2020 MLS Playoffs preview: First Round

(Photo via Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It is my personal favorite time of year. In a season where I thought it would not happen, MLS playoffs are back. Both sides of the table are now officially set after the play-in matches. Here is a quick breakdown of each matchup and my prediction of who moves on to the conference semifinals.

All match times will be in Eastern Standard Time

11/21/2020: Orlando City SC vs NYCFC @ 12pm on UniMas

What an absolute turnaround Orlando City has made. From being a bottom of the table team last season to getting a home playoff match and clinching fourth in the Eastern Conference, Oscar Pareja has a new challenge on hand. NYCFC presents a tough challenge for Orlando as they have a quality roster all the way around. We will see some solid matchups in this. Luis Nani vs Maxi Moralez and Daryl Dike vs a quality NYCFC backline being the headliners.

I see Orlando taking this one. This is their first home playoff match in franchise history and they do not want that momentum to stop anytime soon. Dike has been a force since getting the opportunity in front of Tesho Akindele. Nani will pull the strings but have help with the help of Chris Mueller and Junior Urso. NYCFC have the talent but without a real striker like they had last season in Heber, I do not think they have the fire power to take on Orlando.

Prediction: Orlando City

11/21/2020: Columbus Crew vs New York Red Bulls @ 3pm on UniMas

Columbus were practically perfect this season. Granted they did not take on too many challenges as the majority of their matches were against FC Cincinnati. They did fall from grace and ultimately lost their shot at the Supporter’s Shield but the yellow and black are tough nonetheless. However, NYRB will have something to say about Columbus. This was a team that on Decision Day, upset the defending Eastern Conference Champions, Toronto FC. NYRB slacked in the beginning of the season but managed to grab sixth in the east.

Columbus will take this one. Again, this all comes down to the balance of the clubs and NYRB really do not have the same quality the used to attract. Daniel Royer is nothing without Bradley-Wright Phillips. Their best scorers are people I had to look up and Columbus have guys who can pick apart a team in just a few passes. Lucas Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe, you name it. Columbus has the quality to cause chaos in the playoffs.

Prediction: Columbus Crew

11/22/2020: Sporting Kansas City vs. San Jose Earthquakes @ 4pm on FS1

The Western Conference finally takes the stages as the number one seed takes on the number eight seed. This one has spoiler written all over it. SKC clinched the first spot securing home playoffs. A team that has the likes of Johnny Russell, Erik Hurtado, Alan Pulido and more. San Jose will need their A-game. Matias Almeda and his squad will look to upset though. This is not a club that will shy away from a fight. They also have experience with Shea Salinas, Chris Wondolowski and Nick Lima.

This matchup will be closer than anticipated but I think SKC takes this one by a narrow margin. While they have struggled for consistency, they have plenty of time to rest and they do not have to travel under the strict demands that the away clubs will have. They have plenty of quality in the front and San Jose never seem to put together two great performances in a row. After the 4-1 beat down they took on decision day, I do not think they recover against Sporting Kansas City.

Prediction: Sporting KC

11/22/2020: Minnesota United FC vs Colorado Rapids @ 7:30pm on ESPN

The Loons and the Rapids, familiar foes squaring off for the best of three in the season series. Colorado come in playing the least amount of matches in a season yet still qualified for playoffs. Minnesota are now on back to back seasons making the playoffs with a club that Adrian Heath should take great pride in. The Rapids were one of the hottest clubs before the shut down and grinded out some tough performances against Portland and Seattle where they got their wins.

I think Colorado takes this matchup just because they seem to just be able to get these results. Like I said, this is now a best of three. Minnesota currently lead this series this season with a win and a draw. But Colorado will look to fight back and grind out an ugly win in Minnesota. Plus having less matches played mean you are just a little fresher than the other club.

Prediction: Colorado

11/22/2020: Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas @ 10pm on ESPN

Two franchises that are no strangers to the playoffs find themselves taking on each other in the Rose City. The Timbers, who have been one of the league’s best clubs since their inception, continue their ways as they just seem to dazzle with their play in the midfield and the depth they have on the bench. FC Dallas, on the other hand, seem to always have the youth because of their fantastic academy program. Matchup wise, this is balanced except for the strikers.

With that being said, you just do not beat Portland at home. I think Portland takes this with their staple of a midfield duo in Diego Chara and Diego Valeri. The additions of Niezgoda and Yimmi Chara have been key and help expose the backlines of the opponent. Plus Giovanni Saverese has this club playing just the way he wants them to.

Prediction: Portland

11/24/2020: Toronto FC vs. Nashville SC @ 6pm on FS1

The newcomers Nashville take on the MLS Cup runner ups in Toronto FC. Toronto grabbed second in the league but was shocked by NYRB in the final match of the season. Nashville, on the other hand, easily disposed of the other expansion club in the play-in match, Inter Miami.

Toronto takes this. This will be a matchup to watch for sure but the quality that Toronto has on the ball is just too much to handle. Alejandro Pozuelo, Ayo Akinola, Michael Bradley, Tsubasa Endoh, this list could go on. Greg Vanney has proven to be one of the most tactically gifted managers in the league as well.

Prediction: Toronto FC

11/24/2020: Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution @ 8pm on ESPN

Supporter’s Shield Champions taking on the winningest coach in the MLS and his club. The Union come in claiming first place in the league and in the East. New England comes in off a victory over Montreal after a dominating performance from Bruce Arena’s club. Both clubs have a fantastic midfield with a quality backline and strikers that can pick your backline out.

I have to give this matchup to the city of brotherly love. Philly has been nothing but class this season and just like Portland out West, they have so much depth to be able to make a quality run. Plus, they have a lot to prove after finding ways to crash out of the playoffs in the past. Jim Curtin and his club will look to make sure not to be embarrassed again.

Prediction: Philadelphia

11/24/2020: Seattle Sounders FC vs. LAFC @ 10:30pm on ESPN

The nightcap and one of the more exciting matchups, defending champs taking on a familiar foe. This playoff matchup is now in Seattle after the Sounders beat LAFC in the playoffs on their turf last season. LAFC will look to upset the champions. Seattle have one of the best starting 11 in the league but struggle to find more quality in depth. Similar with LAFC who will be without their Golden Boot winner, Diego Rossi and maybe a few other players but they have last seasons MVP, Carlos Vela.

Seattle claims this one at home simply because they will have the better lineup. If LAFC are without Brian Rodriguez, Diego Rossi and Jose Cifiuentes, Seattle will take that matchup. Seattle was able to shut down Carlos Vela last season and Vela just got back into the lineup a couple matches ago. He will now have to adapt to different style of players. Seattle will have the comfort of Jordan Morris, Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz.

Prediction: Seattle

I hope you tune in to these matches because there are some great story lines to be had. Stay tuned after this round is over because you will see my Conference Semi-Final previews.

Five Takeaways from the 2020 MLB season

Photo via NY Daily News

The 2020 MLB season was a season like no other. Through postponements, a shortened schedule and a pandemic, all 30 teams had to overcome obstacles never before encountered or dealt with.

Nevertheless, the sport persisted, and the sport succeeded. Although the success of completing the season was as unfounded as they came, new and old themes were still apparent during the course of the year. Here are five main takeaways from the 2020 season. 

5. More hitting, hitting and hitting

The addition of the designated hitter to the National League during the 2020 season definitely did not make teams in the Senior Circuit complain. When looking at team on-base plus slugging (OPS) from this position over the course of the 2020 season, five NL teams ranked in its top 10 (Atlanta in second, the Mets in fourth, Miami in fifth, Milwaukee in eighth and Cincinnati in ninth). The addition of the position to the National League gave teams the opportunity to lengthen their lineup from top to bottom. Regardless, 2020 was a trial run. The question moving forward will be simple – will the success of the DH in the National League lead to its eventual permanence in it? This will be a main talking point in future collective bargaining arguments. 

4. Prospect protection

This takeaway is cheating the system, to a degree. Teams have started to hold on to their coveted blue-chip prospects (and hopeful major leaguers) more and more over the past few seasons. This conservative philosophy, however, reached a crescendo over the course of the shortened 2020 campaign. The MLB Trade Deadline saw relatively minimal movement in player-for-prospect trades. The biggest blockbuster trade came from the transfer of Mike Clevinger from Cleveland to San Diego. Even this trade, however, saw more movement in terms of player quantity as opposed to prospect quality. While clubs definitely were not going to trade their top prospects for a 30-game (or less) rental, the 2020 season definitely emphasized on the growing development around the sport. No matter what potential win-now player you can get, prospects are becoming more cherished. 

3. Aces wild

Shortened seasons, for obvious reasons, lead to more extreme sample sizes. Such was the case for starters over the duration of the 2020 season. Starters, with less starts and innings to work with, excelled more and more with a much lighter workload. Cleveland’s Shane Bieber and Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, for instance, practically struck out every other batter (at least, it seemed) and won the American League and National League Cy Young Awards, respectively. While they undoubtedly deserved such recognition (they both pitched to sub-2.00 ERA’s), 18 other pitchers, with a minimum of 50 innings pitched, twirled to a sub-3.00 ERA. Small sample size or not, ace-caliber production is solid production, 60-game season or not. 

2. Contention surprises 

Heading into the 2020 season, experts and casuals alike figured that certain “rebuilding” teams would take a step forward. The “step forward,” however, was not expected to culminate with a postseason berth. The San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox, in their infinite wisdom and confidence, scoffed at the statement. Who would blame them? Both broke postseason droughts and solidified themselves as steady playoff forces now. From the combination of their youth, veterans and prospects still yet to show themselves, both teams put themselves right in the thick of the playoff races for years to come. It all started in a shortened season where the expectations were still relatively minimal. 

1. Super teams still reign supreme

Were there team surprises during the season? Definitely. Was there parity? For sure. There was also certainty, and no other team proved this point more than the 2020 World Series Champions themselves in the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team not only possessed the star power, but the record one would expect with their plethora of talent at their disposal. The team’s 43-17 record and .717-win percentage both ranked first in all of MLB. Although the team did not have the World Series-reigning success before 2020, they finally put it all together in the shortened season. Shortened season or not, the team proved they were the super team to beat. And get beat, they did not. 

Blinded by Sports podcast Episode 20: The MLS Playoffs begin

0:00- Intro

0:48- USMNT draw 0-0 with Wales

4:05- USMNT defeats Panama 6-2

11:31- MLS Playoffs first round preview

27:38- The Hail Murray

33:00- The Patriots upset the Ravens 23-17

39:00- The Seahawks fall to the Rams 23-16

46:49- Outro

Check it out through the link below!