The MLS Playoffs begin Wednesday, and whether you like the playoff system or not, it’s an opportunity to make the most of it.
The ten-team knockout tournament that will be played for the next month across the United States – and possibly Canada too – will be filled with drama, an unusual amount of farewells, pageantry, and pressure.
It’s the best North American club soccer around, and it’s getting bigger and better than ever.
Three things matter more than anything in the playoffs. In no particular order, they are talent, coaching, and form. Of course things like experience, home-field advantage, matchups, and fatigue all play roles as well, but the three characteristics of each team are often early indicators of when and where each team will finish their seasons.
According to those three metrics, each of the ten teams in the playoffs are profiled here.
#1 – Seattle Sounders
They have plenty in Seattle, and it’s not Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey who we need to talk about here. It’s offseason acquisitions Gonzalo Pineda, who has locked down the central midfield next to Osvaldo Alonso in what has often been a problem position for Seattle (hello, Adam Moffat!), and Chad Marshall, who has turned a suspect defense (hello, Djimi Traore!) into a solid unit.
Those were the kinds of additions that made the 2014 Sounders the best in the league. Stefan Frei in goal has worked out as well. This is what an MLS SuperClub looks. Its roster is filled with players who have World Cup experience, even both the fullbacks, and has star pieces up top. No one will beat Seattle on talent alone.
Last November in Portland, Sigi Schmid walked down the tunnel at halftime of the Sounders’ Western Conference Semifinal with the Timbers, down 5-1 on aggregate, and must have thought he was facing his last team talk as Seattle coach.
Instead, Seattle kept faith in their only ever MLS coach, and were rewarded in a huge way. The locker room divisions that destroyed the team last year are gone, role players are contributing, and his team is, more or less, getting along.
He’s clearly one of the finest American coaches ever; the only question for Schmid is whether he can navigate a playoff series. His record as Sounders coach in the playoffs is poor, and after winning the Supporters’ Shield, the pressure to win MLS Cup has reached a fever pitch.
Form: After a subtle early fall blip, Seattle tore through the end of the regular season to win the Shield, and, importantly, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They have too much firepower for whoever they face in the semifinals – though Vancouver has been a tough matchup this year – but I don’t see them getting past LA again in two games. Finish: Western Conference Final.
#2 – LA Galaxy
Talent: This was the best attacking team in MLS history in the regular season, and it all starts with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. The Irishman is rested, while Donovan will be markedly better than he was in the last month of the regular season when he was admittedly exhausted by the retirement hoopla.
The only way Gyasi Zardes could have had a better year would have been shaving the macaroni and cheese off his head. This team is especially strong through the middle, with Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho in the midfield and Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza in central defense.
If there’s anywhere this team can be had it’s the wings, but you have to make LA uncomfortable to give yourself a chance, and few teams have been able to do that this year. Goalkeeper may be a slight concern.
There are two kinds of coaches in MLS: All the coaches in MLS, and Bruce Arena. The Galaxy have Bruce Arena, who has almost certainly spent the last three days figuring out how to combat the second-half Marco Pappa for Brad Evans sub that cost his team the Supporters’ Shield.
It’s not any coincidence that LA is a different team when the playoffs roll around. MLS Cup is the only competition Arena cares about, and it’s the one he specializes in winning.
Not bad, though you have to believe losing the Shield to the Sounders over the last two weeks, and the loss in Dallas before that took the wind out of the sails of a team that was scoring at will for much of the summer and fall.
The 2014 Galaxy were probably the best team in MLS history. Add in the revenge they’ll want against the Sounders and the Donovan factor, and it’s hard to see any other outcome then another celebration at the StubHub Center on December 7th. Finish: Champions.
#3 – Real Salt Lake
None of the characters are new: It’s Rimando, Beckerman, Morales, and Saborio down the middle, with characters like Gravaboy and Borchers thrown in for character.
There’s enough here to make a run, but only if it’s all clicking together like it was in 2013. RSL’s dismantling of Portland in the West semis last year was a clinic, and this is a team that’s desperately unlucky not to be defending a title this year. Problem is, they haven’t operated with that same precision for much of 2014.
This is the first playoff campaign for Jeff Cassar as RSL manager. He’s done a nice job keeping the train rolling this year, but in a matchup against Bruce Arena in the 2-3 matchup, you worry. There’s no question that the playoffs are where Jason Kreis’ absence could hit hardest.
Not great, particularly right at the end of the regular season. Salt Lake lost to the now-defunct Chivas USA, and were played off the field in Portland.
Though RSL particularly lick their chops when coming up against big market teams like the Galaxy, the gulf between the two teams this year is far, far greater than it was last year. Finish: Western Conference Semifinals.
#4 – FC Dallas
They don’t have any big-name players. Fabian Castillo plays like the team’s star, but it’s more of a Blas Perez type that sets the table for Dallas. If they’re going to make a run, it will be scrappy, acrimonious, and tight.
Michel is an underrated midfielder who is valuable from set pieces, and Matt Hedges has had a huge year in central defense. It will be interesting to see who plays goalkeeper. Chris Seitz and Raul Fernandez have alternated this year.
Oscar Pareja has done a magnificent job with a young team, just as he did in Colorado last year. But Pareja has been found wanting at times for in-game adjustments, and his only playoff game as a manager was a loss in last year’s Wild Card game to Seattle.
Dallas finished the season strong, but had a tough final two games in Colorado and at home against the Timbers. You’d have to call their Wild Card opponents Vancouver the hotter team right now.
Dallas need some time to mature and one or two more pieces to make a big run. I think they lose at home to the ‘Caps in the Wild Card game. Finish: Wild Card Game.
#5 – Vancouver Whitecaps
Pedro Morales is the main man as an attacking midfield dynamo, and the Whitecaps have surrounded him with a number of shiny but enigmatic pieces up top and steely players at the back.
Kendall Waston, whose headed goal put Vancouver in the playoffs, has been terrific since joining the team midseason, but to be successful in the playoffs, Vancouver have to get one of their forwards firing. Kakuta Manneh could be a wild card. It’s a hit or miss side overall.
Carl Robinson did a nice job navigating some intense peaks and valleys in his first season as a head coach, and he’s made some difficult situations work for him. Like Pareja, who has virtually no playoff experience, Robinson has no playoff expierence.
Very good. In a tight race with Portland for the final playoff spot down the stretch, Vancouver didn’t slip up. They’ve won four of five and kept four clean sheets in a row.
I think Vancouver has enough to get by Dallas, and they’ve already beaten Seattle twice this year in what would be an intense Cascadia matchup. Playing at BC Place – which has never hosted a playoff game – is a huge advantage, but slaying the Sounders might be a step too far. Finish: Western Conference Semifinals.
#1 – DC United
This is a blue-collar, hard-working team full of veterans and journeymen, not stars. Eddie Johnson, the team’s highest paid and highest profile player, is nowhere near one of its most important players.
Bobby Boswell, Fabian Espindola, and Davy Arnaud have all been invaluable this year, and especially the midfield partnership of Arnaud and Perry Kitchen have made United tick. It’s a tough team to play against, and if they can get Johnson or Luis Silva firing up top, it’ll be hard to find the goals to keep up with them.
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