HANOVER, N.J. â When the M.L.S. Cup playoffs begin on Wednesday, the talent-laden Eastern Conference will claim the spotlight with its confounding, shape-shifting ways â and with several of its best coaches and players becoming something of a distraction just when the matches count most.
The changes already have altered the field, the seedings and the matchups for the playoffs. Now pending departures and expiring contracts have raised the stakes even more, especially for several of the Eastâs contenders who thought this might be the year they finally won their first title.
The top team in the East, the Red Bulls, arrives in the postseason with perhaps its best chance yet to end its 23-year pursuit of a championship, but also with the sobering reality that the team most likely will lose its top young player to Europe in January â after having already lost its coach midseason.
The No. 2 seed, Atlanta United, may face an even more disruptive off-season: Tata Martino, the coach who built the second-year team into an arena-filling, goal-producing juggernaut, announced last week that he would not return in 2019.
But clocks are ticking in other cities, too. D.C. United, left for dead in midseason, was revived by the arrival of the transcendent (but 33-year-old) striker Wayne Rooney. It will face the Columbus Crew, which could soon lose its coach, Gregg Berhalter, to the United States national team.
And then there is New York City F.C. It, too, endured a midseason coaching change, with Patrick Vieira departing for Nice in Franceâs Ligue 1, and enters the playoffs as the No. 3 seed. But its Spanish cornerstone since the teamâs inception, David Villa, will turn 37 a few days before this yearâs M.L.S. championship game, and will see his contract expire once the season is over.
Living in the present, then, has become something of a necessity.
âWe just know this is the best team we ever had,â Red Bulls Coach Chris Armas said after clinching the regular-season title on Sunday. âThatâs what weâre focused on from an optimistic standpoint â what weâve accomplished, not what we havenât accomplished.â
What the Red Bulls accomplished under Armas, who replaced Jesse Marsch as coach in July, was the best regular season in league history. The Red Bulls went 12-3-3 under Armas, the former assistant who took charge when Marsch left for a job at Germanyâs RB Leipzig, and won their last five games to catch Atlanta in the standings on the seasonâs final day. They captured the Supportersâ Shield, given to the team with the best record, for the third time in six years, and would host M.L.S. Cup â if they can get there.
Nagging doubts about the Red Bulls remain, however. They have never won the Cup, and their high-press style has been effectively countered by playoff opponents willing to absorb the pressure with well-organized defenses and then score just enough goals on counterattacks.
The Red Bullsâ two rocks, goalkeeper Luis Robles and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, have maintained their elite playing levels. But the Red Bulls were improved defensively this year, yielding a league-low 33 goals in 34 games. Tyler Adams, the teamâs 19-year-old defensive midfielder, has been a big part of that effort. Adams predicted Tuesday that the defensive upgrade would make a difference in the postseason.
âToward the end of the past couple of seasons, we kind of died out a little bit â not our performance, but fatigue set in,â Adams said. âNow we can change our style of play in games, become a bit more compact and still put pressure on teams. In the past, we havenât really had that. With the defense we have now, you can absorb pressure more, especially on the road.â
Regardless how this postseason plays out, Adams is almost certain to join Marsch in Germany during the January transfer window. Atlanta may face a similar situation with its 25-year-old Venezuelan striker, Josef Martinez, who set an M.L.S. single-season record this season with 31 goals.
Martinez came to Atlanta by way of Torino, in Italyâs Serie A, but he has played so well in the teamâs first two seasons that he is expected to receive lucrative offers this winter from European clubs.
Atlanta Unitedâs march to the regular-season title, and its drive for its first league championship, went awry last week, however, after Martino announced he would leave the team at the end of the season âfor personal reasons.â The club then proceeded to fall apart in its final game, losing in Toronto, 4-1, to hand the Supportersâ Shield, and the No. 1 seed, to the Red Bulls.
Martino insisted his departure did not have an effect on that defeat, and instead bemoaned his playersâ âlack of energyâ in Toronto.
âIt seems the team has lost the football we had before, and thatâs what we need to regain going into playoffs,â Martino said. âWe did all this work since January, and threw away everything we worked for during the season.â
N.Y.C.F.C. was winless in 10 of its last 12 matches and has its own playoff ghosts to fight. It has qualified for the postseason for the third straight year, and will host Philadelphia in an elimination game on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, hoping to avoid the kind of disaster â a 4-1 thumping at Columbus â that ended last yearâs postseason run as soon as it began.
âThe guys that were here last year know we had a bad situation because we didnât do well in the playoffs the years before,â Villa said. âBut we need to forget this.â