The MLS regular season ended with a bang on Sunday. San Jose claimed the final playoff spot with a stoppage-time winner against Minnesota, and if Decision Day’s 46 goals are an accurate precursor for what is to come over the next week and beyond, we are in for a treat.
At long last, the MLS Playoffs are here. The Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls kick off the appetizer round at Toyota Park on Wednesday night, with one other Knockout Round match Wednesday and two more Thursday. On Sunday, the fun really begins.
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Rather than roll out predictions – or throw darts at a wall, roughly the same thing – we’ve decided to think about how to maximize that fun. Here, in descending order, are the 10 playoff matchups we want to see between now and Dec. 9.
10. Seattle Sounders/Portland Timbers v New York Red Bulls – MLS Cup — MLS’s conferences were wildly unbalanced at the top this season. Because of the imbalance, and because MLS Cup is hosted by the finalist with the highest regular-season point total, the only way to get the league’s showcase game to Cascadia – and specifically to Providence Park or CenturyLink Field – is if the sixth-seeded Red Bulls pull off three upsets in the East.
9. Toronto FC v Atlanta United – Eastern Conference semifinal — If Atlanta, having just completed the best expansion season in league history, beats Columbus on Thursday night at home, and if the Fire beat the Red Bulls on Wednesday, we get our TFC-Atlanta showdown. They played to an entertaining, heated 2-2 draw on the final day of the regular season, and are the leagues two highest-scoring teams. If the pieces fall into place and this matchup materializes, expect fireworks.
[More FC Yahoo: How Toronto FC built the best team in MLS history]
8. Seattle Sounders v Vancouver Whitecaps – Western Conference semifinal — All we need to guarantee at least one Cascadia clash is a Whitecaps win over San Jose on Wednesday.
7. Toronto FC v New York City FC – Eastern Conference final — This one is simple. The league’s two best teams, and arguably its two best players, meeting in a two-leg series for a chance to host MLS Cup? Yes, please.
6. Columbus Crew v literally anybody at home — As much as we’d love to see a deep Atlanta run … the Crew have been the talk of the league ever since now-despised owner Anthony Precourt announced last week his intention to explore the possibility of relocating the club to Austin. He conveniently did so after the final home game of Columbus’ regular season (and after the season ticket renewal deadline).
But if the Crew win Thursday night in Atlanta, he won’t be able to hide. Columbus will get the spotlight of at least one home playoff game. How would the city handle that game? How would the ferocious backlash reconcile itself with support for a playoff run? Would Precourt show his face at the stadium? What type of protests would there be? Oh yeah, and what if the Crew’s run is deep, perhaps all the way to MLS Cup? What a story that would be. And what a shame it would be to miss out on all this intrigue if the Crew lose on Thursday.
5. Toronto FC v Vancouver Whitecaps – MLS Cup — A first-ever all-Canadian final? Sign us up. Remember, no Canadian team has ever won MLS Cup. Toronto became the first to win the Supporters’ Shield this year, and the first to even reach MLS Cup last year.
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4. Atlanta United v Seattle Sounders – MLS Cup — Atlanta has set multiple MLS attendance records in its inaugural season. It will likely set a playoff record Thursday night. And if Atlanta can reach the final, it would host it. Can you imagine an MLS Cup at a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with Seattle’s (or Portland’s) traveling supporters amplifying the already-incredible atmosphere?
3. New York City FC v New York Red Bulls – Eastern Conference final — The New York-area rivals were the top-two seeds in the East last year, but with the possibility of a conference final derby awaiting, both fell in the semis. If we’re to get our first playoff edition of the Hudson River Derby this time around, the Red Bulls will have to upset both Chicago and Toronto.
2. Portland Timbers v Seattle Sounders – Western Conference final — It almost seems too perfectly poised. The best soccer rivalry in the United States has only been contested once in the MLS Playoffs, back in 2013, and never before beyond the conference semis. But with Portland and Seattle finishing No. 1 and 2 in the West, a conference final meeting could be on the cards in 2017. The two matches – first in Seattle, second in Portland – would be two of the most highly anticipated non-MLS Cup finals in league history.
1. Toronto FC v Seattle Sounders – MLS Cup — How could this not top the list? Toronto is the greatest team in MLS history. Seattle beat TFC in last year’s final on penalties after a dull, but then suddenly epic, 120-minute grind. A rematch at the site of Seattle’s triumph 12 months ago has to be the most enticing of the 36 potential MLS Cup matchups.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.