By, Jimmy @NN_Gooner
There Can Only Be One:
The final whistle of the 2016 MLS regular season has been blown and fans of the league now turn their eyes toward the finale of the season as a whole: MLS Cup playoffs. Sunday saw all twenty teams compete simultaneously to tie up the loose ends and determine which teams sitting on the fringe would punch their ticket to the knockout competition and what team would see their tickets unceremoniously ripped into tiny shreds. With the field of 12 teams now set, we can examine the clubs that have earned the right to fight for the title of best team in MLS.
This preview will consist of two parts per conference. The first part will examine the two teams that have finished in the top places in their conference, as they will have the luxury of skipping the first round. The second part will then look at the clubs that will be competing in the first round, single elimination matches, as well as preview the matches themselves.
So without further ado, let’s get this preview started!
1st Seed: New York Red Bulls
- Run-In Record: W, D, W, W, W
- ST Bradley Wright-Phillips and CAM Sacha Kljestan – Ian’s kid has made quite the season for himself. With a final tally of 24 goals (17 more than the next highest scorer on the team), Wright-Phillips will take home this year’s Golden Boot. A recent Hipster’s Choice, Klejestan is the main man to pull the strings in the heart of the Red Bull midfield. Finishing atop the list for most league assists, the success of New York’s attack will live or die at his feet.
- CM Felipe Martins and CM Dax McCarty – As a fan of New York’s main rival, it causes me insufferable heartburn to give these guys credit, but I’m told I have to be impartial. New York’s central midfield partnership are crucial to winning the midfield battle that starts so many counter attacks and shield New York’s back four.
- What to expect: The New York Red bulls overcame a less-than-stellar start of the season to finish the season in incredibly strong fashion. The Red Bull’s main strength lies in their powerful attack, led by the aforementioned Wright-Phillips and Kljestan. A large part of the Red Bull’s success involves the attack making up for a relatively average defense. However, this strategy is clearly working for them and could well take them deep into the playoffs.
2nd Seed: New York City FC
- Run-In Record: D, W, W, L, W
- ST David Villa and CM Andrea Pirlo – Villa was neck and neck with Wright-Phillips in the race for the Golden Boot right up to the last week, finishing one goal short with 23. The focal point of NYCFC’s attack, his goal scoring prowess will be pivotal to lifting his team over the opposition. While Pirlo has never really been known as a hard-tackling central midfielder, there’s no doubting his ability to provide stunning passes for his forwards to collect.
- LM Thomas McNamara – Only two seasons removed from being a part of the dumpster fire that was former MLS franchise Chivas USA, Tommy Mac’s career has risen from the ashes and seen him score a couple of stunning goals and contribute massively to his team’s attack
- What to expect: Similar to their counterparts across the Hudson River, NYCFC will rely largely on their offense to dominate matches and score multiple goals. With goalkeeper Josh Saunders being among the weakest starting ‘keepers in the league, New York’s defense and midfield will need to steel themselves to ensure the offense’s contributions are not in vain.
3rd Seed Toronto FC vs 6th Seed Philadelphia Union – Wednesday, Oct 26th
- Run-In Records
- TFC: D, D, L, D, W
- Union: L, D, L, L, L
- (TFC) CDM Michael Bradley, ST Jozy Altidore and ST Sebastian Giovinco – The undisputed starting holding midfielder for the U.S. national team for years, Toronto will look to Bradley to lead the fight to win the battle in midfield. Former Golden Boot Giovinco has proven his class time and time again and can practically be counted on for at least one moment of brilliance each match. Meanwhile, an in-form Jozy Altidore will offer a second outlet for goals when Seba finds himself heavily marked.
- (Union) MF Bedoya – The only player of any real note on this Union team, Alejandro Bedoya’s mid-season transfer to Philadelphia has not given the midfielder much time to gel with his new team. Given his versatility, Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtain has yet to nail down where Bedoya is most effectively deployed While an extremely talented player, it’s yet to be seen how his presence will impact the Union’s performance. With that said, don’t count him out for a moment of individual brilliance.
- (TFC) LB Justin Morrow and CB Drew Moor – While Toronto has received high praise for the attacking prowess of Altidore and Giovinco, their defense has been quietly very solid. The performances of Moor and Morrow have particularly shone in an effort that saw Toronto concede the fewest number of goals in the East and tie for the second fewest goals conceded in MLS as a whole.
- (Union) LM Chris Pontius and GK Andre Blake – Toward the end of the 2015 season with D.C. United, it seemed Pontius may not have been able to shake his multitude of injuries. However, a move to Philadelphia saw Pontius resurrect his stagnating career and put in stellar performance after stellar performance and lead his team into the final playoff spot in the East. Meanwhile, Blake enjoyed a season that saw him earn his first ever MLS All-Star appearance. The Union will depend on Blake recovering his earlier season form if they are to put up a serious fight.
- Match Preview: The fact that neither team is coming into the playoffs in a particularly rich vein of form should not lead fans to believe this will be a dull match. Both teams have enjoyed streaks of success throughout the season, finding their form curtailing toward the end of the season. However, Toronto’s end of season struggles were largely down to the absence of Sebastian Giovinco for multiple games due to injury. His return saw Toronto recover their form, culminating in a 3-2 win against the Chicago Fire on the last day of the season. As long as Giovinco remains healthy, Toronto will be considered the favorites to win the matchup by a considerable performance. Prediction: Toronto wins easily, 3-1.
4th Seed D.C. United vs 5th Seed Montreal Impact – Thursday, Oct 27
- Run-In Records
- DCU – W, W, W, W, L
- Impact – L, W, W, D, L
- (DCU) GK Bill Hamid and CB Steve Birnbaum – While D.C. United’s success has been largely down to team performances rather than those of certain individuals, Hamid and Birnbaum (United’s only current USMNT players) have contributed massively to keeping opposition offenses at bay and securing the wins necessary to make the playoffs.
- (Impact) ST Didier Drogba and CAM Ignacio Piatti – There is apparent trouble in paradise, with Drogba recently falling out with the team management and ownership as to how he should be deployed. An immensely talented player, even at 38-years-old, Montreal will be hoping to come to an understanding with the Ivorian star before Thursdays match. Drogba’s teammate, Piatti, however is firmly in Montreal’s good graces, producing numerous fantastic performances that saw him accumulate 17 goals and 4 assists.
- (DCU) ST Patrick Mullins and LM Lamar Neagle – Despite being at the club for barely three months, Mullins has netted 8 times for United, finishing second in goals scored for United. The only man to score more for United is Neagle, who has made his impact mainly as a super-sub, scoring three times in the last five games. Head Coach Ben Olsen will look to Neagle to shake things up if the game appears to be a stalemate or if United find themselves in a situation where they need to recover a late goal.
- (Impact) RM Dominic Oduro – While Drogba has been getting most of the attention at Montreal, Oduro has been flying under the radar to an impressively solid season. Using his lightning pace to his advantage, Oduro finished the season as the third highest goal scorer and with the most assists for his club, often times coming off the bench. The Impact will certainly look to him to keep up his form into the playoffs.
- Match Preview: Going into #DecisionDay, as MLS dubbed the final match day of the season, it was always going to be United pitted against the Impact. The only thing that had yet to be determined was who would host the match. With both teams being beaten soundly in their final matches, one point was enough to see United welcome Montreal to RFK Stadium. The difference, however, is that United lost 4-2 while playing only a single one of their normal starters (Sean Franklin, who was just making his return from an extended injury spell), while Montreal was blanked 3-0 by the New England Revolution while fielding many of their important starts, including GK Evan Bush, MF Harry Shipp, and All-Star CB Laurent Ciman. United are the most in-form side at the moment, so (putting my bias aside as a United supporter), they seem to be the favorite to advance. Prediction: 2-1 D.C. United.
1st Seed FC Dallas
- Run-In Record: D, D, W, W, D
- CAM Mauro Diaz – In FC Dallas’s case, the issue is not how the team will benefit from their star player, but rather how they will cope with his absence. Diaz’s season was cut short after he suffered a severe Achilles injury toward the end of the season. Among the most creative players in the league, Dallas will certainly be ruing the absence of Diaz’s passes that saw him notch 10 assists over the course of the season.
- RM Michael Barrios, CB Walker Zimmerman and CB Matt Hedges – Barrios will be asked to pick up some of the slack left by Diaz’s injury. Thankfully, he’s proven himself to be up to the task over the course of the season. The wide midfielder is tied for the most goals for Dallas and will be tasked with linking up with ST Maximiliano Urruti to spearhead his team’s attack going into the playoffs. Meanwhile, CB partners Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman have been rock solid at the back, not conceding more than two goals in a match since April 29th. Their performances will be crucial to support the damaged offense.
- What to expect: FC Dallas are THE team to beat in the 2016 campaign. After already securing the Supporter’s Shield (awarded to the MLS team with the most points at the end of the season) and the U.S. Open Cup (the United State’s knockout competition available to clubs of all levels), they will be looking to do the unthinkable and win the domestic treble. With a solid team front to back, and plenty strength in depth, Dallas will feel confident in their chances of living the MLS Cup trophy.
2nd Seed Colorado Rapids
- Run-In Record: W, W, W, L, D
- GK Tim Howard and CM Jermaine Jones – Prior to Howard’s arrival, previous starting goalkeeper Zac McMath was performing above expectations and keeping the Rapids near the top of the table. However, since joining Colorado on the 4th of July from Everton FC following the end of Premier League Season, Howard has gone on to keep 8 clean sheets and lead his team to conceding the fewest number of goals in the league. Jermaine Jones, on the other hand, is just coming back from injury and largely an unknown entity as to how quickly he will be able to get back to form. If the veteran midfielder can recapture his early season form, however, he could very well lead this team deep into the playoffs.
- RM Shkelzen Gashi and ST/CAM Kevin Doyle – So where are the goals going to come from to propel this team to the wins necessary to advance? Look no further than these two gentlemen. With 2016 being the first full season for both players, they have contributed massively to Colorado’s attack, scoring 15 goals between them. Having been repurposed as a number 10 towards the end of the season from his normal striker role, Doyle will also look to contribute to the build-up of play in addition to his goal scoring duties.
- What to expect: Only one team had any shot of beating out FC Dallas for the Supporter’s Shield on the last match day, and that was the Rapids. Needing a win and for Dallas to lose, they were only able to muster a draw (which wouldn’t have mattered, seeing as Dallas drew as well) and finish in a very respectable second place. A team that has struggled mightily in the past, it seemed plausible that they would fall away into obscurity at some point during the season. However, Pablo Mastroeni’s men have risen to each challenge they’ve faced and found themselves very near to ultimate victory. In a story that seems eerily similar to that of England’s Leicester City, the Rapids will be eager to see if they can emulate what the Foxes have already done.
3rd Seed LA Galaxy vs 6th Seed Real Salt Lake – Wednesday, Oct 26th
- Run-In Records
- Galaxy – D, L, L, W, D
- RSL – L, D, L, D, L
- (Galaxy) ST Robbie Keane and CAM Giovani dos Santos…among others – In a team full that has copious amounts of attacking talent, Keane and dos Santos have risen to the top of the list, each finishing the season with double digit goals. If the goal-scoring duo is able to continue their momentum and solidify their relationship with one another, as well as with a supply line that includes the likes of Steven Gerrard and the recently returned Landon Donovan, they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.
- (RSL) GK Nick Rimando – Rimando has proven himself time and time again to be one of the top goalkeepers in MLS history. For a team that has a tendency to struggle for goals, he will need to be at his best for 90+ minutes and hope that his team mates at the opposite end of the field can make his efforts worthwhile.
- (Galaxy) CB Jelle van Damme and LM Emmanuel Boateng – While LA’s abundance of attacking talent often steals the limelight, the defensive unit has been excellent in its own right, thanks in no small part to van Damme. The Belgian center back marshaled the Galaxy backline to the joint second best defensive record in the league. Boateng, on the other hand, has played his way into regular playing time, even while competing with the likes of Santos, Donovan, Gyasi Zardes and Sebastian Lletget. With defenses often focused on LA’s stars, he may find a way to sneak his way into the final third.
- (RSL) RM Joao Plata and CAM Javier Morales – In a team that sports the joint third fewest “goals for: tally of all play-off teams, RSL will look to these two men to try to break down defenses and find a way to put the ball in the net. Plata has stepped up to take a direct role in scoring goals and will be expected to keep his form consistent into the post season. Javier Morales, on the other hand, is well known as one of the best creative players in MLS over the past few years and will be tasked with supplying the likes of Plata and ST Yura Movsisyan with chances that Salt Lake fans hope will be converted into goals.
- Match Preview: While their recent form doesn’t quite reflect it, there is no doubt that the Los Angeles Galaxy is one of the most talented teams in the league. Boasting some of the biggest names to ever grace MLS, the Galaxy have proven that they can put individual egos in check and put in team performances that are equal to the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, an aging Real Salt Lake side (the average age of the starting XI is 30 1/2) has faltered late in the season and hasn’t been able to secure a win in 7 games. While anything can happen, it’s hard to expect anything less than a relatively easy LA win. Prediction: 3-0 Galaxy.
4th Seed Seattle Sounders vs 5th Seed Sporting Kansas City – Thursday, Oct 27th
- Run-In Records
- Sounders – W, W, D, L, W
- Sporting KC – D, W, L, D, W
- (Sounders) ST Jordan Morris – With Clint Dempsey out for the remainder of the season (if not longer) with issues centered on an irregular heartbeat, 22-year-old Morris finds himself the focal point of the Sounders attack. However, Morris is no stranger to the national spotlight, something that he endured at the beginning of the season when he ultimately chose to join the Sounders, snubbing Bundesliga club Werder Bremen in the process. Since that time, Morris has taken to the league like a duck to water, leading the Sounders in scoring in his first season.
- (Sporting KC) LM Graham Zusi and ST Dom Dwyer – While Sporting KC lacks any massive names in the MLS sphere, fans of the USMNT will be familiar with Zusi’s work. Though possibly a bit past his prime, Zusi has proven himself to still be a valuable member of Kansas’s attack. If Kansas City are to advance, Zusi will need to recapture some of the form that originally caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann. Playing slightly in front of Zusi, Dwyer will be bear the largest attacking burden. As Kansas’s city’s leading scorer three years running, he will be looked upon to be the main source of Sprorting KC’s goals.
- (Sounders) CAM Nicolas Lodeiro and CDM Osvaldo Alonso – Joining the Sounders midway through the season, Lodeiro has hit the ground at full spring and made an immediate impact on Seattle’s season, offering a creative outlet and providing balls for Seattle’s attackers, like Morris, to latch onto. Sitting behind Lodeiro, Alonso has been tasked with maintaining Seattle’s engine room and providing cover for the back line, and has proven to be more than up for the task.
- (Sporting KC) CM Benny Felhaber – Most MLS fans will think I’m crazy for considering Felhaber a “hipster”, as he has been Sporting Kansas City’s most important player for multiple seasons. The truth of the matter, however, is that Felhaber is simply not a “sexy” name, getting snubbed time after time by Jurgen Klinsmann for a chance to play for the national side. However, content to fly beneath the radar, Felhaber has proven himself time and again to be one of the best central midfielders in the league, contributing equally to the causes of his offensive and defensive teammates. As long as Felhaber is on the pitch, Sporting KC has a chance
- Match Preview: In this man’s opinion, this is the closest matchup of the first round. Both of these teams have had their ups and downs throughout the season and proven that they have the mettle to get the necessary results to qualify for the playoffs. Considering how evenly matched these teams are, this match will likely prove to be a midfield slug fest that will be decided by the slimmest of margins. Expect for central midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Benny Felhaber to play a large part in determining who claw their way into the next round of the playoffs. Prediction: Sporting Kansas City find a way to pull out a 3-2 win and are the only team in the first round to defeat their higher seeded opponents.
Enjoy your Football!