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.
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.
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.
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.