There Can Be Only ONE Winner…
By: Jimmy Robson & Pat Ormsby
As the referee blew for full time in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C., the 2017 MLS regular season came to an end. Mere days later, the first set of play-in games officially kicked off the post season that will eventually determine who will be crowned MLS Cup Champions. These single, one-off matches saw four very talented teams have their seasons reach what they would consider a premature conclusion, while four others punched their ticket to the next round. The first game saw Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic lead the Chicago Fire into their first playoffs since 2012, only to be unceremoniously dumped out at the hands of the New York Red Bulls 0-4. Not to be outdone, that same night the Vancouver Whitecaps administered a paddling of their own to the struggling San Jose Earthquakes, battering the visitors 5-0. The following day saw two much closer matches, the first being a 0-0 thriller (not sarcasm, the game was actually excellent) that saw the Columbus Crew knock newcomers Atlanta United out of their first playoffs, followed by a 1-0 thriller (okay, that time it was sarcasm) between the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas city that was capped off by a goal by Alberth Elis in the fourth minute of extra time.
With these play-in games behind us, eight teams remain alive. So who will be competing for the coveted silver soccer-ball-with-some-sort-of-weird-tail? Read on to find out!
Here is the What To Expect portions for the preview:
The Eastern Conference:
Toronto FC (1st Seed)
The Stars: ST Sebastian Giovinco, ST Jozy Altidore, CM Michael Bradley – While a strong team dynamic was at the center of Toronto’s regular season success, having some exceptional players certainly didn’t hurt. Toronto’s Designated Player triumvirate are among the best league. The lethal two-headed attack of Altidore and the Atomic Ant coupled with Bradley’s marshalling of the midfield and natural leadership will certainly command the respect they deserve from opposition teams.
The Hipsters: CM Victor Vasquez, LB Justin Morrow – Victor Vasquez has had no small impact in his first season in MLS with Toronto, tallying up 16 assists, only one less than league leader Sacha Kljestan (see below). Meanwhile, Morrow has quietly become one of the most important players in the squad, contributing as much going forward as he does in defense. Toronto’s 3-5-2 system is completely dependent on the wing back play, and Morrow has stepped up immensely.
What To Expect: Toronto will be looking to succeed where they narrowly failed last year: in bringing MLS Cup glory to Canada for the first time ever. And they are heavy favorites to do just that. Setting a league record for the most number of points accrued in a season and boasting league leading numbers in goals scored (74) and goal differential (+37), the Supporters Shield winners will have strong reason to believe that they can end 2017 as Double champions, cementing their place in MLS history.
New York City FC (2nd Seed)
The Stars: ST David Villa, CAM Maxi Morales – Since coming into MLS when NYCFC was formed 2 years ago, Villa has made his home near the top of the goal scoring charts. Even when the team around him struggled, it was not uncommon to see Villa muster a moment or two of brilliance and will his club to victory. With no signs of slowing down, he’ll be looking to lead his team deep into the playoffs. However, post season soccer is a different beast, and Villa will need help from his team mates to get there. Enter Maxi Morales, New York’s newest attacking midfielder. Possessing great vision and capable of providing killer passes for Villa to latch onto, Morales will be instrumental to NYCFC’s success.
The Hipsters: RW Jack Harrison, CM Alexander Ring – While there have been some incredibly remarkable young players to emerge out of MLS this year, there may be none more exciting than 20-year-old Jack Harrison. Finishing the season with an impressive 10 goals and 6 assists to his name, Harrison proved that age is but a number, and that he can shoulder the responsibility that comes with being a starting attacker on a team capable of challenging for the championship. Also capable of being relied upon is Alexander Ring, who has made his home in the center of New York’s midfield. With Andrea Pirlo starting to show signs of age catching up to him, Ring has stepped up very well and become a formidable force in the center of the park.
What To Expect: Unlike Toronto, New York City FC will be relying on the exceptional play of a handful of very talented individuals to lead them into the playoffs. A less-than-stalwart defence has often been of some concern to them this season, but has often been made up for by a superior attacking line that has been able to put up more goals than the defence could concede. If the back line can hold its own, NYCFC could certainly be a formidable opponent entering the post season, but I think we’re likely to see the Sky Blues’ title hopes live and die on the back of David Villa’s performance.
Columbus Crew (5th Seed)
The Stars: ST Ola Kamara, CAM Federico Higuain – When Kei Karama was unceremoniously traded to New England after a spat with Higuain last year, Ola Kamara (no relation) immediately stepped into his vacant spot with excellent results. Since that time, Ola has been the spearhead of Columbus’s attack and proven himself to have a deadly eye for goal. As he has been for many seasons past, Higuain has been the main provider of passes from which Kamara, among other attacking players, have scored. Even at the age of 34, Gonzalo’s older brother managed to tally 14 assists this season, good to tie for 4th best in the league with 4 other players. A majority of Columbus’s attacks will filter through Pipa.
The Hipsters: LM Justin Meram, GK Zack Steffan – While Kamara has been the focal point of Columbus’s attack, Meram has arguably been their best attacking player, charging in from the left side and creating havoc in the final third. With 13 goals to his name in 2017, Columbus will need to look to him to continue his hot form if they are going progress far into the playoffs. Between the posts, 22-year-old Zack Steffan has risen to the challenge that had bested his predecessors. With a backline that is shaky at best, Steffan has had to work hard to keep Columbus in games this season, and has done so to profound effect. His greatest challenge of his MLS career awaits him as he enters into his first playoff appearance.
What To Expect: While Columbus haven’t exactly been stellar on either attack or defence, they have been solid enough in both areas to find themselves in contention to progress into the later stages of the playoffs. Not only so, but they also have a brand new chip on their shoulder in the wake of controversy surrounding the club’s future. With a possible opportunity to prove to their owner that Columbus is an excellent place to call home and a desire to reward their loyal fans, the Crew will likely be playing with a renewed vigour. They will also have taken heart at the result of a hard-fought match that saw Columbus defeat newcomers Atlanta United on penalties in their play-in game. If the Crew can continue to put together cohesive performances like that one, they can retain hope of finishing the season strong.
New York Red Bulls (6th Seed)
The Stars: ST Bradley Wright-Phillips, CAM Sacha Klejstan – If you read my preview of last year’s playoffs, you’ll likely notice that I chose the exact same two players. This is because the Red Bulls did little business in the way of bringing in established talent this season, opting to instead promote from within, leaving BWP and Kljestan as the central points of the team’s attack. While Wright-Phillips was not able to replicate the goal tally that saw him finish at the top of the scoring chart last season, he still managed to come in 7th from the top, proving that he still knows where to find the back of the net. Meanwhile, despite a relatively rough season for the team, Kljestan retained his crown as the assist king for a second year in a row. Both Klejstan and Wright-Phillips will be looking to rely upon their experience to lead the Red bulls to post-season success.
The Hipsters: LM Danny Royer, CDM Tyler Adams – Austrian international Danny Royer has really proven his value to the Red Bulls organization over this past season, adding some much-needed width to New York’s center-heavy attack. Royer’s ability to get the ball off his foot quickly and dart into open areas has added a new element for opposing defenses to consider when coming up against the Red Bulls. At the tender age of 18, Adams is also finding himself to be indispensable to Jesse Marsch’s team. Impressing both for New York, as well as the United States U-20 National Team, Adams has shown a lot of maturity for such a young player. He has been asked to fill the spot that was, until this season, held by Dax McCarty, and has handled the responsibility to great aplomb.
What To Expect: Compared to the past two seasons that saw them finish on top of the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls’ sixth place finish will sting. However, a convincing 4-0 win over the 3rd seeded Chicago Fire will help the club to restore some measure of faith to the Red Bull faithful. While the Red Bulls still have a long way to go to capture their first major trophy, the one thing they do have on their side is momentum. With only one loss in their final 5 regular season games and a playoff win already under their collective belt, New York will be flying high coming into the quarter finals. However, the road in front of them will not be easy, with their next opponent being the seemingly unstoppable Toronto FC. If they manage to best the Canadian club, they’re shot at a title could very well be in the cards. However, given Toronto’s pedigree, The Red Bulls won’t be favourites to advance to the later rounds.
The Western Conference:
Portland Timbers (1st seed)
The Stars: CAM Diego Valeri, LM Darlington Nagbe – Diego Valeri was somewhat-quietly one of the best players to perform this season, and certainly a contender to win the 2017 Landon Donovan MVP award (yes…that’s really what it’s called). Valeri lead the Timbers in goals with 21, which would turn out to be 11 more than striker Fanendo Adi’s 10 that finished second. All of this on top of contributing 11 assists. Valeri is flanked by some great wing play, as well, in newcomer Sebastian Blanco (see below) and MLS and USMNT veteran Nagbe. Nagbe’s numbers may be seem a bit paltry this season, but he possesses the quickness of both thought and foot to trouble almost any defense. He will be a trusted out for Valeri and the central midfielders looking to advance the ball up the left-hand side.
The Hipsters: RM Sebastian Blanco, CM David Guzman – You might recognize the names of these two gentlemen if you read my season preview, as they are both brand new to both MLS and the Timbers organization. However, they wasted no time in contributing to Portland’s conference-topping finish. Operating on the right flank opposite Nagbe, the Argentine adds a bit of South American flair to Portland’s offense. He finished the year 3rd in terms of goals and 2nd in assists on his new team, racking up 8 of each. Meanwhile, Guzman has slotted directly into the middle of the park next to Diego Chara and made his home there. With no small bit of…shall we say, grit?…the midfield enforcer has done an excellent job of bossing Portland’s midfield and protecting his backline. Which REALLY needs it.
What to expect: Portland are are certainly an offense-first team, scoring 60 goals over the course of the regular season (good for 1st in the West), but also conceding 50 along the way. Head coach Caleb Porter has struggled all season to find his best back four, shuffling the pack time and time again without yielding lasting results. Valeri is going to be the key piece for them going into the offseason, as he is capable of producing astonishing moments of skill at any given time and an incredible willingness to push his team to victory. However, he really is the best thing going for them and at times could be relied upon to heavily by his team mates to carry the majority of the load. Still, if Portland’s defense can come to an understanding and Adi can find his finishing boots, Portland could be a force to be reckoned with entering the final phases of the competition.
Seattle Sounders (2nd seed)
The Stars: ST Clint Dempsey, CAM Nicolas Lodeiro – Deuce is getting old, but he’s still showing he’s got a thing or two up his sleeve. After 3 seasons of finishing as the 2nd best goal scorer for the Sounders, Dempsey’s 12 goals this year was good enough to finally set him on top of the chart. And while his skill will certainly be needed if the Sounders are going to push for a second consecutive title, it will likely be his leadership skills and winning attitude that prove to be even more invaluable in leading his team to glory. Operating behind Dempsey, Nico Lodeiro has also stepped up in a big way since arriving in Seattle in the middle of last season. Accounting for 7 of his team’s goals and 12 assists, Lodeiro will be asked, and will likely oblige, to be the instigator of a majority of Seattle’s attacking plays and, if history tells us anything, he’s likely to be successful at doing just that.
The Hipsters: LB Joevin Jones, CM Cristian Roldan – When considering the MLS full backs, it’s difficult to look past Joevin Jones as among the best. Equally as important moving the ball up the flank as protecting his own goal, Jones has made a crucial role for himself in Seattle’s back line. With a move already sealed to 2. Bundesliga side Darmstadt this January, Jones will be looking to get one last piece of MLS silverware to his name before moving on to new pastures. Roldan, meanwhile, has also carved a place for himself in the center of midfield. With veteran Ozzie Alonso battling a quad strain and Gustav Svensson temporarily sidelined with a hamstring injury, the 22-year-old Roldan will find himself with even more responsibility than he’s used to. However, the young midfielder has risen to every challenge he’s been faced with so far and will be expected to come through with flying colors once again.
What to expect: After a rather slow start to the season, much like they exhibited before their championship-winning run last season, the Sounders have surged up the table in the past couple of months to challenge for the top spot in the West, only missing out on the final day. With talent, experience, and momentum on their side, they have a real chance to push for a second consecutive title. However, their away form may hinder them in their quest for supremacy, considering they only won 4 of their 17 games on the road this season. Securing the 2nd seed and the first round BYE that comes with it will help, as any contests they feature in up until the final will be played over two legs. If they are going to be beaten, it will likely be on the road.
Vancouver Whitecaps (3rd seed)
The Stars: Vancouver: ST Fredy Montero, CB Kendall Waston – After 5 years of plying his trade in Colombia, Portugal, and China, Montero made his return to MLS this season, on loan from Chinese club Tianjin TEDA. And boy, was it a triumphant return! Tallying up 13 goals to his name, Montero led what many (OK, mainly what I believed) to be a rather mediocre Whitecaps team to a 3rd place finish, even spending a few weeks in the top spot of the west. As the only player in Vancouver with more than 6 goals to his name, he will certainly be asked to bear the brunt of the goal-scoring responsibilities during Vancouver’s playoff push. At the back, Waston took the reins in terms of marshalling the team’s defence. A strong, powerful defender, he will be tasked with keeping Vancouver in games long enough for the offence to find a goal.
The Hipsters: Vancouver: CAM Yordy Reyna, RM Christian Techera – For Vancouver to succeed in the post season, they will need to be able to support Montero in the attack. That will most likely come in the form of the creative play of Reyna in Techera. The South American pairing have combined for 12 goals and 11 assists of their own, making them vital to Vancouver’s attacking play from their positions in midfield. If they can strengthen their understanding with one another, as well as with Montero, they could prove to be quite difficult to handle.
What to expect: The Whitecaps probably overachieved this season, finishing third in the West with a squad that doesn’t really have any established superstars. However, they didn’t finish as high as they did, nor spend a few weeks on top of the conference standings, by accident. The front four have learned to click with one another, which was clearly evident as they thrashed the San Jose Earthquakes in their play-in game 5-0. However, despite this win, the Whitecaps finished the season relatively poorly. Without a defined star to drag them over the line, any disruption in the team dynamic could spell the end to their MLS Cup hopes.
Houston Dynamo (4th seed)
The Stars: ST Erick “Cubo” Torres, RW Alberth Elis, LW Romell Quioto – Houston’s high-octane offence has been the key to their success this season. At the tip of the spear, Torres has overcome his struggles from the past two seasons where he scored a combined seven goals, to double his total in 2017, restoring him to the heights he reached with Chivas USA in 2014. He is flanked on either side by Elis and Quioto, who have been both been excellent in their both rights, so I was unable to choose one over the other. Team mates for both club and country, they have both developed a superb understanding between themselves and with Torres to develop a fast-paced attack that has left defences tripping over themselves.
The Hipsters: CM Ricardo Clark, CB Adolfo Machado – As good as Houston’s offence has been, their defence has been quite serviceable as well, only conceding a respectable 45 goals – 3rd best in the league. Both Clark and Machado have been largely responsible for this strong defensive display. Clark, who has been a staple for the Dynamo for five years and running, uses his experience to direct the game from midfield and shield his defensive line from oncoming attacks, while Machado, along with his centre back partner Leonardo, has proven to be quite adept at closing down attacking plays and keeping Houston alive in tough games.
What to expect: While not quite to the extent of that of Eastern Conference counterparts Chicago, Houston’s resurrection from bottom of the West last season has still been impressive. Under the tutelage of new head coach Wilmer Cabrera, there seems to be new life in this Dynamo team, starting from the front. Houston got a good start to their playoff campaign in the the play-in round, beating a Sporting Kansas City team that has boasted the best defence this season 1-0 in extra time. However, Houston will have to face teams with a much better attacking corps in the rounds to come to crown themselves MLS Cup champions. The Dynamo will need to rely heavily on their ability to outscore opponents if they want to be successful in the post season. The good news for them, however, is that they may just be able to do that.
Jimmy: Toronto FC have proven themselves to be unstoppable over the entirety of the regular season, and I can’t see them letting up now that they’ve come this far. TFC meet the Sounders in a re-match of last year’s MLS Cup final, but this time they’re able to best the defending champions in regulation, 4-2.
Pat: While Toronto FC have had an fantastic season (highest points total in league history), Columbus Crew SC feel like they’re getting hot at the right time. The combination of their form, the underdog tag, and a city of fans looking to prove they deserve to keep their team, it’s the perfect storm to see Crew SC host MLS cup. However, they will suffer heartbreak after the Sounders roll in to Ohio and win their second cup in 2 years.