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.
Ben Olsen is another guy who fans and management stuck by through a historically tough 2013 campaign. Olsen has plenty of experience now, and a playoff run in 2012 to boot. This team seems to fit Olsen’s personality like a glove, and outside of Peter Vermes, he is the dean of Eastern Conference playoff coaches.
Good, as it has been all year. DC have remarkably consistent, and the class of the East from the get-go.
I think they’ll beat either New York or Sporting Kansas City, but whether they have the punch to beat back a red-hot Revolution team in a battle of football stadiums and old crests is another matter. It’d be no surprise if this team made it to MLS Cup, but I’ll say they fall one step short. Finish: Eastern Conference Finals.
#2 – New England Revolution
There’s a lot. Jermaine Jones is the headliner, and he’s been worth the wait and the money for New England since joining after the World Cup, but Lee Nguyen, with 18 goals, is the best player on this team and a potential MVP candidate.
Charlie Davies’ resurgence up top is a feel-good story, with last year’s defender of the year Jose Goncalves providing a solid presence at center-back and Keylen Rowe and Diego Fagundez adding more punch in attacking positions. On paper, the best team in this bracket.
Jay Heaps is in his third year, and his first playoff run. Heaps has a formula that works right now, and the trust of his young team.
When the Revs are good, they’re good. They’re good right now – to the tune of 8-1-1 since Jones’ arrival.
They’re diehard fans suffered through watching bad teams at an empty NFL stadium for years, but with an attendance of over 32,000 at their last regular season game, greater New England may be discovering the Revs. Something very cool might be happening here. I think this team will ride their mojo and raw talent all the way to the Cup until running into a superior Western Conference champ. Finish: MLS Cup.
#3 – Columbus Crew
It starts with Federico Higuain in midfield, and Higuain is brilliant as long as he’s not taking penalties, but Columbus has an underrated roster from front to back.
The main part of the reason the Crew have been able to keep their upward ascent even after losing Giancarlo Gonzalez in the wake of the World Cup is because of Michael Parkhurst, who has had a terrific year in his return to MLS.
Will Trapp and Tony Tchini have both been phenomenal in midfield, and role players have pitched in all year.
Gregg Berhalter looks like a great hire for the Crew right about now. He’s gotten a lot out of this team, and appears to be a tactically astute mind. Surely coaching in Sweden and playing under Arena for the Galaxy hasn’t hurt. He could be one of the best coaches in the East.
Columbus is storming into the playoffs, from the fringes of the red line to avoiding the Wild Card game altogether with the third seed.
They’re a dark-horse, for sure, but New England isn’t a team anyone wants to play right now. Finish: Eastern Conference Semifinals.
#4 – New York Red Bulls
There’s quite a lot on paper, but there is often considerably less when they play together. Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips obviously have their act together up top, and Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander seem to have found a steady partnership in the center of midfield.
Defense has been a question mark all year, where Jamison Olave might just be showing his age a little bit, while wing play has shown promise, but left a lot to be desired all year. With the Red Bulls, as always, it’s about getting all the pieces to fit together.
Mike Petke is, despite a Supporters’ Shield championship in his first year, still underrated. There’s no one else the Red Bulls could have that they’d be better served with on their bench. Petke will have this team ready to go on Thursday.
Middling, as it has been for most of the year. A bad performance followed up with a very good one, like the home loss to Columbus followed by the away win at Kansas City.
SKC is about done, so the Red Bulls should get a home playoff win in the Wild Card game, which would set up a rivalry matchup with DC United – a team that plays like a team 100% of the time. Finish: Eastern Conference Semifinals.
#5 – Sporting Kansas City
SKC’s talent won’t blow anyone away, but they’ve got a number good players, and this is mostly the same team that won MLS Cup this year. Problem is, their players are worn out or hurt. The stalwarts that went to the World Cup – Matt Besler and Graham Zusi – haven’t been the same since they got back.
Sporting sold Uri Rosell in the middle of the season, lost Chance Meyers to an ACL tear, and outside of Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber, haven’t had any great MLS players this year.
Peter Vermes certainly has a proven track record and can put together an MLS Cup winning team, but he hasn’t had any answers this year.
At least they have the Royals!
Though the MLS Cup playoffs – and especially the Wild Card game – can be a crapshoot, it feels like Sporting Kansas City has run their race. It’s hard to see them winning on the road in New York on Thursday. Finish: Wild Card Game.
This is it for the playoffs under the old MLS logo, and the last rendition before realignment, new franchises, and maybe something of a new league kicks in next year. It should be fun.
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