Defense wins MLS Cups
by Jason Longshore
Defense wins champions is an old cliché. In Major League Soccer, it has been proven true over the majority of its 24 seasons preceding 2020.
In 2019, the Seattle Sounders were a bit of an anomaly among their fellow MLS Cup winners. Their goals conceded per match during the regular season (1.44) was the highest among MLS Cup winners since 1997's DC United. Their goals allowed per match in the postseason (1.25) was the highest since the DC's 2004 MLS Cup winning squad. They did show improvement defensively from the regular season to the postseason, there have only been two MLS Cup winners who gave up more goals per match in the postseason than in the regular season (2003 San Jose, 2002 LA Galaxy).
The games get tighter in the MLS Cup playoffs. We are in year two of the single-game knockout format and there's a good chance we see fewer goals conceded than last year.
Your average MLS Cup champion conceded 1.22 goals per regular season match. By that standard, 7 teams in the Eastern Conference and 3 teams in the Western Conference could win the 2020 MLS Cup.
Three teams in the Eastern Conference gave up less than one goal per match, a very rare feat accomplished by only four MLS Cup winners. Philadelphia and Columbus were expected to be in this situation coming into the season with lots of returning faces along the backline and in goal. Nashville was a big surprise. The Boys in Gold developed from the back to the front in their inaugural season and that commitment to defensive security puts them in a prime position to be a contender in the postseason.
Only five teams survived a postseason conceding more than one goal per match in their playoff matches to win MLS Cup. Philadelphia, Columbus, and Nashville were the only teams in the 2020 season to accomplish this in the regular season. Can they be even better in the postseason? If so, they can lift the trophy at the end of this crazy 25th season of Major League Soccer.
(photo credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych)