Major League Soccer’s 18 team playoff format is not perfect.
When over half the league makes the postseason and only four teams from each conference find themselves on the outside, it depreciates that talent within the competition.

The Supporter’s Shield winner, a team that has fought for the best record across the entire league all season, might find themselves playing the 10th seed in the First Round if certain results occur within the Eastern Conference.

Even with COVID-19 pushing leagues around the world to experiment with formats and fans ultimately being grateful to have sports back, the overall playoff structure will see a fair amount of mediocre teams make the cut.

It should not be seen as a surprise that the New York Red Bulls, whose 2020 season has gone about as smoothly as 2020 itself, currently find themselves in this lower portion of playoff teams.

Despite winning three of it’s last four, RBNY’s 6-2-6 record puts them at 7th in the east (10th overall). In this setup, the team would host the 10th eastern team in a “Play-in” game to determine which one gets into the playoffs proper.

Daniel Royer and Cristian Casseras Jr. celebrating a goal with a high five
Photo: Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports via Reuters

Making the playoffs alone in this setup should not be seen as an accomplishment for the organization and missing them all together would be a true wakeup call and embarrassment. This was always going to be seen as a transition year with many veteran players like Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips leaving the team and the eventual firing of Chris Armas cemented that point. However, even in this state, the team should find being in the bottom 4-8 range of the conference unacceptable.

If positive results continue though and the team can avoid the “Play-in round” that MLS has developed for the bottom four Eastern teams, New York will be able to go into the postseason knowing it wasn’t one of the last four in (or possibly one of the first two out). At the bare minimum, hosting a “Play-in” round match (aka finishing 7th or 8th) should be the last option when considering a “successful season.”

The Red Bulls next foe will be a true measuring stick to see if the team’s recent form is enough to achieve one of these goals.  Orlando City SC has gone unbeaten through eight games including five wins during September. Chris Mueller and European superstar Nani have combined for 13 goals through all competitions making the tandem one of the fiercest to face for any defense in MLS. 

Orlando is human though. Midfielder Sebas Méndez is out due to a red card suspension while right back Ruan and center back Antonio Carlos are both nursing injuries and are questionable for the game. Meaning the team that’s only allowed 15 goals through 14 regular-season games might be more vulnerable.

New York is doing what it does best in recent years – spreading the scoring around.

In the last four games, only Daniel Royer has scored more than once leaving the eight other goals for separate players around the pitch. This was in stark contrast to the previous nine matches the team played. In total, the team did not score more than one goal in all of those games and went 2-2-5 overall. 

The one caveat that needs to be mentioned with this newfound success however is the teams RBNY beat. All three (DC, Miami, and Montreal) are currently below them in the Eastern Conference standings, with only the Montreal Impact currently in a Play-in playoff spot. Even the one loss the team suffered in this span was to FC Cincinnati, which now has two wins over New York in the regular season despite sitting in 12th in the East (albeit not far from a Play-in berth).

If momentum and changing mindsets are truly a factor, both teams have plenty of each going into today’s game. The talent of the field would usually lean for Orlando, but a few key injuries may swing the balance more towards the middle. Whatever the case may be, both teams have different mindsets heading into the game.

Orlando will be playing as it fights for it’s best regular-season performance since joining MLS. 

“It’s gonna be tough,” goalkeeper Pedro Gallese told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re competing for one of the top spots, which is what we wanted. It’s gonna be difficult, but we’re ready for it.”

For the Red Bulls, this game will prove to both fans and themselves that they can compete within the Eastern Conference. That the last four games were not flukes nor luck, but the changing of tides within the team as talent develops together.

Kickoff for RBNY’s road game in Orlando is set for 4 PM and will be broadcast nationally on Fox.

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