Monday October 26th, 2015

The Major League Soccer playoff race should be as tight as any, despite two more teams getting in than last year with the format change. The matchups in the knockout round in particular should provide some drama, as some of the teams from higher up the table in the early season will now face elimination in a one-off game.

Each conference’s favorites seem easy to call, as the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas finished with a seven-point gap between them and their nearest competitors. Still, if MLS has taught fans anything in its playoff past, it’s that having a great regular season doesn’t mean much once the playoffs begin.

As the No. 1 seed in the East last year, D.C. United didn’t even make it out of its first pairing. In fact, a top-ranked team hasn’t been conference champion since the LA Galaxy did it in 2011. D.C.’s slide down the table this year has it opening up the playoffs in a midweek wildcard one-off against the New England Revolution.

The Galaxy find themselves all the way down in fifth, traveling to play the fourth-placed Seattle Sounders on Wednesday; those teams were once favored to face off in the Western Conference final. A Montreal Impact-Toronto FC rivalry game should be explosive, while the Portland Timbers will be keen to capitalize on their late-season momentum in a home match against Sporting Kansas City.

Here’s how MLS’s remaining teams stack up heading into the 2015 postseason:

MLS Playoff Power Rankings
 
  • 1
    1New York Red Bulls
     
    last week: 1
    record: 18-10-6 | Decision Day result: 2-1 at Chicago
    It’s hard to look past the Red Bulls as favorites to win their first MLS Cup. Coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis, after heavy criticism before the season even started, put together a formidable squad whose pressing system became the most suffocating in the league.
     
     
    It’s also a well-balanced team that gets production out of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan but can also lean on role players such as Mike Grella to get the job done every week. Unlike the Supporters’ Shield-winning team of two years ago, this incarnation hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as the regular season came to a close.

  • 2
    2FC Dallas
     
    last week: 2
    record: 18-10-6 | Decision Day result: 2-1 vs. San Jose
    A young team with some Latin flair, Dallas will cause problems in the playoffs with its attitude and ability. It’s impressive to see a team with such focus on utilizing its homegrown players make such an impact on the MLS season.
     
    Manager Oscar Pareja still doesn’t get nearly enough credit, even after leading the team to its best regular-season finish in franchise history. Part of the reason for that is his team’s propensity to fade in the postseason, and the pressure will really be on to avoid that again as the top seed in the conference.
     

  • 3
    3Columbus Crew
     
    last week: 4
    record: 15-11-8 | Decision Day result: 5-0 vs. D.C.
    Columbus enters the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league over the past one-third of the season, having lost just three times in its last 11 games.
     
    Sunday’s 5-0 shellacking of D.C. in the teams’ decisive match for the second-place spot and a first-round bye showed just how dangerous the Crew can be—and that was without leading scorer Kei Kamara and talisman Federico Higuain, who were suspended. Gregg Berhalter has really turned Columbus around in just two years, transforming the Crew into a dark-horse candidate despite not bringing in a Designated Player in his time as coach.
     
    The Red Bulls beat Columbus twice this season and have likely ensured that the Crew still won’t be favored to get to the MLS Cup final, but that could suit this team just fine, as used to flying under the radar as it has been.

  • 4
    4Vancouver Whitecaps
     
    last week: 11
    record: 16-13-5 | Decision Day result: 2-0 vs. Houston
    For the first time, all three Cascadia teams are in the playoffs, though not many would have predicted in preseason that Vancouver would be the highest-ranked of them.
     
     
    Carl Robinson deserves immense credit for taking a young, relatively thin squad and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. However, the team did seem to run out of steam with multiple competitions and a good number of games under its belt as October rolled around. Making the playoffs will give Vancouver renewed energy, as will not having to play in the first round, but will that be enough to return to its early-season form?

  • 5
    5Montreal Impact
     
    last week: 6
    record: 15-13-6 | Decision Day result: 2-1 vs. Toronto
    After playing from behind for most of the season, trying to make up games in hand from schedule shuffling during its CONCACAF Champions League run, the Impact finished on a high note with Didier Drogba’s arrival. Interim manager Mauro Biello will lead the team into the playoffs, and the team hasn’t seemed to lose any stability since Frank Klopas’ firing in late August.
     
     
    Really, though, much of the credit has to go to Drogba. His 11 goals in 11 MLS games, including two on Sunday, make his presence vital alongside Ignacio Piatti in attack for Montreal to have a good chance in the playoffs. He seemed to come through a late injury scare relatively unscathed against Toronto, running off a dead leg, but his fitness will undoubtedly be closely monitored with a quick turnaround.

  • 6
    6Portland Timbers
     
    last week: 8
    record: 15-11-8 | Decision Day result: 4-1 vs. Colorado
    In the last few games, Portland has looked a lot like it did in 2013, when it took first place in the Western Conference in Caleb Porter’s first year as manager. The Timbers lost twice in a row just once this season and compiled a joint-highest 13 shutouts through 34 games.
     
     
    Darlington Nagbe is heating up at just the right point of the season, scoring three goals in the last two games and setting up the third goal against the Rapids on the final day. A move into central midfield has freed him and taken a weight off his shoulders that seemed to get heavier the longer he played on the wing.

  • 7
    7Toronto FC
     
    last week: 3
    record: 15-15-4 | Decision Day result: 1-2 at Montreal
    Big spending over the past couple years finally pays off for Toronto, making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. However, TFC has also shown one of the most obvious pitfalls of spending so much on players in the top half of the field: the defense suffers without as many resources available, unbalancing the squad.
     
     
    If Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley can score more goals than a suspect defense gives up, Toronto will be fine. Playoff teams won’t be that soft defensively, though, and their attacks will be salivating at the prospect of going at such a weak back line in the postseason.

  • 8
    8Los Angeles Galaxy
     
    last week: 5
    record: 14-11-9 | Decision Day result: 1-2 at Sporting KC
    LA has tried to avoid falling into the same trap as most high-spending teams in MLS, including fellow playoff teams TFC and Seattle, pouring resources into attacking players but also keeping Omar Gonzalez on the back line. The Galaxy likely didn’t foresee Gonzalez’s form slipping this season, at least far enough to make the team’s back line an obvious weak point when compared to a front line that includes Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos.
     
    That’s what opponents will have to exploit if they are to have a chance against the Galaxy: pressure the defense, push central midfielders Juninho and Steven Gerrard out of their comfort zone by making them defend and contain a couple of the league’s most dangerous forwards. Of course, that’s still a lot to do, leaving LA as a formidable foe for any opponent.

  • 9
    9Seattle Sounders
     
    last week: 7
    record: 15-13-6 | Decision Day result: 3-1 vs. Salt Lake
    The Sounders could breathe easy pretty soon after kickoff on Sunday, needing only a win to get into the playoffs and putting three past Real Salt Lake in the first 20 minutes. Still, a professional performance against a team with nothing to play for can’t cover up the fact that this team hasn’t been the same since June.
     
    After Clint Dempsey’s suspension and Obafemi Martins’ injury, a team that was once favored to win it all will now have a tough time getting out of the knockout round against the Galaxy, even if Seattle is hosting the one-off against its perennial barrier to postseason success. Osvaldo Alonso also came off injured in Sunday’s game, which spelled major trouble last year heading into a playoff matchup against LA that Seattle wound up losing.

  • 10
    10New England Revolution
     
    last week: 9
    record: 14-12-8 | Decision Day result: 3-1 at NYCFC
    The Revs didn’t need long to seal their playoff place, despite failing to clinch until the last day of the season. Two first-half goals at New York City FC got the team into the playoffs, and New England is finally at full strength after missing Jermaine Jones in particular for a good chunk of the season through injury.
     
    Look no further than an eight-game unbeaten streak from mid-July to mid-September, followed by just one win in the final five matches of the season, to understand New England’s 2015. This is a team that can get going and rattle off a few wins in succession, which is helpful in the playoffs, but its inconsistency could spell trouble against top opposition.

  • 11
    11D.C. United
     
    last week: 13
    record: 15-13-6 | Decision Day result: 0-5 at Columbus
    It wasn’t an easy end of the regular season for D.C., which has won just twice since mid-August and generally looked like it was out of fight to give in that run. It’s hard to believe this team held the top spot in the East for 15 straight weeks, from May 13 to Aug. 30, considering the late-season collapse.
     
    Ben Olsen’s coaching style rests on motivation and getting the most out of his players, physically and mentally, in every match. The team has just looked exhausted for the better part of the last two months, and even if it gets through the knockout round of the playoffs, a quick turnaround before the next game could spell trouble.

  • 12
    12Sporting Kansas City
     
    last week: 14
    record: 14-11-9 | Decision Day result: 2-1 vs. LA
    At one time, Sporting KC had a league-low four losses through the first 22 games of the season, but what happened in the last dozen has completely changed the feeling around this team. Sporting only won three of those last 12 and sank to the point of needing a final-day result to get into the postseason.
     
     
    Peter Vermes even left Benny Feilhaber, at one point an MVP candidate, on the bench for LA’s visit on Sunday. Feilhaber came off the bench and assisted the game-winning goal, but Kansas City has been awful down the stretch and will likely struggle to get past Portland in midweek.

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