The opening round of the incipient Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are set and scheduled. We know when and where every team will play. We know the Rapids and Revs are through to the conference semis on each side of the bracket, and that’s about all we know.
Before we jump ahead and begin breaking down the Rapids conference semifinal against either Portland or Minnesota, let’s take a look at each first round match in the Western Conference in chronological order.
Sporting KC (3) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (6)
Kickoff at 3:00 PM MT
Children's Mercy Park
“We’ll beat Sporting Kansas City.” The now famous words were from Vancouver’s interim manager Vanni Sartini when he stepped to the mic after Decision Day. I can’t hate the confidence.
The Whitecaps are one of the hottest teams in MLS. To be fair, Marc Dos Santos, who was let go in August, deserves a chunk of credit for this. They weren’t bad before, but they have certainly found another gear since Sartini took over.
This match is a classic old versus new tale. The rising Whitecaps have a new manager, recent roster additions are some of their best players and there may be no team out there with a more brash, wearing-their-heart-on-their-sleeve attitude. On the other side is the longest-tenured coach in MLS, a perennial playoff team and a roster that expects to be here and win. Fascinating.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have picked the Whitecaps to head to Children’s Mercy Park in a single elimination game and win. But now here we are, the Caps as one of the hottest teams in MLS and SKC trying to snap out of a three-game losing streak. The question I have is whether or not mythical momentum carries over a two-week break. I say no.
Portland Timbers (4) vs. Minnesota United FC (5)
Kickoff at 3:30 PM MT
If you only have time and bandwidth to watch one first round match, make it this one. The winner will head to DICK’s Sporting Goods Park to take on your Colorado Rapids. On top of that, it might be the most exciting game of them all.
Both teams are blessed with one player who can turn the game on its head. Both from Argentina, both Designated Players and both with a knack for delivering in the playoffs. On the Portland side, it’s Sebastian Blanco. For Minnesota, it’s Emanuel Reynoso. They’re both capable of creating scoring chances for themselves and their teammates.
I expect Portland to do what they’ve done for years. They’ll absorb pressure and try to be lethal on counter attacks. If they can stymie Reynoso, they’ll probably feel good about being able to dictate the match. Minnesota’s attack has been in and out of form all year long. It’s easy to imagine a match where Minnesota is a wave breaking over the rocks that is the Timbers defense.
Portland won’t mind that at all. They’ll wait for an opportunity to unleash Blanco with a numbers advantage and let him create. However, should the Loons snag a goal early, the game could go sideways in a hurry. Portland will open up and it could be end to end action the rest of the way.
From a Rapids perspective, root for an emotional game that goes to penalties and leaves everybody mentally and physically exhausted before the winner has to travel to Colorado a few days later.
Seattle Sounders FC (2) vs. Real Salt Lake (7)
Kickoff at 8:30 PM MT
Salt Lake made the playoffs thanks to some Decision Day heroics where Damir Kreilach scored the winner at the death. It was emotional, euphoric, triumphant. I don’t think they can ride that feeling all the way through the international break, but if anybody can harness that magic and bottle it, it’s interim manager Pablo Mastroeni.
The reward for making it into the postseason is a Seattle Sounders side that likely feels like they let the top seed in the West slip through their grasp. Like Sporting KC, they were one of the top teams in the West all year long, they have a venue nobody wants to visit and their roster is laden with talent. And like SKC, they finished the season in a bit of a rut.
The Sounders finished the season on six game winless streak, going 0-3-3. Their last win was October 9th and their match against RSL is November 23rd. That is a long time between victories for a club that has the best record in MLS in the last few years.
Even with the winless skid, they’re going to have more talent in their team sheet than at any other point this year. Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro have been returning from injury and have played recently, and Raúl Ruidíaz appears to be back from a hamstring injury that has hampered him as of late. They tallied 60 points without these guys all being healthy simultaneously. Allegedly, they will be for the playoffs.
That’s terrifying. Sure, they may not be in form or may be rusty, but their quality should show out regardless.