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Grant Wahl: Toronto FC is my pick to win MLS Cup
1:31 | Planet Futbol
Grant Wahl: Toronto FC is my pick to win MLS Cup
SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

The MLS playoff field is down to eight, with the four one-off knockout matches completing the field for the conference semifinals. The Montreal Impact, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC all advanced to the next round, and they'll host the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids and NYCFC, respectively, in the first legs of the conference semis, which are all slated for a marathon on Sunday.

The second legs will all be contested the following Sunday, Nov. 6, at the homes of the higher-seeded squads.

Now that the field is settled following the midweek elimination bouts, it's time to take a good hard look at the playoff field, cast an eye into the crystal ball and project how the rest of the postseason will unfold.

Read on below as our expert panel of Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Avi Creditor, Alexander Abnos and Henry Bushnell predicts who will be lifting the trophy on Dec. 10–and a few more things along the way:

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

Toronto. The Reds are finally back to full strength with the return of MVP candidate Sebastian Giovinco. Now that the defense has improved, Toronto can finally start being the team in real life that it has had on paper.

BRIAN STRAUS

The best defense in the conference plus la Formica Atomica is a recipe for overdue success. Toronto FC, easily. They’re balanced, hungry and have Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley firing on all cylinders.

AVI CREDITOR

I'd agree that it's Toronto, but there's always something menacing about the Galaxy, provided they have Robbie Keane at full strength. Never doubt a Bruce Arena team, especially one that could be ushering in a new era sooner than later.

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ALEXANDER ABNOS

Call me crazy, but I think it’s the Seattle Sounders. Toronto FC has more talent throughout its squad and the Galaxy have more playoff experience on the field and on the bench, but Seattle is just on the sort of roll right now where everything seems to be bouncing its way. Nelson Valdez has finally escaped from his one-year(!) goal drought, Nicolas Lodeiro continues to impress on the attack, and the Roman Torres-Chad Marshall central defensive partnership is huge, both literally and figuratively. More than all of that, though, the Sounders are working hard, and working for each other, to a degree I haven’t seen from any other team in the first round so far. If they can maintain that, Dallas has reason to be worried. 

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HENRY BUSHNELL

There are four possible answers to this question, but one answer is a lot more valid than the rest. It’s the Galaxy. They're still the Galaxy. Bruce is still Bruce. He's done it five times before, and 19 of his 28 players have won first-division titles in MLS or elsewhere. A 20th has won the UEFA Champions League. Don't bet against LA.

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

Landon Donovan. You can’t argue with six MLS Cup rings. Now that he’s fit and starting games, there’s no reason he can’t be a real factor in the playoffs.

BRIAN STRAUS

Jermaine Jones is the ultimate wild card even when he’s healthy and engraved onto the lineup sheet. He changes games and he changes teams. The Rapids went 5-0-3 in Jones’s eight starts this year, during which he had three goals and two assists. But they did pretty well without him as well. Jones finally returned to the field Sunday and played 22 minutes as a reserve. His fitness—and whether his presence makes Colorado that much more dangerous or disrupts a team that finished second in the league without him—will shape the Rapids’ postseason.

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AVI CREDITOR

Isn't Donovan back with the Galaxy precisely for this reason, to help the club lift a record sixth Cup, and for him, a record seventh? He looked pretty darn committed to the cause in the knockout-round win over Real Salt Lake. Also, how about Carlos Freaking Ruiz? Would it stun anybody if he scored an MLS Cup winner 14 years after his last one? Pescadito is not of this world. 

ALEXANDER ABNOS

Didier Drogba. If he can get over his recent injury issue, return to the Montreal Impact and happily accept whatever role Mauro Biello offers to him, he has all the quality and experience necessary to be a big factor against the Red Bulls. If he continues to pout about being given a reserve role, as he did at the end of this season, it will be yet another unneeded bit of locker room disharmony at a time when that is most needed.

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HENRY BUSHNELL

How about Tim Howard? Not that he's been bad or injured lately, but Colorado hasn't exactly been in top form. Howard is just the type of 'keeper that could carry the Rapids through a two-leg series, even if they get outplayed, with one or two Herculean efforts.

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

8-1. I don’t want to write off Dallas in the wake of Mauro Díaz’s Achilles injury—Óscar Pareja is a superb coach, as we’ve seen for several seasons now—but the club just doesn’t have anyone else who can do exactly what Díaz does. That will make even advancing past Seattle in the next round difficult.

BRIAN STRAUS

I’m not sure. I don’t have a gambler’s perspective. But whatever they are, they should be better. If Dallas falls in the conference semis or finals, perhaps that finally will help league executives understand that home-and-home series are designed to erase home-field advantage. “But the higher seed gets extra time on its home turf,” MLS argued. Then it introduced away goals, which further limits the likelihood of OT. MLS continues to claim its regular season is important, then it essentially offers no reward to the clubs that finish higher (until the actual final). Teams with byes have outscored a knockout-round survivor in their ensuing home-and-home series just five of 12 times. It’s almost as if it’s random. So, what are the odds?

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AVI CREDITOR

I'll give them a 7-2 shot. They're obviously on a mission, but the Western Conference can be a gauntlet, and Seattle has played them tightly in each of the last two conference semifinals. 

ALEXANDER ABNOS

9-2. That seems harsh, but I’m not sure I would feel comfortable giving any MLS team better than 4-1 odds in the playoffs, especially when said playoffs are so stacked with good teams. Losing Diaz definitely hurts FC Dallas’ quest—if he was healthy, I’d be more confident. But I also have more than enough faith in Dallas’ depth and Oscar Pareja’s coaching acumen. Dallas certainly can get it done—they’ll just have to go about doing it a little differently. 

HENRY BUSHNELL

They’re as short as 3-1 at some sportsbooks, which I actually find quite surprising. That gives them a greater than 60% chance to advance per round. They’re certainly favored against Seattle, but with Diaz out, I could see them being underdogs thereafter. I’ll set the odds at 6-1.

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

Canadian teams can’t win. For as much money as Toronto has invested in players, it’s crazy that the club just won its first playoff game ever. But look for more to come as a Canadian team finally makes its mark in the MLS postseason.

BRIAN STRAUS

Let’s hope it’s that away goals are a good idea. They’re an archaic throwback to the days when visiting teams needed some motivation after a harrowing bus ride through the Alps left them at a stadium with no running water in the visitors dressing room. Hitting the road is a bit more comfortable these days. Two years ago, Seattle advanced over Dallas in the Western semis on away goals. The Sounders scored in Dallas (1-1) but were shut out at home (0-0). Why is the former more important than the latter? It’s arbitrary, and the MLS playoffs already were sufficiently arbitrary before away goals were introduced.

If seeds mean anything–if the regular season means anything–then there shouldn't be an additional hurdle between the higher seed and a potential extra 30 minutes on home turf.

AVI CREDITOR

I'll second that thought on Canadian teams not being able to succeed in the MLS playoffs. The barrier was broken last year when all three sides–Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal–made the playoffs together for the first time, and Montreal became the first Canadian team to advance a round (albeit at the expense of another, Toronto) before falling in the conference semifinals. With TFC acting like the title contender it was presumed to be and Montreal suddenly looking more dangerous then was anticipated–and not Drogba dependent–there's reason for optimism north of the border, both now and beyond.

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ALEXANDER ABNOS

The LA Galaxy’s playoff invincibility. Bruce Arena, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and others on the Galaxy roster through the years have proven time and again that even an underwhelming regular season doesn’t mean they won’t make a deep playoff run. That ends this year, thanks to a dominant Colorado defense and the Galaxy’s own aging core. 

HENRY BUSHNELL

The Red Bulls curse narrative doesn’t have much longer to live. If not for five blown second-half two-goal leads, New York would’ve won the Supporters’ Shield going away. And while that propensity for collapses might be a worry, the two-leg playoff format erases half of the concern. Issues arise when opponents throw everything forward and the Red Bulls ease their press. Jesse Marsch said at training Wednesday, however, that his team won’t do that in the first of two legs.

“If we have a 2-0 lead, we’re going to be aggressive,” he said. “If teams want to throw things at us, we’re going to see if we can hurt ‘em on the other side.”

With New York unbeaten in the league since July 3, that’s a dangerous proposition for the rest of the East.

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

Toronto. I can’t wait for the Toronto-NYCFC series, which should be breathtaking. And an East final between Toronto and the New York Red Bulls would be enthrallingly tight as well. But I see Toronto being stingy in the back and having just an extra bit of quality in the attack and advancing to the final.

BRIAN STRAUS

For the reasons stated above, it’s hard to argue against Toronto. No team in the East has a better combination of the two elements that seem to be crucial come playoff time—defense and difference makers. TFC’s defensive revamp represented the sort of smart planning and investment this club had lacked for years. Giovinco is peerless, Altidore is healthy and Bradley surely desperate for his first domestic title. It’ll be enough.

AVI CREDITOR

I picked TFC to reach MLS Cup in the preseason, and they've got all the right pieces to get there. Sweeping the two New York teams (sorry, Montreal!) won't be an easy task and will require two different approaches entirely, but as long as Toronto's star trio stays healthy and out of card trouble (which is a concern, given that both Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are already sitting on yellows from the knockout round), it will be TFC playing for the trophy.

ALEXANDER ABNOS

The New York Red Bulls. Jesse Marsch’s team has balance in all parts of the roster and enough experience to serve it well during what are sure to be four exciting games in the conference semifinals and final. 

HENRY BUSHNELL

The Red Bulls will take down Toronto in one of the most entertaining two-leg playoff series of the past decade.

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

LA. Bruce Arena is a genius man-manager who gets the most out of his team in the biggest games, and not just from his stars (as Ema Boateng showed midweek). With Dallas not being at full-strength and Colorado not having much playoff experience, LA is now the favorite out West and will deliver.

BRIAN STRAUS

At the start of the season I picked FC Dallas to win MLS Cup, and it would feel wrong to abandon them entirely because of the injury to Mauro Díaz. He’s a fantastic player. But he wasn’t the reason for the pick. The pick was about the trajectory FCD has been on under Oscar Pareja—the philosophy, commitment, depth and style that seems to transcend any given player and which has put FCD on the threshold of a treble. Dallas will rally in Díaz’s absence, rely on the core of Matt Hedges, Carlos Gruezo and Kelyn Acosta and get enough out of Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios to outlast flawed Western opposition.

AVI CREDITOR

FC Dallas has the depth and mojo to overcome the adversity and tough competition it's facing out West. The treble chance will present itself.

ALEXANDER ABNOS

FC Dallas. Ultimately, nobody in the West is as dangerous in as many ways as Dallas is. 

HENRY BUSHNELL

The Galaxy and Dallas slug through two games that mirror their matchup on the final day. The Galaxy go through on penalties.

SI.com Staff
Friday October 28th, 2016

GRANT WAHL

Toronto. TFC had one more point than LA in the regular season, which will allow the Reds to host a final against the Galaxy in chilly Toronto. Look for Giovinco to provide the defining image of the 2016 MLS season as his team raises the trophy.

BRIAN STRAUS

I said I wouldn’t abandon FCD entirely. They’ll get this far. But in the end, the team with more talent wins, and Toronto has it. Pareja and Dallas will lift an MLS Cup, but not this year. Toronto has all the pieces and after long trips to start each of the past two seasons, TFC has no problem hitting the road for the final. Toronto erases a decade of misery and wins a squeaker at Toyota Stadium. 

AVI CREDITOR

Toronto FC spent inordinate amounts of money on Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore, then spent wiser money filling the gaps and building a team ready to succeed in MLS. It's going to be a bloody big deal when they win it all, especially when Drake magically appears to crash the locker room celebration. 

ALEXANDER ABNOS

FC Dallas. They were my pick at the start of the season, so I can’t abandon them now. 

HENRY BUSHNELL

Other than the league office itself, which would be popping Champagne if a New York-LA matchup materialized? I'm going with the Red Bulls.

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