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The MLS Playoff Picture in Four Tiers

The action this weekend in MLS really clarified the playoff picture and set clear markers as to who is in, who is contending, and who should begin their scouting for their top five draft pick.  More so than recent results, this weekend began to set the table for the 2011 playoffs and establish what teams need to do to make the coveted “top 10″. While a few teams like Philadelphia Union have games in hand over the rest of the field, for the most part there are less than two months worth of games remaining and every pass, every save, and every corner has now taken added significance.  To help review this weekend’s action I am doing the weekend review as a ranking.

Below are four categories designed to tell where teams are in the playoff race: MLS Cup contenders, playoff contenders, fringe contenders, and #2 pick contenders.  Just because a team is in the top category does not mean I am predicting one of those teams will win the MLS Cup (Colorado would not have made the top tier last year) but it is to designate that those teams are playing the best soccer now and look to be the teams to beat for the MLS Cup.  “Playoff contenders” are those teams that look to have the inside track for a playoff spot, while their “fringe contenders” counterparts are on the outside looking in and have to catch a few breaks to make the playoffs.  “Number two pick contenders” is hopefully self explanatory.

So here are my rankings, and feel free to comment on Twitter (@mlstalk, @roberthayjr) or in the comments’ section below:

MLS Cup Contenders

Los Angeles Galaxy: The incredible thing about the LA Galaxy is how consistent they are.  Their formula is very basic – have one (or two) of their high-profile players score an early goal and then have their midfield clamp down on the team.  In this weekend’s match it was shiny new toy Robbie Keane from old-hand David Beckham who scored in the 21st minute.  It is probably a foregone conclusion that the Galaxy are going to take the Supporters Shield, but we’ve seen this movie before and it will be curious to see how the Galaxy play in the playoffs.

Seattle Sounders: Quietly the Sounders are positioning themselves as the alternative to the Galaxy as the best team in MLS.  Playing in Dallas they came away with a hard-won 1-0 victory on a goal by Mauro Rosales assisted by Freddy Montero.  Seattle has all of their role players playing well and if they can break their Galaxy curse, this team has to be considered slight favorites for an MLS Cup.  I’d argue their depth may be even better than the Galaxy at this point, even if their starting XI is slightly worse.

FC Dallas: Although FC Dallas has gone through a bit of a slide and has some defensive issues, they still have to be considered a strong MLS Cup contender.  There are two keys for this team to determine how far they can go in the playoffs.  The first is sorting out the George John situation quickly.  John has been a rumored target of Blackburn and if he moves to the BPL, Dallas needs to figure out how to help their centerback depth.  Zach Lloyd staying healthy would be helpful.  The second is the return of David Ferreira, who may return as early as next month.  Although plenty good without him, an integrated and healthy Ferreira would take this team to a new level.

Playoff Contenders

Columbus Crew: The Crew have now seized control of the Eastern Conference and it is theirs to lose after beating Philadelphia 2-1.  Their style of play can be drab and defensive-minded, but it is incredibly effective.  Two things stand in the way of them waltzing into the playoffs.  The first is their schedule: they play only one team in the next five matches that are not in legitimate playoff contention and their September schedule includes a Philly rematch as well as traveling to Seattle and KC.  The second is Andres Mendoza, who again took a penalty yesterday after brushing aside a teammate.  The mercurial striker is a player whose antics could be a hindrance to this team.

Colorado Rapids: Just as the media were writing their epitaph, the Rapids are coming on strong.  Neither injuries nor a congested schedule can stop them as they are now unbeaten in their last six MLS matches.  At some point, the CCL and MLS schedule will have to catch up with the team, but Colorado looks like it can pull together a run similar to last season and contend for an MLS Cup.  It is also just as likely that it could all fall apart by the end of the season.

Real Salt Lake: RSL is similar to another MLS team in DC United in that what is keeping their playoff hopes alive is the games in hand they currently have.  The difference is that Real are in the playoffs if they were to start today and they are battling for a protected top 3 seed.  To grab one of those top three spots, however, they need to begin winning games they should win.  This weekend is a perfect example of the “funk” they have been all season – a very late goal to give Houston all three points is not what a championship-caliber team should be doing.  Again, though, they have plenty of opportunity to slide out of their slump.

Sporting Kansas City: How much of KC’s recent success is due to their home cooking, and how much of it is due to a team finally coming together? Their 1-0 win over DC was a definitive statement, as they controlled the match almost the entire 90 minutes and could have won by more.  Omar Bravo is scary good, and if Teal Bunbury ever gets begins to fulfill his promise this team may be unstoppable offensively.  If their defense steps up another level, they could make a Colorado-type run.

Chivas USA: This enigma of a club is beginning to pull together some good results, and maybe just maybe Juan Pablo Angel is what this team needs.  Grabbing a draw in Colorado against a hot Rapids team is what a playoff contender should do.  Despite getting a ton of flack for not being interested in participating in the allocation process, and looking very poor at the beginning of the season, this team has the pieces in place to take a wildcard spot.  What may hold them back is their manager: while he’s been good to this point, Robin Fraser’s still a young coach and, as our MLS Talk podcast hosts have noted, some of his decisions with lineups and such have been head-scratching.

Philadelphia Union: Despite being a lock in the East for most of the season, the Union today sit outside the top 3 and are battling for a playoff spot.  Now they do have a few games in hand, which can help them make up some ground, but this team needs to integrate Freddy Adu into its attack.  The defense is stout and the offense has potential, especially Paunovic who scored on Saturday.  While they get to host Columbus next month in a rematch, they have to travel to Rio Tinto, Kansas City, and New York for late-season games.

Houston Dynamo: First, thanks to Awful Announcing for posting the above video, which was my highlight for the weekend.  The Dynamo, despite the naysayers (which have included me at points) are continuing to get results when they need it.  Again, they took three points from RSL at home and are actually tied for the most wins at home in MLS this season.  While Geoff Cameron continues to garner rave reviews and Brad Davis continues to provide quality scoring chances, it has been Tally Hall and a rotating cast of goal scorers providing the points for this team.  There is a player, whether it’s Brian Ching or Cameron Weaver or Alex Dixon, who steps up every game to score that critical winner.

Fringe Contenders

New York Red Bulls: Dnaiel may never speak to me again after this, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that NY is a more expensive version of DC United.  Look at this weekend – New York could not get three points against a woeful New England team (although they got one more point than DC did at home against them).  Outside of the optimal starting XI, New York is very thin and cannot deal with multiple injuries/suspensions.  Some of their hyped starters look tired or confused, especially in the back.  New York has the talent to make a run and will probably prove me wrong, make the playoffs, and advance far.  But I can easily see them missing it if something doesn’t change at Red Bull Arena.

DC United: To quote Herm Edwards Denny Green, DC United is who we thought they were.  Dwayne De Rosario has been amazing in his short time in DC, but he is not receiving consistent help from his also talented teammates like Najar and Pontius.  While the defense has improved, and keeper looks like a real position of strength, there have been adjustment periods for youngsters Perry Kitchen and Daniel Woolard.  But DC’s playoff run comes down to this – if they can win multiple games in a row (win not draw) anywhere over the next ten games, they can take one of these playoff spots.  But they haven’t yet.

Portland Timbers: I’d be willing to wager that the MLS front offices are really hoping the Timbers make a playoff run so they can show their passionate crowd and exciting players on national TV.  The problem is that the Timbers cannot get results on the road.  That’s ok when they were dominant at home, but they need to begin consistently grabbing some results away from JELD-WEN.  Jack Jewsbury is a legitimate MVP candidate, and he has talent around him for a wild card team.  But like the other two teams in this category, consistency matters.

#2 Pick Contenders

San Jose Earthquakes: The ‘Quakes are the team most likely to make a move into the above category, but I am having a hard time seeing how they leapfrog Portland.  While the gap is only four points, they play five of their last seven matches on the road against quality opponents.  The offense has stagnated with Chris Wondolowski seemingly never recovering from his Gold Cup shank and Steven Lenhart’s unfortunate and sad absence.  This is a team lacking direction and fire, something that can be rekindled quickly but something that doesn’t look like it will be.

Chicago Fire: Break up the Fire!  They secured four points this past week and looked like they could show some life at the end of the season.  There’s talent on the team, no doubt, and they are not an easy W for playoff teams.  That said, we are still talking about the MLS record-holders for most draws and inconsistency is the key word for this team.  Like some of their other Eastern Conference brethren the next two months is about momentum for next season.

New England Revolution: The Revs are not consistently bad enough to be labeled a disaster, but aren’t anywhere close to being good enough to be labeled promising.  Even with the addition of Benny Feilhaber the attack has been lacking and the defense has been a let-down.  I enjoy Steve Nicol and admire the work he’s done the past decade, but I wonder if it is time for him to move on for his sake.  There’s talent here, but no cohesion or willingness to torpedo it for cohesion.

Toronto FC: And then there’s Toronto, which did torpedo their club for a new system.  The results of the constant trading and signing will have to be seen next year as Toronto looks to be focusing on the CONCACAF Champions League, and rightfully so.  A few positive results at the end of the season (and maybe a road win?) will really propel this rebuilding process forward.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Vancouver has some talent, and Eric Hassli has been an excellent signing.  But the talent overall is just not there.  This team has been building for the future since day one, and the present results are showing.  While expecting a win in Portland may have been too much, they only put up a tough fight in the end, way too late.

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25 Responses to The MLS Playoff Picture in Four Tiers

  1. Robert says:

    A few more weeks in August, All of September and All of October and we already know almost half the field for playoffs. HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAH

  2. Rex says:

    Pretty good breakdown but FYI Geoff Cameron is not getting (or shouldnt be getting) rave reviews and you confused Denny Green with Herm Edwards.

  3. The original Tom says:

    We don’t know who will win the support’s shield (the league needs to do more to emphasize this designation- a patch and a ball next season at least), and I am not yet certain the Rapids will make the play-offs. So Robert, for me there is plenty still to find out. And none the play-off spots have been clinched, this article is just speculation.

    Now lets speculate about the young EPL season- it will probably be won by ManU, though maybe ManCity or Chelsea. Some drama on which of 3 teams will take that 4th spot. And, of course, the relegation battle which is usually pretty exciting. Not much more (or less) if you ask me.

    Of course the EPL is a much higher level. But with the MLS the games are at normal evening times, and I can leave the house and go to games.

    • Robert says:

      Tom,

      Who said anything about EPL?

      • Charles says:

        Robert,

        Follow a real league, MLS, and troll about the others, it is a lot easier and you don’t look like a fool calling Salt Lake’s MLS Cup victory a joke, only to have them almost win CCL.

        Plus, maybe your could root for your team in CCL like me.

        Tijuana is in 15th, tied for 16th and 9 points down after 5 games.
        Your season is FINISHED.

        • Robert says:

          Spoken from a true Closed-League-Model Troll. Tijuana season is not over because unlike MLS cellar dwellers NE Revolution, Tijuana is still fighting to stay up in First Division. Lets compare Tijuana’s attendance to NE Revolution both teams at the bottom of table.

          Funny thing is, Tijuana is leaving everything on the field while Faux-Promoted Whitecaps are already looking towards next season with 2.5 months left in the season. Oh, how exciting to be a Whitecaps fan.

          • Charles says:

            NE won the league and the attendence was still probbly better at TJ. So what ? Your team will still NEVER win the league.

            The players might be leaving everything on the field, but it is only so they get picked up by a bigger team and don’t have to play for a pathetic team that will lose all its games and never play in CCL…ever..never..both.

            Whitecaps are still playing hard. Even winning every once in a while. Sometime over the next 10 years you can watch them play in CCL, in the meantime watch my Sounders play Tuesday.

            The Summer of Revenge.

          • Charles says:

            Wouldn’t it be tough to be a Closed League Troll on a Closed League blog ?

            Plus I typed NE won the league, but I meant to type almost won the league…don’t think they ever did. I would have to check the 13-15 years I was rooting for a team in a NON closed league.

    • Charles says:

      OT,

      The Supporters Shield will be dead in 5 years.
      They need to do more to make sure the playoffs are more fair.

      Advantages to teams that did well in the reg season and 3 games series all the way through. Salt Lake in 2009 was fine, it is a parity league and Salt Lake had more wins than anyone that year, but Colorado ( and I know you are a fan ) is a fine team, but Dallas beats them 2 out of 3 times last year ( a lot of teams do )….and if they don’t and Colorado wins 2 out of 3 in every round, give them the trophy.

  4. The original Tom says:

    I did.

  5. Charles says:

    Daniel still responds to me and I said New York was fringe playoff team months and months ago. NY is a fringe team with a VERY hard schedule. 8 games, 4 of them LA,SLC,Dallas, and Philly.

    Seattle has a much easier schedule than LA, but you get the feeling LA will not lose. To their credit, they are good at nabbing that SS.
    I don’t think they win the playoffs, for the same reason as the last two years…..I think they have weaknesses that can be exposed. They are very good at beating teams they should….Seattle probably being in that catagory. So if Seattle finishes two, LA wins the games they should ( unless PRico makes it ), LA loses to Dallas and beats Seattle. That is the West.
    The East ? Is it too easy to predict Salt Lake for the 2009 MLS Cup repeat ?

  6. Robert says:

    Timbers are in the Playoff Hunt with a -9 goal differential. WHAT A LEAGUE!

  7. The original Tom says:

    Charles- I’d take a Supporters Shield and a play-off structure that better rewards/punishes play-off teams according to their seed.

    I don’t think the SS will disappear because the owners realize it increases interest in the regular season for teams clinch the play-offs early. But I could be wrong.

    • Charles says:

      Good point, but teams that are winning already draw/have viewership.
      When the Mariners won 116 games, their TV viewership was enourmous, I am sure they clinched very early.

      Once they go too unbalanced, it will be hard to justify.
      Sounders already got screwed with a harder schedule in 2009 than SS winner Columbus.

    • CoconutMonkey says:

      @The Original Tom

      I’m with you. Considering that the SS was created (and purchased) by the fans, I imagine there would be a great deal of backlash if the league suddenly decided to nix it without replacing it with something similar: conference shields, maybe???

      • Charles says:

        Do you think they keep it around if the league is 24 teams and they are playing a 30 game schedule ?
        That is why I think it goes bye-bye, not because the fans or the league don’t want it, because it becomes irrelevant.
        IMHO, 20 teams is WAY too small for 310 million population.

        that is like UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany playing with 20 teams COMBINED.

        • Robert says:

          MLS-boys, FIFA does not want 20+ first division league.

          • The original Tom says:

            FIFA doesn’t always get what it wants.

          • Richard says:

            FIFA also wants us to implement a promotion-relegation system. I don’t see that happening ever. If we make a 28-team league what is FIFA going to do, not sanction a moderately successful league in the wealthiest country in the world (I guess I can’t put it past them to do that). And then what, they force into a system that is frankly unrealistic in a country this size. They probably weren’t too pleased when we used a countdown clock and didn’t have draws in the MLS. And even if they did, it just means the MLS won’t be playing in the FIFA World Cup and maybe the CONCACAF Champions League and thats it. I think the MLS probably feel like they can survive without those extra competitions despite not being the best in the world. I don’t think FIFA has really any say in how the MLS develops other then hard words and maybe another snub for a Word Cup.

            Just because it works in Europe does not mean it works in the USA. Lets just accept our differences and appreciate what both have to offer.

          • Robert says:

            FIFA does get what it wants. MLS has been lucky enough not to feel the wrath of a de-sanctioning. if that happens, no one will want to play in the league because it also means players can’t participate in FIFA tournies.

          • Alan says:

            MLS is a two-country league. Don’t forget that. 24 teams or more is more than realistic.

          • Tim says:

            They didn’t seem to care when the AFA suggested the merger. Only the fans and the smaller teams cared.

            FIFA doesn’t want instant replay or goal-line technology, is that a good idea?

        • The original Tom says:

          I have no idea. The NHL still has the Presidents Cup, although no one cares about it. If they still keep divisions, I’d like to see the “conference title” awarded for regular season performance, and then have just one bracket for the play-offs. Personally I’d like to see them start a 2nd division with pro/rel (perhaps in a unique North American way where you still play your closest rilval), but I’m not interesting in debating that topic.

          One thing that I’ve said before, if we have 24 teams, I don’t want to play some teams 3 or more times while not playing others. For example, it be a shame if Vancover plays Seattle 3 times, but does not play Toronto at all.

          • Alan says:

            That could be the appeal of the US Open Cup. Match eastern and western teams up. The US NEEDS to regionalize things because of how big in size we are. When we hit 20 teams, create 4 divisions with 2 in each conference. Have the teams in each conference play each other 4 times a piece to increase regional rivalries. Have each team play the other division teams in their conference 2 times a piece. Add a few east/west games in there, have each division champion advance to the play offs, have 2 other teams from each conference advance. Have division champions, conference champions, MLS cup winners. As the league grows, increase the number of divisions to 3 per conference.

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