MLS playoff story lines to follow: Philadelphia Union, Seattle Sounders among key teams in 18-team field

The Major League Soccer regular season is complete and the expanded 18-team playoff field is set.

With some time for the postseason matchups to marinate (the games don't start until Nov. 20), here's a look at five story lines to follow for the upcoming MLS playoffs:

— Philadelphia Union: The Union were unexpected winners of the Supporters' Shield, which is presented to the team with the best record. Now, after winning the first trophy in the team's 11-year history, the Union — which has just one playoff victory ever — owns home-field advantage throughout the postseason and is in the unfamiliar position of favorite to reach the MLS Cup.

Cory Burke celebrates his goal in the Philadelphia Union's 2-0 win over the New England Revolution in the regular-season finale. (Photo: Eric Hartline, USA TODAY Sports)

The Union took the scenic route to the top, bypassing big-name high-priced acquisitions to instead focus on building a youth academy that is now paying dividends. Midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 20, and defender Mark McKenzie, 21, already have made their U.S. national team debuts, with Aaronson set for a move to Red Bull Salzburg after the season on a $6 million transfer fee (that could rise to $9 million).

— Heavyweights square off: Last season, the Seattle Sounders went into Banc of California Stadium and knocked off record-setting Los Angeles FC in the Western Conference final en route to ultimate glory in the MLS Cup. The two flagship franchises will meet again this year, this time in the first round in Seattle. The Sounders won both home matches this season against LAFC, which features the previous two Golden Boot winners (Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi) and carries the "team nobody wants to play" moniker.

MLS PLAYOFF PICTURE: Philadelphia Union, Sporting KC enter as top seeds

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— Expansion teams: Nashville SC and Inter Miami became the sixth and seventh first-year teams, respectively, to reach the MLS playoffs. Granted, the expanded playoff field helped Miami reach the postseason, but David Beckham's team's inclusion sets up a fun first-round matchup between the two new clubs.

— Goals: Last season's single-elimination, knockout format (vs. the home-and-home series used in previous seasons) was the highest-scoring postseason in league history at 4.1 goals a game. Expect that trend to continue in 2020 in the one-and-done format.

— Missing out: Despite the expanded postseason field, franchises that have combined to win 14 of the 24 MLS Cups missed the playoffs. The Los Angeles Galaxy (five MLS Cup wins), D.C. United (four), Houston Dynamo (two), Atlanta United (one), Real Salt Lake (one) and Chicago Fire (one) were among the eight teams to miss the playoffs.

— COVID-19: Like any other league attempting to complete its 2020 season, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted MLS. The league was just two games into its season when the coronavirus shut it down until the MLS is Back Tournament kicked off in July. Even though that tournament was played in a bubble, two teams — FC Dallas and Nashville SC — had to be sent home before the competition began due to outbreaks within their squads.

A number of teams since the season restarted in home stadiums have had games either canceled or rescheduled. The Colorado Rapids played just 18 games — three fewer than any other team in the Western Conference — as the team experienced its own outbreak last month. Obviously, another outbreak could create quite a conundrum as MLS aims to complete its 25th season.

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