The MLS playoff field is down to eight teams, with D.C. United, Montreal Impact, the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers ultimately holding serve at home and surviving a dramatic one-game knockout first round.
After late heroics, controversy, an avalanche of goals (including a spectacular bicycle kick) and a penalty shootout for the ages over the past couple of nights, we're left with a quarterfinal field that features the four survivors, the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps. The four two-leg matchups kick off on Sunday with a quadruple-header, one that will test the emotional and physical strength of the teams who had to play in the grueling and taxing first round.
So how will the rest of the postseason unfold? SI's Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Liviu Bird and Avi Creditor take a look at their crystal balls and predict what has proven in the past to be as unpredictable as anything: The MLS playoffs.
Who will win the Eastern Conference?
|MATCHUP||First Leg||Second Leg|
|1. New York Red Bulls vs. 4. D.C. United||Nov. 1, 3 p.m.||Nov. 8, TBD|
|2. Columbus Crew SC vs. 3. Montreal Impact||Nov. 1, 7 p.m.||Nov. 8, TBD|
GRANT WAHL: This year’s Crew reminds me a lot of last year’s New England Revolution, a team that was ready to make the leap and still is heading into the MLS postseason. Gregg Berhalter’s team has been peaking for the playoffs with Sunday’s 5-0 win over D.C. United, even though Columbus was missing its two best players (Kei Kamara and Federico Higuaín). The Crew face difficult tests against a speedy Montreal team led by Didier Drogba and perhaps a conference final against the hard-pressing New York Red Bulls, but the Columbus attack is deadly, and the defense has gotten things together.
BRIAN STRAUS: The MLS playoffs are designed to be unpredictable and give everyone an equal chance. Home-field advantage was crippled when the league did away with the best-of-three series in 2003, then erased with the introduction of the away goals tiebreaker last year.
They’re impossible to predict—unless one team clearly stands out. And this year, in the East, New York is that team. Balanced, cohesive and on a mission after years of postseason failure and a winter of discontent, the Red Bulls have the pieces in place for a run to the final. Their seven-point margin over second-seeded Columbus is tied for the league’s second largest in the past seven years (in either conference).
In MLS, that’s a rout. The best defense in the conference, the leadership of Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty and the opportunism of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Mike Grella will be enough.
LIVIU BIRD: Really, the only plausible answer here is the New York Red Bulls. Jesse Marsch's team has been one of the most consistent this season, and the scary thing about the Red Bulls' run to the Supporters' Shield is that it looks sustainable. The usual talks of the Curse of Caricola will probably come up, but somehow, I don't think that's in Ali Curtis' giant dossier, which seems to have done O.K. for the team so far.
CREDITOR: Can you imagine if you parlayed the Mets making the World Series with the Red Bulls making the MLS Cup final back in March? The Red Bulls are solid where it counts, well-coached, motivated and rested. A rivalry series is never easy, especially in the playoffs, but there's something special about this group and its yearlong journey.
Who will win the Western Conference?
|MATCHUP||First Leg||Second Leg|
|1. FC Dallas vs. 4. Seattle Sounders||Nov. 1, 9:30 p.m.||Nov. 8, TBD|
|2. Vancouver Whitecaps vs. 3. Portland Timbers||Nov. 1, 5 p.m.||Nov. 8, TBD|
WAHL: Seattle. The West is wide open after Seattle finally exorcised its demons in eliminating the defending champ LA Galaxy on Wednesday. Dallas, Vancouver and Portland have all been impressive at times this season, but they have yet to validate it in the playoffs. Seattle, meanwhile, has big-game players performing like it (hello, Clint Dempsey), and leaders like Brad Evans who are primed for a title run. If there’s going to be a year for Seattle, this is it.
STRAUS: The team tied with the Red Bulls with that seven-point margin is FC Dallas, the West’s most consistent team this season. But the playoffs often aren’t about consistency, and the Seattle team FCD must face in the conference quarterfinals isn’t the one that slumped to fourth place. In fact, after Wednesday’s 3-2 knockout round defeat of the LA Galaxy, the Sounders are unbeaten in nine.
FCD’s reward for the finishing first in the West is a Sunday visit to Seattle, where it’s 1-6-2 since the Sounders joined MLS. The playoffs are designed to punish the favorites, and they will again this year. The Sounders are rounding into form at the right time, have the league’s most stingy defense and its most fearsome attacking duo. Seattle, which hasn't lost a game since August, finally will get over the hump and win the conference title.
BIRD: The West is more difficult to call, especially with how close all the playoff teams finished in the standings. I'll go a little bit out of the ordinary and call the Portland Timbers to come through here. The team finished the regular season strong, and Caleb Porter's shift of Darlington Nagbe into central midfield might be one of the best personnel decisions he's made. The team has looked much closer to its 2013 form in recent weeks, which can only be a good thing for Portland's chances.
The Timbers' biggest challenge now will be turning around on three days' rest after their wild shootout win over Sporting Kansas City to get a meaningful result at home in the first leg of the conference semifinal.
CREDITOR: Don't underestimate the boost provided by Seattle getting past its playoff nemesis LA. Getting to host the first leg of the semifinal vs. top-ranked FC Dallas works in Seattle's favor given the current momentum, and the Sounders went 1-0-1 vs. FCD this season as well, so this is far from a lopsided 1-v-4 matchup. Health remains a potential roadblock and defensively Seattle needs to tighten up, but the pieces are there for a run to the final.
Who is a surprise candidate to make a deep run?
WAHL: Montreal. The Impact are different with Drogba, who has scored 12 goals in 12 games, but don’t sleep on Ignacio Piatti, a superb No. 10 who has been shredding defenses. The series against Columbus is going to be a barnburner.
STRAUS: D.C. United already has opened some eyes with its performance in Wednesday’s knockout round win over New England. Yes, the refereeing was a factor. But United still was the better team and played with a confidence and fluidity we don’t often associate with a club accustomed to grinding out results. If it’s true that form goes out the window in a rivalry, then United might be poised for a potential upset when it faces New York in the conference semis. Starting at home at RFK Stadium will help.
BIRD: I guess by calling the Timbers to make the final, that counts as a surprise team making a deep run. I'd also look for the Impact in the East, especially if Drogba continues his goal-a-game tear. If any team finds a way to neutralize his threat, though, the Impact could be in trouble.
CREDITOR: If I'm ranking the remaining teams, D.C. United is coming in eighth. But if I'm ranking the remaining starting goalkeepers, I don't think there's one I'd rather have than Bill Hamid (all due respect to Vancouver's David Ousted and New York's Luis Robles, who have been sensational this season). Hamid was a savior in the first round against New England and can (can, not necessarily saying will) singlehandedly keep the Red Bulls at bay in their semifinal. Remember, they can't hold him back.
Who will win the 2015 MLS Cup?
WAHL: Seattle. The Sounders will likely have to win on the road if they make it to the final, but that shouldn’t stop a veteran team that (when everyone’s available) really is the league’s best. I’m predicting a Columbus-Seattle final in Ohio, but wherever Seattle goes, the Sounders have the difference-makers to win their first MLS Cup title.
STRAUS: I picked Seattle at the start of the season so for consistency’s sake, I’ll stick with them now. As GM Garth Lagerwey said last week, the Sounders “are built to win big games.” New York will lift the MLS Cup under Curtis and Marsch–just not yet.
BIRD: This feels like the year the Red Bulls get it done. It would be a great story, with the turmoil surrounding Marsch's hiring and the ill feelings from the fan base toward Curtis at the start of the year. It would also be classic MLS, where anything can happen if a team gets hot enough. Here's hoping for a snowy final at Red Bull Arena, at the very least.
CREDITOR: From #RedBullOut and a vicious town hall meeting to lifting the MLS Cup trophy in front of those very same fans at Red Bull Arena 11 months later. Is there anything more MLS than that?