MLS Cup playoffs: Who will be 2020 champ? Which teams are postseason darkhorse contenders?

The MLS Cup playoffs kick off Friday with two games: Montreal Impact at New England Revolution (6:30 p.m. ET on FS1) and Inter Miami at Nashville SC (9 p.m. ET on ESPN2).

The 18-team playoffs will culminate with MLS Cup on Dec. 12 (on FOX), which is the latest in the calendar year that Major League Soccer has played its championship game. 

We surveyed USA TODAY Network’s team of soccer experts for their predictions on which teams could reach the MLS Cup final, which teams are dark horse contenders for the title game and the biggest X-factors heading into the postseason.

How we see the MLS playoffs going down:

Pat Brennan, The Cincinnati Enquirer

MLS Cup: Philadelphia Union over Portland Timbers – The Timbers showed at the MLS is Back Tournament that they can survive knockout play with style and skill. Even without injured Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Portland should emerge from the top-heavy Western Conference. When the dust settled on Decision Day, Philadelphia Union won the Supporters' Shield with room to spare. Front to back, the Union are a complete team. They have playoff experience, didn’t drop a single point at Subaru Park this season and proved on Decision Day they can deliver a trophy when the pressure is on. There’s so much to like about Philadelphia’s case for pulling off the domestic “double.”

Dark horse candidate: Nashville SC – They aren’t in the top half of the Eastern Conference bracket and figure to have an arduous path toward making a dent in the playoffs, but I wouldn’t want to encounter Nashville SC this postseason. Nashville is a club that has quality, knows its strengths and weaknesses, and plays within itself. They aren’t flashy but they get results, including on the road. This team is tough to break down (22 goals allowed in 2020) and is perfectly capable of taking a sledgehammer to the Eastern Conference side of the playoff tournament.

Playoff X-factors: Diego Valeri and Diego Chara, Portland Timbers – I’m one for nostalgia, so I really wanted to go with Chris Wondolowski, who is entering the postseason relatively hot for San Jose. But the situation in Portland is far more intriguing. My bet on Portland to advance to MLS Cup is essentially a bet on Valeri’s and Chara’s combined ability to steer the Timbers around the injuries to Blanco and Niezgoda. Valeri and Chara can help Portland overcome those personnel losses, but if they fall short it’s possible the club doesn’t stick around very long this postseason.

Drake Hills, The Tennessean

MLS Cup: Philadelphia Union over Seattle Sounders – The Supporters’ Shield-winning Union has the juice and its 4-2 record against playoff-bound opponents in the final month of the regular season is favorable with home-field advantage. Philadelphia will continue its scoring form against Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final. Having done the heavy lifting in Round 1 against LAFC, the Seattle Sounders will score a late goal to get past Sporting Kansas City in the Western final for its second straight MLS Cup appearance.  

Dark horse candidate: New York City FC – NYCFC is not comfortable with the spotlight on them. The No. 1 seed in the East last year was a jinx. In 2020 it’s tough to see another conference foe matching the form of Valentín Castellanos, Jesús Medina and Maxi Moralez. The key for NYCFC is when can the club get Alexander Callens back after international duty with Peru?

Playoff X-factor: NYCFC's back line – From Orlando City’s Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller, to the Union’s Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko, to Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo and Ayo Akinola – there are attacking duos in New York City’s playoff path that require Callens, Maxime Chanot, Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm to be at the top of their game. Late goals conceded will lead to an early exit.

MLS PLAYOFF STORY LINES: Philadelphia Union, Seattle Sounders among key teams

MLS PLAYOFFS: Complete schedule and TV information

Jordan Morris and the defending champion Seattle Sounders enter the playoffs as favorites to repeat as MLS Cup winners. (Photo: Stephen Brashear, USA TODAY Sports)

Jacob Myers, The Columbus Dispatch

MLS Cup: Seattle Sounders over Philadelphia Union – At full strength, Seattle  has arguably the top attacking trio in MLS with Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz and  has allowed the fewest goals in an offense-heavy Western Conference. Philadelphia  has had a special season with some of the top players in MLS at each position, but there's something about having been at this stage that will  give Seattle its second consecutive championship.

Dark horse candidate: Los Angeles FC – Though I think Seattle will win MLS Cup, it's a bit unfortunate they will play an LAFC side that is at full strength as the No. 7 seed. After missing nearly the entire season, 2019 MVP Carlos Vela returned just in time to lead his club on a redemption tour toward an MLS Cup that slipped through their grasps last season.

Playoff X-factors: Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan – Either Nagbe or Zelarayan could be considered the X-factor for the Columbus Crew in the playoffs, but their effectiveness together will determine how far the Crew advance. When the midfield duo  have started together, the Crew are 6-1-2 with two wins against Philadelphia.

Nate Scott, For the Win

MLS Cup: Sporting Kansas City over Toronto FC – Peter Vermes rebuilt his Sporting KC side this season by stiffening up the middle of the park, and they’re arguably the hottest team in MLS, ending the season on a 6-1-1 run. Add in goal scoring from now-healthy Alan Pulido, and this team has what it needs to see out the tournament. In the East, I predict Philly’s dream season comes to an end thanks to a tougher-than-you-think Toronto FC side. 

Dark horse candidate: Los Angeles FC – A weird, bumpy year has LAFC entering the tournament as a 7 seed, but with Carlos Vela getting back to full health after an MCL sprain, there’s enough talent here to beat anybody. I see them knocking off a good Seattle side and possibly making a run all the way to an MLS Cup final. 

Playoff X-factor: Carlos Vela – If Vela is healthy – truly healthy – the reigning MLS MVP completely shakes up what you’d expect out of the Western Conference. LAFC goes from an interesting dark horse candidate to out-and-out contender if his knee is right and he’s match fit. 

Carlos Vela's return to full health could make LAFC a title contender, despite an inconsistent regular season. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Jim Reineking, USA TODAY Sports

MLS Cup: Seattle Sounders over Philadelphia Union – Coach Brian Schmetzer's Sounders team is veteran-laden, playoff-tested and fully capable of reaching its fourth MLS Cup in five years. Just like in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup final, the Sounders will stroll into Chester, Pennsylvania, and spoil all the fun for the Union, who had been enjoying their finest season yet.

Dark horse candidate: Orlando City – Coach Oscar Pareja turned this perpetual non-factor into a contender in his first year at the helm, with his team having its coming-of-age moment at the MLS is Back Tournament, where it reached the final. That experience should benefit Orlando in its first-ever playoff appearance.

Playoff X-factor: Matt Freese – The Philadelphia Union's Andre Blake, one of the league's top goalkeepers, could miss playoff games after suffering a broken hand in late October. Enter Freese, a homegrown player who made his first and only start of 2020 in the regular-season finale, in which he had a clean sheet as the Union secured their first-ever trophy. He'll need to replicate that performance if Blake misses games.

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