The MLS playoffs kick off this weekend 14 hopeful teams will be aiming to reach the final and lift the MLS Cup. On Sunday it is the turn of New York City FC and Atlanta from the Eastern Conference and Minnesota and Portland in the west.
Who do Bettors Favor?
MLS fans checking out the best online sportsbooks for the Eastern playoffs first round will find that despite finishing level on points in the regular season, New York City FC are big favourites to beat Atlanta. NYCFC are generally rated at -145 with Atlanta big outsiders at +400.
In Sunday’s other playoff game, things look a little tighter. Portland, who finished fourth in the West, are rated as -100 favorites, with Minnesota around the +250 mark and the draw at +260.
|NYCFC v Atlanta|
New York City FC v Atlanta United, 2021-11-20
This year the playoffs have thrown up some fascinating battles but perhaps the toughest and most eagerly anticipated comes at Yankee Stadium where NYCFC take on Atlanta.
NYCFC have been consistently challenging for the Cup in recent seasons, but have yet to get further than the last eight in the playoffs. Atlanta famously won the title in only their second season and reached the Conference finals in 2019 but missed out altogether in 2020 and have had more troubles this season.
Head coach Gabriel Heinze was fired in July after a nightmare first half of the regular season, but there has been gradual improvement ever since. In fact, the Five Stripes lost only three of their last 18 games, and they go into these playoffs with some of their confidence restored.
For New York, the season has been a little more straightforward. They had a rough patch earlier in the fall, but they rediscovered their form in time to secure a playoff spot, thanks in part to the prolific form of Valentin Castellanos, who finished as regular season top scorer with 19 goals. Of course, Atlanta have a deadly forward of their own in Josef Martinez.
NYCFC had the better of their two regular-season games, winning 1-0 in June before the two sides played out a draw in Atlanta in October. That suggests there is little to choose between them, as does the regular-season table. Both have a reputation for playing attacking football and both can call on the services of high-class forwards. And while Atlanta has winning experience of the playoffs, NYCFC have been involved in enough post-season action to be able to cope with the heightened expectation.
This promises to be an entertaining game, perhaps even the most exciting of the entire play-offs but at these odds, I can’t back NYCFC, even with home advantage. Given how well-matched the two sides have been this season, the normal time draw looks the best bet.
|Portland v Minnesota|
Portland Timbers v Minnesota, 2021-11-20
Minnesota don’t always get the attention they deserve, but they keep on defying the pundits and this year they’ve made the playoffs for the third consecutive time, in only their fifth MLS season.
They had something of a nightmare start, losing their first four games and have been unable to string together more than two consecutive wins all season, but they did enough to finish fifth in the table, narrowly ahead of Vancouver and Real Salt Lake, putting in two of their strongest performances in the last games, beating third-placed Kansas and matching LA Galaxy 3-3.
The Loons are built around their dangerous front four of Emanuel Reynoso, Franco Fragapane, Robin Lod and Adrian Hunou, one of the deadliest combinations in the league, which means they are capable of beating anyone on their day. Their inconsistent record, however, also indicates that they are also capable of losing to anyone, making this match-up a tough one to predict.
On the plus side for Minnesota, they have twice beaten the Timbers this season. But that was regular season Timbers. The playoffs is where it counts, and Portland have plenty of postseason experience. They’ve made the playoffs in five of their last six seasons, including 2015, when they lifted the Cup.
A strong run of form beginning at the end of August was enough to secure the Timbers in fourth, giving them a home advantage for the first round of the playoffs at least. There are also tactical considerations that count in Portland’s favor. Minnesota’s weakness is that they don’t press when lose the ball, making them extremely vulnerable to the kind of fast direct passing in which Portland are well-drilled.
We can expect Minnesota to have the majority of the possession here, but Portland will be well-prepared to cope with the Timbers’ front line and to hit them on the counter. It will be a fascinating clash of styles but I’m banking on Portland getting the win.