team and that allows for them to miss a few players and still not miss a beat. Jamiro Monteiro and Olivier Mbaizo were unable to play in this game and the Union found a way to win.

While Jim Curtin wasn’t the Coach of the Year again in 2021, he showed that he is indeed one of the best American head coaches in the game. The team has an impressive winning culture and the players enjoy playing under him.


SKC downs Vancouver


It was an impressive turnaround season for the Vancouver Whitecaps and making the playoffs was a testament to the resolve of the players and the interim coaching staff who got the team to surpass expectations. In the end, however, Sporting Kansas City was simply too much and deserved a comfortable 3-1 win.

Graham Zusi’s goal to cap the scoring was epic.


But this one was no contest.


SKC is a contender


From this game, you have to think SKC has a real chance to win the West here. While they are the top seed, Colorado is new to this and they might face the same obstacles Philadelphia did last season. They don’t have the big-time designated players that often tip the balance. Now with Seattle out of the mix, SKC has a golden path – RSL at home is next. If they win that, it’s the winner of Colorado or Portland in the Conference final.


Vancouver is on the right track


Vancouver should be a good team in the years ahead. Interim manager Vanni Sartini should be given the permanent job. The team has positions it needs to fill but this is the best the team has looked in years and fans should be excited about the direction of the team.


Portland defeats disappointing Minnesota


The Portland Timbers defeated Minnesota United 3-1 on Sunday to book a visit against Colorado. Minnesota scored first, but Portland took control of the game for three straight goals to win the game. Mabiala equalized just before halftime while Sebastian Blanco turned in a MOTM outing with two goals to sink Minnesota.



Minnesota was a “paper tiger”


Minnesota was the pick of many pundits to be a contender this year. But the team was more of a “paper tiger.” Yes, the team had a poor start to the season and then rallied. The end of the season, however, they were simply average.

The team had a game-changer in Emmanuel Reynoso but after him, there were holes. In this game, defensive midfield was a major weakness for Minnesota. Ozzie Alonso and Wil Trapp simply gave up too much space defensively and Portland punished them time and time again. That is one area which will have to change, but there are more problems this team faces heading into 2022.


Portland is old but wise


The Portland Timbers are one of the oldest teams in the league. Blanco is leading this team the moment and he is 33. Diego Chara and Diego Valeri are 35, Asprilla is 29, Mabiala is 34. This team will eventually need a pretty massive rebuild but they have enough gas in the tank for one more run. The 2021 playoffs are a race against Father Time.

But older has its advantages. These are all good players who are well-versed in this league. None of them are recent imports of players trying to play out their careers. They know what the playoffs entail.

There is every reason to think that Portland will give Colorado a very, very hard time. The question them becomes if they have to travel to Sporting Kansas City for a Western Conference final.


NYCFC overwhelms Atlanta


In probably one of the opening round’s most surprising performances, NYCFC defeated Atlanta 2-0 to advance and set up a trip to New England.

The fact that NYCFC won wasn’t surprising but it was the ease at which they won that drew the most attention. Starting around the 25th minute, NYCFC put Atlanta on the ropes. While it was scoreless at the half, NYCFC had all the momentum. In the second half, they went in for the kill with goals from Taty Castellanos and Alex Callens.



Poor performance from Atlanta


This game should have been better. Atlanta had the talent to win this game. Since Gabriel Heinze was fired midseason, Atlanta seemed to be progressing nicely under the interim staff followed by Gonzalo Pineda. Barco and Araujo are very talented midfielders and Josef Martinez had been shaking off the rust following his lost season in 2020. On top of that, Alan Franco and Miles Robinson are among the most talented central defenders in the league.

In this game, Atlanta lacked the fight and resolve to win on the road, on a bad field, against a good but not great team. Heading into 2022, Pineda has a big challenge of finding a way to get this team to live up to the sum of its parts.


NYCFC’s outstanding performance


NYCFC had everything work for it in this game. Alfredo Morales and James Sands were instrumental in the defensive midfield to shutting down Atlanta’s talent. Maxi Moralez had himself a huge game in terms of making things happen in the attacking third.

There was also youth from NYCFC as Tayvon Grey, 19, got the start at right back and was effective. Castellanos is one of the best goal scorers in the league and he delivered.

Everything worked for NYCFC. Now, it will be tough to replicated this on the road in New England but they have the ability to make this game a fight.


Nashville rallies past Orlando


Despite conceding the opening goal, Nashville defeated Orlando City 3-1 on Tuesday night advance to the second round of the MLS playoffs. While the game wasn’t easy, Nashville had the better of play and had the difference makers to get it done. Hany Mukhtar was brilliant in this one where he scored the equalizing and winning goals.

As is often the case in the playoffs, it is all about the designated players. The regular season is a test in depth, the playoffs are a test in difference makers.


Mukhtar brilliance


Hany Mukhtar is a candidate for the league MVP this season and he completely deserves it. On Tuesday, he put on the best individual performance in the first round of the playoffs. He dominated the game and Orlando simply had no answer.

Nashville checks a lot of boxes. The team’s defense is strong, and Walker Zimmerman is the best central defender in this league. The team can also score at the right time.


There are weaknesses, however, as set piece defending isn’t great and the team is often forced to rally. Against a team like New England, that’s going to be a problem.


Orlando was capable of more


Orlando should have been better than they were. On paper, Oscar Pareja should have one of the best teams in the East. They have a goal scorer, they have the playmakers, they have the coach. But none of that translated into anything other than a club that got what it deserved – a first round exit.


There were a lot of distractions. Dike joined the club late due to his Barnsley loan and had to rest for stretches because he was overused and injured. Chris Mueller already declared his exit from the club over the summer and that likely didn’t play well with his team. Nani is another year older.

Afterward, you got the sense that Orlando is going to head into offseason with a lot of tearing down and building back up - especially with Mueller gone and Dike potentially on the transfer block. Some big players will return, but this team looks like it might have run its course.


RSL stuns Seattle


In the biggest stunner of the first round, Real Salt Lake traveled into Seattle and came away with a shootout win after a scoreless draw. Seattle simply was not able to find a way to crack RSL’s defense despite 62% possession. Seattle had a whopping 21 shots on goal, and RSL had zero. – ZERO. Following the game, David Ochoa told the media how much he loves to be the villian - and he's getting a lot of experience in that role too. 

Still, RSL found a way to advance where they will face Sporting Kansas City.


RSL came to win, not impress


Real Salt Lake knew it didn’t have the talent to win this game going toe-to-toe in Seattle. Instead, they bunkered, they fouled, they cleared, they hoofed the ball up the field, and they did whatever they had to do to keep Seattle off the board. It was ugly, but it worked. It gave RSL the only chance it had to win this game.

"The onus is on the home team to put on a show,” interim boss Pablo Mastroeni said afterward. “The onus is on us to find a way to win."


In doing so, Mastroeni became the second interim manager to lead his team in the playoffs (along with Vanni Sartini) but the first to advance. RSL is limited in how far they can go with this approach, but it won’t be easy to play against them if the team plays to its strengths. They will be the underdog against Portland.


Seattle faces questions


Seattle was the better team in this game but didn’t deserve to go through after not finding away to turn a massive shot advantage and a massive possession advantage into a single goal over 120 minutes. Like their rivals Portland, there are questions facing this team. Nicholas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz are older and probably won’t produce at the way they did when Seattle won the title in 2019.

Jordan Morris was obviously rusty after his long layoff from the ACL injury, but does he want to stick around? Or does he want to give Europe another shot? Seattle has a great culture of winning but they have tough questions with a lot of key pieces coming up. It might not be a major rebuild, but a minor one might be needed.


Bradley & Hendrickson hired


Two head coaching vacancies were filled on Wednesday when it was announced that Bob Bradley would take the reigns at Toronto and Ezra Hendrickson would replace Rafa Wicky in Chicago.

The Bob Bradley hire makes the most sense. Bob Bradley has a great history in terms of helping struggling teams or teams building from scratch and leading a quick turnaround. He did so with the U.S. national team after the poor 2006 World Cup and the ugly pursuit of Jurgen Klinsmann to be the team’s head coach. He led Egypt at a time the country was in chaos, he took Chicago to the title in its inaugural season in 1998, and he build LAFC into one of the league’s best teams.

Toronto is coming off an abysmal season with an older roster and lots of question. Bradley is also the technical director, and he will look to bringing in a slew of new players. He will also be rejoined by his son Michael who is now older and a different type of player than the one who could cover an incredible amount of ground over 90 minutes.

Given the needs and the numerous questions Toronto faces, this was the best possible hire the club could have made.

Similarly, it is easy to see the reasons which led Chicago to hire Ezra Henrickson. He is a long-time assistant but has worked with some of the best coaches and best players in the history of the league. He’s been working his way towards earning a chance and now has it. He completely deserves it.

That doesn’t mean Chicago isn’t a tough assignment. The team seems to be stuck in a forever rebuild with nothing yielding much in terms of promise. The newer ownership is ambitious but badly needs direction and Rafa Wicky was not the answer.

With foreign managers struggling in the league in recent years, Henrickson is well versed in MLS and winning environments in MLS given his time coaching at the assistant ranks with Seattle and Columbus. The Chicago Fire have been an afterthought in recent years, and this will be a huge opportunity to turn it around. The upside of  his success there would be huge.

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