Championships in Major League Soccer are all about the playoffs. On the surface, that statement is tautological, but within its subtext is a more useful reminder: The nature of the league changes once the regular season is over.
The style and level of competition changes. It heightens. Regular-season results may be a decent indicator of a team’s capabilities, but over the course of the postseason, one team is going to reach its potential. And that team’s going to render its regular-season results moot.
Consider that only seven teams in MLS’s previous 24 seasons won both the regular-season title, the Supporters’ Shield, and MLS Cup. While that dichotomy once led to a healthy debate between the value of Shield versus Cup, the reality of the league is clear. Teams target the postseason. What comes before is about preparing for what comes now.
“[The playoffs are] more about the mental side of the game,” Timbers captain Diego Valeri said, when asked to compare regular and postseasons. The Timbers open their postseason on Sunday at Providence Park in Round One of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs against FC Dallas (7pm PT, ESPN).
“It’s about knowing it's an elimination game,” Valeri continued, “so that creates a different environment, a different atmosphere inside the field.”
Last year’s MLS champion, Seattle Sounders FC, had the league’s fifth-best record in the regular season. The year before that, Atlanta United FC finished second in the Supporters’ Shield race, even though Toronto FC won both honors in 2017. In the five preceding seasons (2016 back to 2012), MLS Cup’s eventual champion finished seventh, fifth, second, second, and eighth in the league’s regular-season standings.
It’s difficult to ignore the regular season and excel in the playoffs, but regular-season success has only been able to tell us so much about a team’s postseason fortunes.
“Obviously the intensity and the rhythm of [a playoff] game, it's probably different,” Valeri said. “But [the differences are] based on how the game goes. We have to start the game, put our foot on it, and then try to manage the game. There is a difference, but for me it's more about how you prepare for the game, face the game, knowing it's an elimination game.”
Though Major League Soccer’s format presents an interesting contrast with the playoff-less leagues in Europe, many of MLS’s players from Central and South America have experienced playoff formats before. Winger Yimmi Chara, for example, was part of Liguilla-qualifying teams during his time in Mexico with CF Monterrey.
“It wasn’t just in Mexico but also in some other countries I played in that gave me a chance to play this type of game,” Chara said, when asked about his time in Liga MX. “These are the types of games where you can’t give up any advantage, where you have to focus from the first minute of the game.”
Striker Felipe Mora may be new to MLS, but he’s played in playoff formats before, having been with Cruz Azul in Mexico before beginning his Portland loan. When Pablo Bonilla was in Venezuela, the country’s league had two playoff tournaments each year, like Mexico. Even defender Dario Zuparic’s previous league, the Prva HNL in Croatia, sent the league’s next-to-last-place finisher into a relegation playoff.
Those stakes are different than the ones MLS’s team will face on Sunday, but it’s still knockout-round soccer, something many Timbers have also experienced at international and youth levels.
“These are special games that teams prepare for in a different way,” Chara said. “As players, we have to be ready to prepare at that same [level].”
Sports fans in the United States are used to this format. They know teams are supposed to build, position themselves for a postseason. It’s only when contrasting MLS with what happens in Europe that the format looks so different.
In truth, most of the Timbers have been here before, be it in the previous years in Portland or during their previous stops. They already know what Sunday will be step up.