Neutral’s guide to the MLS playoffs: Western Conference edition

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Seven months ago, Major League Soccer kicked off its 20th season with 20 teams, an all-time league high. Now, one day before the league’s postseason begin, the field has been trimmed to 12, but if you’ve focused your soccer attention on other leagues, you may have missed how and why the final dozen have survived into late October.

Take heart, MLS-adjacent friend: We’re here to help.  You’re neutral, you’re curious, and we’re committed to bridging taht gap. With our Eastern Conference view published last night, here’s Ryan Rosenblatt with who to watch and who will win – our neutral’s guide to the Western Conference playoffs: 

Who to watch

The Western Conference is good. Very good. But they don’t score as many goals as their counterparts in the East do. They do that whole defense thing. And yet, they’re magnificently fun because there are huge expectations, megastars and fan bases prone to wild cries of disaster. If you like narratives, either for the drama or the hilarity of their fragility, you’ve found the right place.

SEE MORE: Giovinco, Larin lead our 2015 MLS awards.

Nobody draws the attention of the LA Galaxy, who feature reigning MLS Most Valuable Player Robbie Keane and have added Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard midseason. They were quickly anointed MLS Cup champions and racked up goals as people started to get comfortable with the idea of LA winning four titles in five years. But then a funny thing happened – Gerrard was exposed as a central midfielder incapable of running, which is a problem, and the defense started making like a turnstile. So are they the best or dumpster fire? It has to be one or the other.

The Sounders aren’t much different, featuring great talent and lots of losses. They also come with the bonus of a team long on underachieving in front of MLS’s biggest fan base. That makes for a delightful, if uncomfortable, setting.

Expectations and star power aren’t nearly as big elsewhere, but they’re nothing to sneeze at … Sporting Kansas City has all 10 goals and 15 assists of Benny Feilhaber, plus the human firework manager in Peter Vermes …The Vancouver Whitecaps are the best team Canada’s has ever produced … FC Dallas hits you with Mauro Diaz’s brilliant vision or Fabian Castillo’s terrifying pace, not to mention a manager in Oscar Pareja who is so good that we don’t even miss Schellas Hyndman’s butter leather jacket … If only the Portland Timbers had half the ambition of every player Jurgen Klinsmann chastizes for leaving MLS to play in Europe.

Entertainment rankings, teams

  1. LA Galaxy – you either see the most incredible collection of attacking talent thrill you or laugh at their expensive demise.
  2. FC Dallas – they score. A lot.
  3. Seattle Sounders – whatever they do, they do it big and dramatic.
  4. Sporting Kansas City – they would top this list if there was a Vermes Cam.
  5. Vancouver Whitecaps – a good team without a bonafide star that plays in the most sterile stadium in MLS.
  6. Portland Timbers – it’s almost impressive that a team with Diego Valeri and Nagbe can be so boring.  

SEE MORE: Beckerman, Jones, Borchers highlight our 2015 MLS All-Hair team.

Entertainment rankings, players

  1. Robbie Keane – he’s carrying the most star studded team in MLS history on his back and has even made cartwheels cool.
  2. Benny Feilhaber – it’s like watching the ultimate Jurgen Klinsmann troll.
  3. Obafemi Martins – there’s a strong correlation to when Martins plays and when the Sounders are good.
  4. Fabian Castillo – having him playing for Pareja kind of feels like we stole Colombia’s best non-James Rodriguez resources.
  5. Mauro Diaz – the only thing better than a maestro is one who does it so casually that you have to check to make sure he’s not sleeping.
  6. Anybody but Steven Gerrard – good players can run.

But who’s going to win?

You could make the argument that no conference in MLS history has ever been as deep as this year’s West. Every team could legitimately win MLS Cup and it wouldn’t be a giant shock.

Dallas are the runaway favorites, having won the conference pretty comfortably in the regular season. They’re exceptionally strong through the center, with Matt Hedges in defense, a dependable midfield duo, Mauro Diaz pulling the strings and David Texieira playing well enough to unseat Blas Perez up top. That doesn’t even touch Fabian Castillo, a sure-fire Best XI selection. They’re talented, they’re good and manager Oscar Pareja is a shiny golden god.

After that, there’s a giant mess. Every team is good at times and vomits all over themselves at others. The difference between the good Timbers and bad Timbers is too often Darlington Nagbe, otherwise known as a coin flip. The Galaxy have all the attacking talent in the world, but also feature a tarnished carousel in Steven Gerrard that robs them of any sense of shape or steel. Sporting Kansas City would probably prefer Gerrard to the options they’ve trotted out since Roger Espinoza went down, and nobody in MLS history is as consistently good at turning a magnificent team on paper into a middling one on the field as the Seattle Sounders.

SEE MORE: Capsules for all four MLS knockout round matchups.

The good news for everyone not named FC Dallas is that it’s only five or six matches to MLS Cup, and we’ve all had a great run of being blackout drunk without puking that many times in a row.

Rankings, teams

  1. FC Dallas – if you ignore defending, attacking and coaching, they’re not even that good.
  2. Portland Timbers – imagine if they win MLS Cup before the Sounders.
  3. LA Galaxy – they have one star too many, but Bruce Arena won an MLS Cup with Adam Cristman at striker, so this doesn’t seem so bad.
  4. Vancouver Whitecaps – they’re not supposed to win the league, but they also weren’t supposed to be this good.
  5. Seattle Sounders – is that rain or 44,000 people crying?
  6. Sporting Kansas City – they’ve won three games in the last 10 weeks, but they were all against very good teams. If you think you know what this team is going to do, you’re a liar.
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