With the 2021 MLS season upon us I thought I’d put on my predictions hat, usually reserved for E3 guesses, to take a crack at predicting the MLS playoff field. I also decided to go ahead and split each conference into a separate post, so please enjoy this first part where I dive through my seven picks for the Eastern Conference playoff teams. Be sure to tell me why I’m wrong, and let me know your picks for how the East will shake out.
- Columbus Crew
Last year: MLS Champions
3rd in East / 12 W 5 D 6 L / 41 pts
The Crew are the reigning MLS champions who blew out Seattle in the MLS Cup finale. The Crew have only gotten better in the off-season and I utterly expect them to make their mark on this season.
Until they lose their title they are the favorites to win the East and repeat as champions. They are also a strong contender for winning the Supporters’ Shield this year as well. They are among the three best teams in the league right now and have the potential to make real history this season and make a run at being one of the league’s best ever sides. Should be a delight to watch either way.
2. Toronto FC
Last year: Playoffs
2nd in East / 13 W 5 D 5 L / 44 Pts
This is one of the bolder predictions I am making on this list. Toronto really does feel like it’s at the close of an era. So many of the core pillars that have defined the team and MLS at large over the past five years are now well into their 30’s. They finished 2nd in the East last year, which was great! Though they also got knocked out in the opening rounds of the playoffs, which was less so.
Age, fatigue, playing in the States for an undetermined amount of time due to COVID, and just the general feeling that they’ve only got so much left before they are due for a major overhaul have a lot of people scared. And I get that. I totally do.
I just think that Toronto has one more run in them. I believe Jozy, Bradley, and co. have one last dance in them before the final curtain falls on what has been a truly remarkable and unprecedented period in Major League Soccer history.
Is that based in a lot of hard science? No. Could they totally fall apart this year and struggle for a playoff spot? For sure. But, I don’t think so. I think they got one more genuine chance for the Cup. Who knows though? I’m an optimist.
3. Atlanta United
Last year: DNQ for playoffs
12th in the East. 6 W 4 D 13 L / 22 PT
This is all about Josef Martinez. If he’s back, if he can get return to the form he was in the past three years before his injury that sidelined him all of last year, Atlanta will absolutely bounce back from their horrid display last season and be a sudden threat for all kinds of trophies.
A fit and healthy Martinez is among the handful of the best players in the entire league. A lethal, frantic, wunderkind attacking weapon who is entering the prime of his career. Martinez powers and fuels United from top to bottom. Under no circumstances will Atlanta be as bad as last year. There are plenty of questions, but outside of the Crew I think that’s true for all teams. I think Atlanta is angry and fired up after last season, I think the second Martinez gets his first goal it’s going to be off to the races and he’ll continue his assault on the record books. No matter what, I expect Atlanta to come out swinging. They won’t always win, but I sure bet they will be a blast to watch.
4. New England Revolution
Last year: Eastern Conference Finals
8th in East 8 W 8 D 7 L / 32 Pts
The Revolution were a goal away from making it to the MLS Cup Finals last year after their remarkable run through the playoffs. Being the lowest seeded playoff team in the East and making it to the conference finals was a remarkable journey for the team and in some ways I may have them underrated.
Bruce Arenas is a legend for a reason. I expect this team to start far stronger out of the gate than a year ago and be a real contender for the East’s top spots throughout the season. I would not be at all shocked if they finished far higher than 4th in the East, but on the whole, right now, I think the three teams above them in the rankings just have that little bit more potential then the Revs. Excited to see how quick I am proven wrong on that.
5. Philadelphia Union
Last Year: Playoffs
Supporters Shield Winners 1st in East 14 W 5 D 4 L / 44Pts
I think Philly peaked in the regular season last year. I think everything went pretty close to perfect for them. Their homegrown talent performed great, giving the team to the kids worked, and they topped not just the East, but the league overall in winning the Supporters’ Shield, their first ever trophy.
And then they got knocked out in the opening round of the playoffs without scoring a goal. So. That wasn’t great.
This year’s Philly team is a little weaker already then the one that won the Supporters’ Shield with the loss of Aaronson, McKenzie, and Gaddis – the first two being MLS best XI members.
I also just honestly think that they won’t get a year as seamless as last year. I have them in 5th because I think it will take time to figure out how to handle the three losses above. For what it’s worth to Philly fans, I also still think they have arguably the best goalkeeper in the league in Andre Blake and that they could be a potent force come the playoffs.
Philly made big strides last year and cracked the regular season formula, their goal this season should be to build off that and make a real run through the playoffs. The East is sort of a wonky conference this season, with only the Crew real heavyweights. It’s time to build off last year where it matters. The time to make a run is now.
6. Orlando City
Last year: Playoffs
4th in the East 11 W 4 L 8 D / 41 Its
A little like the Revs, a not tiny part of me feels like I am really underselling Orlando. Last year was the best year in the club’s history and I think they will most likely build off that and be better this year.
So why only sixth then?
Firstly, no one is going to be surprised and taken aback by Orlando City this year. Everyone will know they are a threat and up their game accordingly.
The bigger reason though is I just feel like the potential of the other teams to have a great year is higher. Orlando should be firmly focused on improving on the foundation from a year ago and – a little like Philly – making a deep run in the postseason. If they can’t make a real run at the Conference Finals, I think that’s a bit of a let down.
Don’t be fooled by their ranking though. This is a legit contender to finish 2nd or 3rd. Orlando can ball. Pareja has them fired up and ready to go. The cut-off between making the playoffs or not in the East is very bunched together for me and I don’t expect many of these teams to be that far apart in points come the end of the year. I have Orlando sixth but I also think they are one of the squads I wouldn’t want to face off against in the postseason as well.
Last Year: Playoffs
5th in East / 12W 8D 3L / 39 PTs
This is one of the teams I feel the most unsure about in the entire list. Like I’ve discussed before, the East is a bit of a mess after the first couple teams and it really does feel like there’s a broad range of 3rd through 8th or 9th that a bunch of teams could fall in. NYFC is in many ways the face of that for me.
This team appears to be older and weaker than last year’s team, one which was already a step back from their brilliant 2019 squad. Honestly I’m not really sure about NYFC, but I also think that they still have enough in them, still have that regular season pedigree, to make it to the playoffs yet again.
I think the Red Bulls playoff streak will finally come to an end this year, they are basically running on fumes. Nashville I love defensively, shoutout to Walker Zimmerman, but I just worry too much about the squad outside of that.
NYFC meanwhile I think is a good team. I don’t expect them to make too much noise in the postseason truthfully, but I do think they will be consistent and slowly rack up points throughout the course of the season. Ultimately I trust them just that little bit more to just slide into the last playoff spot out East.
Eastern Conference Finals Predictions:
Columbus Crew v. Atlanta United
Conference Champion: Columbus Crew
It’s the Crew’s crown to lose.