Analyzing The MLS Playoff Race In Detail

Seattle Sounders v FC Dallas

There’s about a month to go in the MLS season, which will wrap up at the end of October. That means playoff races are reaching their apex, as the field is set for the November tournament that is the best of what the league has to offer.

MLS doesn’t have promotion and relegation – and no, it’s almost certainly not happening in your lifetime – the playoffs function as the alternative drama to the race against the drop.

Some would say it’s better drama. David Villa marveled at the playoff system, saying at the MLS NEXT launch in New York City last week, “The format is very competitive, and it’s a format the European leagues should look at. The race for the playoffs and then to play in the playoffs to determine the champions – for me, playing my whole life in Europe, I haven’t had a league like this. It makes it very competitive and interesting from the beginning to the end.”

Villa went on to talk about how the seventh place team in Europe is out of contention after 25 games, where in MLS that team still has every shot at the championship.

Look at it this way – instead of things being interesting from the final day for teams 1-5 and teams 15-20, in MLS things are interesting until the end for teams 1-14.

The playoffs are thoroughly enthralling. So is the stretch run. Here’s a primer on who’s in, who’s out, and who’s close to playing in November.

Western Conference

Who’s In?

Seattle Sounders – In those comments last week, Villa also tabbed Seattle as being “a cut above” the rest of the league.

It’s true. With LA, the Sounders are simply playing a different game than everyone else. Seattle has a chance to become one of the few teams in MLS history to win 20 games and average 2.00 points per game. They already won the US Open Cup in Philadelphia last Tuesday, and this all coming after a historic collapse last season that saw club on the brink of destruction.

The Sounders have always been reliably competitive – they’ve made the playoffs every year they’ve been in the league – but they’ve never been the juggernaut they are now.

It starts with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, who are almost indefensible on their best days, up top. Reclamation projects like Gonzalo Pineda, Chad Marshall, Marco Pappa, and Stefan Frei have also been huge this year. Role players have contributed, stars have lived up to their billing. There appears to be a totally healthy atmosphere as well for the first time in years in Seattle.

The Sounders have already clinched their playoff birth. The question now is, will they make their first ever MLS Cup Final?

LA Galaxy – The Galaxy also clinched a playoff birth last weekend with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over FC Dallas.

Like Seattle, LA is a different class than the rest of MLS – and if their 3-0 victory in Seattle in their only meeting of the season is any indication, the Galaxy have an even greater level to tap into.

After getting through a sluggish start to the season, the Galaxy have been firing on all cylinders – no doubt spurred on by the play of talisman Landon Donovan which has been sensational since his World Cup snub.

Things are going so well right now, former cult hero Alan Gordon has returned from rival San Jose and given LA a massive boost in recent weeks.

The talent – across the board, and more so in defense than in previous years – the coaching – Bruce Arena is still the class of the league – and the motivation – Donovan’s last year – are all there for LA to claim their third title in four years.

Real Salt Lake – They’ve flown somewhat under the radar all year, as they usually do, but RSL haven’t missed a beat even with the departure of manager Jason Kreis for NYCFC last offseason.

Jeff Casar has stepped into the void in the dugout and done an admirable job – though you wonder at times if this team could just run on autopilot.

Salt Lake knows exactly what their doing – possession, diamond midfield, work the channels – better than any team in the league, and that assuredness shows week in and week out.

RSL definitely don’t have the firepower of LA and Seattle, but if they can keep games tight and defend, they’ll have a chance in any playoff series. Plus, with the team getting healthy and Alvaro Saborio getting back into the fold, the Claret and Cobalt could be squarely in the mix for the title they missed out on so agonizingly last year.

FC Dallas – If Dallas was in the Eastern Conference, as their neighbors Houston are, they would be among the class of the league, and in the race for the Supporter’s Shield.

As is, they’re stuck behind the class of the league in the west and generally overlooked when talking about MLS title contenders.

Dallas suffers from not having stars – they also suffer from a lack of national TV exposure and general profile. Dallas is about as gritty as a young team can come – an image crafted in large part by irascible on-field leader Blas Perez.

First year manager Oscar Pareja has crafted a team much like the one he left in Colorado – rookies and other fresh faces are relied upon to make a big impact, and stars like Fabian Castillo are in the process of being made.

It makes all the wrangling of the off-season to pry Pareja away from the Rapids looks well worth it. Will Dallas have staying power in the playoffs? We’ll see – they appear headed for a one-off Wild Card game, quite possibly against Portland, who they play at home in the last game of the season.

Who’s Close?

Portland Timbers – After a dreadful start that could be chalked up to a hangover from last year’s touched campaign that saw the Timbers go winless in their first eight games of the 2014 season, Portland has led a rather bi-polar march towards the red line.

One week they’ll dazzle with their offense and talent, the next their fall all over themselves with suicidal defense and game management.

There’s never a dull moment with this team. The question is defense – Liam Ridgewell was brought in midseason to try and shore up a unit that has been in constant upheaval since the beginning of the year.

Portland has no trouble scoring – if they can figure out the other side of the ball, they’ll be a tough out. As is, they’re not a team anyone wants to see in November.

The Timbers piqued in October last year – and they’re 3-0 mauling of Vancouver at the weekend suggested they could be headed for a repeat performance in 2014. Then again, expect the unexpected with this bunch.

Vancouver Whitecaps – The ‘Caps started the year thinking big – pursuing Bob Bradley as head coach, and fighting to keep Golden Boot winner Camilo. But things changed – an old, expensive team became a young, less expensive team with a new young manager in Carl Robinson, and things were going swimmingly for a time.

But recently, the wheels have come off. Vancouver’s exciting young guns have lost steam, and Robinson appears out of answers. Direct playoff rivals Portland beat Vancouver 3-0 in both cities in September, causing the Whitecaps to lose control of their own playoff destiny.

Gershion Koffe’s injury has been disastrous – and remember, this is a team that started the year employing Kenny Miller, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Jay DeMerit. All three of those players are gone now, for various reasons.

The question is, does the remaining team have enough nous and organization to pull themselves up and turn things around before it’s too late?

Who’s Out?

Colorado Rapids – For much of the year, the Rapids looked like a boarder-line playoff team at worst. But if you think Vancouver has fallen apart, Colorado has been in free-fall.

The Rapids have lost eight of their last nine games, including in the last three weeks a 6-0 loss in LA and a 5-1 loss at Real Salt Lake. They’ve had a goalkeeper sent off in the first 30 seconds of a game, and manager Pablo Mastroeni admit that he dropped the starter in the first place because goalkeeper was the only position left he could change.

Injuries – especially to their central defense – has been the number one cause of ailment for Colorado. But the Rapids showed themselves to be fragile mentally over the last month – hence the losing streak in one of the most forgiving leagues in the world.

The Rapids will be back – they still have an exciting young nucleus and the shape of the solid team that made the playoffs last year – but whether you blame bad luck or bad coaching or bad play, there will be nothing fond in the memory about the 2014 season in Commerce City.

San Jose Earthquakes – I don’t think it would be out of line to say the Earthquakes are having a bit of an identity crisis. Just two years ago, the ‘Quakes were the villians of MLS – Shield winners, Goonies, and home of the Bash Brothers.

They were in your face. Reckless, dirty, and really good. You just couldn’t stand them.

But those days are long gone. A coaching change has seen Mark Watson in charge for a full year now with his interim tag removed, and Watson seems just a tad overmatched.

As San Jose transitions from their direct, physical style to a speedier finesse game that was supposed to be brought along by DP acquisition Matias Perez Garcia who got hurt shortly after signing, the direction of the team on the field remains unstable.

There is a major onus on the Earthquakes to figure themselves out and start winning again next year, when they open their new stadium and finally move off the grounds of Santa Clara.

The clock is ticking. The ‘Quakes may not be so far away from their old success, but if 2014 is any indication, they’ve got an uphill battle to fight.

Chivas USA – Dismal, dismal, dismal.

They’ve barley even a team, really. And they’ll almost surely be gone after five more games.

The future of the franchise – a future that looks more and more like it will include a year or more off before a rebrand as a new LA franchise in a new stadium, is in flux.

The team is just bad. No direction, no desire, just a bunch of players counting down the days until a potential dispersal draft this offseason.

To the few dedicated fans of the Goats, I can only imagine how awful this situation is. To everyone else in MLS, there will be no more guaranteed three points in 2015 and beyond.

Eastern Conference

Who’s In?

DC United – One of the league’s most storied clubs has had an Only In MLS type of turnaround this year. After becoming the leagues’ worst ever team in 2013, DC came out of the gates in 2014 firing.

It took about five games to see that this was a playoff team, and about ten to see that it was going to be a playoff team by a considerable margin. But the scope of the turnaround now – first place in the East – is surprising.

DC has gone the San Jose route – direct, burly, and full of know-how. Players like Boswell, Franklin, Kitchen, Rolfe, Espindola – they’ve all come in or matured into players who know how to win in MLS.

That DC has turned things around like they have without major contributions from high-maintenance DP Eddie Johnson makes things even more impressive.

DC isn’t going to blow teams away. Ben Olsen isn’t going to tactically outfox many coaches he comes up against. There’s nothing flashy about this team. But they are getting the job done.

This could go one of two ways in the playoffs – an effective bunch comes up short against teams with more speed and gumption, or this group keeps things close and tight and let’s their experience take the day.

Whatever happens, 2014 has been a fantastic turnaround for DC United.

Sporting Kansas City – There was a time for the defending champions – even early this year – where it appeared Kansas City simply could not be beat, simply because no one could score on a backline of Chance Meyers, Aurelien Colin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic.

Then brilliant holding midfield player Oriel Rosel was sold to Sporting Lisbon, Besler and Graham Zusi went to the World Cup and came back tired, and pretty much everyone else got hurt.

Things haven’t fallen apart completely, but man, things aren’t the same.

The last two years have been glorious for Kansas City – the football club and the city. The soccer capital of the Midwest hosted the All-Star Game, a US World Cup qualifier, and MLS Cup.

Sporting were a force to be reckoned with last year because of their organization and tenacious workrate, combined with quite a bit of skill from the likes of Zusi, Benny Feilhaber, and Dom Dwyer.

Now, things aren’t quite clicking like they should be. Kansas City could certainly turn things around in time for the playoffs and make a fourth straight Eastern Conference final, but a fair bit of confidence and prowess will have to be restored in the coming month.

Who’s Close?

New England Revolution – There’s no denying the Revs’ talent. With the addition of Jermaine Jones, New England’s rich midfield has gotten even richer. Lee Nguyen could be the best-kept secret in American soccer.

Charlie Davies is hitting his stride up top, and Jose Goncalves is getting into a 2013-esque groove at the back. There’s a reason the Revolution were a trendy MLS Cup pick at the beginning of the year.

The problem has been inconsistencies, and ill-disciplined stretches that saw New England dismally fall out of the playoff places in the summer with a swoon comparable to the one Colorado is mired in now.

New England looks good to make the playoffs, and their talent will scare anyone they come across – remember, the Revs took eventual champion Sporting to extra time in the first round of the playoffs last year.

The question is, will New England continue to be their own worst enemy?

New York Red Bulls – They’re tantalizing, the Red Bulls. As they showed in their superb 4-1 win over Seattle on Saturday, New York can rock. Red Bull Arena was on fire, big players dazzled, and the Red Bulls played like the Supporters’ Shield winners they were in 2013.

But too often it hasn’t come together for New York this year. Outside of Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips, there has been very little consistency. Mike Petke has labored to find a winning combination, and 2013 talisman Tim Cahill has been pitiful for the Red Bulls to date.

The talent on this team is certainly there. In attack, there are days when the Red Bulls can score as many as they want. But too often, players haven’t been on the same page and motivation has been lacking.

A much ballyhooed meeting between Petke and Henry a few weeks ago to clear the air and move forward seems to have helped the Red Bulls, who have jumped back into the playoff places for the first time since the beginning of the season.

You’d have to bet on New York to make the playoffs now. But will they have their act together when it really counts?

Columbus Crew – The Crew have had a nice 2014. Under first year coach Greg Berhalter and in the first full year of Anthony Precourt’s ownership, Columbus has done a lot with a little talent.

They’ve remained fairly consistent over the course of the year, and seen some breakout performances from midfield players like Justin Miram and Tony Tchini. Federico Higuain, brother of Gonzalo, continues to inspire.

The question becomes, does Columbus have enough talent to get over the line? Center-back Giancarlo Gonzalez was snatched by Palermo after his sterling World Cup with Costa Rica leaving Michael Parkhurst to fend for himself at the back, and an effort to land Mix Diskerud was bizarrely denied at the transfer deadline by, apparently, the player’s father.

The Crew have long-term ambition and goals, and they’ve had some big nights this year – notably beating LA 4-1 in Landon Donovan’s last trip to the home of US Soccer. Making the playoffs would be a well-deserved cherry on top of their very decent campaign.

Philadelphia Union – The Union have huffed and puffed their way back into contention after John Hackworth was sacked in June and Jim Curtin took over on an interim basis.

Though the club has tried to go big and international – Rene Mulensteen is on the shortlist for the managerial position and Algeria World Cup goalkeeper Rais M’Bholi was brought in, it’s still Curtin in the dugout and Zach McMath in goal for the moment.

Why mess with a good thing? Philly can ever so close to winning the US Open Cup on home soil last week, and they remain in the thick of the playoff race.

At the very least, they’ve made people around the club proud. For the first time since the club’s debut season in 2010, the atmosphere around the club is very positive – if uncertain.

Curtin of course knows that making the playoffs would go a long way to securing his personal future, but many feel he’s done enough to land the full-time job regardless of what happens in October.

Toronto FC – It’s sad that the wheels have fallen off again at Toronto FC, because a club that had Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe and Tim Leiweke all pulling in the same direction would have been a force to be reckoned with.

As is, there’s been a typical melodramatic implosion.

Ryan Nelsen was sacked before a deadline day which saw the club steadfastly refused to sell an extremely unhappy Defoe – before Leiweke admitted a week later that he’d probably be gone in January.

That level of dysfunction is the norm at a club that hasn’t made the playoffs since it came into the league in 2007. Attendance has since lagged, and the clubs looks increasingly uncomfortable.

Make no mistake – making the playoffs for the first time ever would be huge for the club, despite everything that has happened.

But after being in third almost the entire year, TFC now has a major uphill battle to climb – on every front – to make the postseason. And no smart man would bet on Toronto to pull together and make good when the going gets tough.

Who’s Out?

Houston Dynamo – For the first season since they moved to Houston, the Dynamo won’t be in the playoffs.

In reality, an upset run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season belied a roster increasingly devoid of depth and talent. Losing Bobby Boswell in the offseason created a void in central defense that wasn’t filled, and key players have underperformed all year.

DeMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido were brought in as reinforcements, but they haven’t been enough.

Houston has a tough, hard-tacking, hard-running team in place. They just were missing a few pieces this year, and didn’t got their wheels turning in time to make a major playoff push.

Chicago Fire – The Fire are very close to MLS history – most draws ever in a single season.

That isn’t exactly what Chicago wanted to be known for after barely missing out on the 2013 playoffs and bringing in Frank Yallop to run their soccer operations in 2013.

The club saw star striker Mike Magee never really get off the mark – save for his terrific Day Off video – and fall to a season-ending injury, and miss out on potentially season-altering acquisition Jermaine Jones in a blind draw after the Fire did most of the leg work to land the US star.

With a lot of young pieces that need time to mature and gel, 2014 probably wasn’t going to be the Fire’s year anyway – but luck didn’t favor them along the way. Whether Yallop is the right man for the job will be revealed more in 2015.

Montreal Impact – Starting at the end of last season and going into this season, Montreal has completely fallen apart.

Mixed messages, personnel changes, and a generally toxic atmosphere have made for a season that was doomed from the start. Owner and operator Joey Saputo is still very much learning on the job. Frank Klopas was always a bit of a strange hire as head coach, and the club could very well be looking for coach number four in five seasons as early as next year.

Marco Di Vaio appears to be on the outs, as the club will try and rebuild around new DP Ignacio Piatti for 2015. Defense and goalkeeper remain issues, as does an atmosphere around the club that screams “TFC” in the foreground.

That’s the state of MLS on the field. One month to go – then the fun really begins.

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