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.

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