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MLS playoff preview: L.A. favored


Playoffs begin quickly for teams in Major League Soccer's new wild-card round; the postseason opener is Wednesday. The favorites (Los Angeles foremost, followed closely by Seattle) join this weekend. Every side has Nov. 20 circled on the calendar, date of the MLS Cup final at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles. Here, then, is a team-by-team look at the 10 playoff qualifiers. (Listed in order of total points.)

Regular season finish: 67 points, +20 goal difference, 1st in the West

Why they might win it: Never mind that final-day result, when Galaxy-lite fell to Houston in a game that meant nothing to the Supporters' Shield winners. Rather, stand and clap for the best team, wire to wire, in MLS this year. Los Angeles built 67 points (most in MLS since 1999) by having the league's smartest team, individually, tactically and in all the little bits of gamesmanship. All of that is credit to the wily Bruce Arena, who may not reap Coach of the Year consideration (that honor always leans toward rebuilding efforts) but clearly does the right things in daily training. Center back Omar Gonzalez and left back Todd Dunivant guided the league's best defense. On the attack, the final year of David Beckham's five-year contract was easily his best; the man's passing and playmaking from deep midfield spots was peerless this year in MLS. Landon Donovan is apparently healthy again after injuries took him away for about month late in the season.

Why they might not: Things haven't often gone wrong in Galaxy land this year. But when they have, coaches and players tend to drift from accountability, usually finding someone else to blame. It's really this team's only flaw -- but it could prove a hindrance if things go unexpectedly awry in a match or over the two-leg conference finals series.

Drilling down -- Key stat: The Galaxy finished 5-2-1 this year against the next four finishers in the West, a good omen. On the other hand, only five of 15 Supporters Shield winners have moved on to claim the MLS Cup.

Regular season finish: 63 points, +19 goal difference, 2nd in the West

Why they might win it: Aside from one concerning injury, it's all going right for Sigi Schmid's confident side at the moment, now 13-4-2 in all competitions since July. (Two of the losses were in CONCACAF Champions League, but the Sounders still qualified for quarterfinal play.) Holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso is enjoying a season worthy of league MVP consideration. Fredy Montero (12 goals, 9 assists) is scoring and creating. Alvaro Fernandez is finally justifying his DP salary. Forward Mike Fucito and midfielder Brad Evans might be two of the best players casual MLS fans have never heard of. And Kasey Keller, in his final campaign, remains a steady-Eddy. The Sounders look like the biggest threat to L.A.'s title hopes.

Why they might not: As good as Mauro Rosales has been, the Argentine playmaker (and best value in the league) has spent just 36 minutes on the field since mid-September. He was working his way back into form and fitness but was stretchered off the field in the Sounders' season finale Saturday. His exceptional work as a right-sided playmaker (13 assists) is always a potential game-changer.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Sigi Schmid's team lead the league in offense with 56 goals this year. And their 63 points are the third most in MLS since 1999 -- a mighty accomplishment for the third-year side.

Regular season finish: 53 points, +8 goal difference, 3rd in the West

Why they might win it: Nobody wants to go into the playoffs winless in six matches. On the other hand, RSL's playoff version won't be the bunch we've seen lately. Playmaker Javier Morales returned Sept. 28 from his lengthy injury absence. That coincided with the last regular season appearance for captain and midfield enforcer Kyle Beckerman, whose head butt cost a three-game ban. Also consider that essential center back Jamison Olave was missing during a mid-season dip. So, with all the essential elements back in place, the 2009 champs can still be dangerous.

Why they might not: Merging into the fast lane of the playoffs on a six-game winless streak? That's a problem. Add the fact that RSL immediately meets Seattle, and that's a weapons grade problem. (An RSL-Seattle first-round matchup is among the biggest failings of the league's new playoff system. At full strength, the men of Utah might be the third-best in MLS, so it's a shame they'll meet the second best of MLS right away.) Meanwhile, discipline issues are always a threat with some of RSL's emotional types; Beckerman, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola are especially prone to rash moments.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Jason Kreis' men have won and tied in their most recent regular season appearances in Seattle, so they won't be intimidated by a venue that certainly can be bear for the lesser prepared.

Regular season finish: 52 points, +3 goal difference, 4th in the West

Why they might win it: The late summer was absolutely brutal around Pizza Hut Park, in more ways than one. Too many matches, too many key injuries and daily training in record breaking heat had a withering effect. A little more rest lately has the team in slightly better physical shape. Brek Shea can be dominant on the left wing; he's tricky, fast and powerful all at once. George John, now wearing the European transfer bullseye, and Ugo Ihemelu are among the league's top center-back duos. And Kevin Hartman remains a premier shot-stopper.

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Why they might not: David Ferreira's spectacular play a year ago and Shea's breakout season in 2011 has helped obscure the fact that Dallas still hasn't found a capable, consistent striker. Lately, the most effective frontrunner has been Jackson, a Brazilian utility knife who has also played right back and across the midfield this year. As a result, most of Dallas' wins this year were of the grind-it-out variety.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Shea scored his 11 goals in 11 different games (and none on penalty kicks), which means two things. First, he didn't have any one match to skew the season stats. And second, they tended to be important goals, turning potential losses to ties or potential ties to wins.

Regular season finish: 51 points, +10 goal difference, 1st in the East

Why they might win it: You can make a case that Kansas City, operating from that dynamic 4-3-3, has been the league's best club since August. Peter Vermes' side was certainly tops in the East over that time, beaten only once over the last two months (and that a close, 1-0 decision at Rio Tinto in Utah.) So how did it happen? Start with that 9-2-6 mark at home, tied for second-best in MLS. Throw in some balanced scoring: Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and Omar Bravo (which happens to be the current first-choice threesome across the top) hit for nine goals each. Meanwhile, the central defensive pairing (Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler) and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen have been dependable, too.

Why they might not: For all the attacking might, SKC tends to get nipped at the end on the defensive side. A frustrating blight of late goals conceded ultimately didn't damage SKC in the reach for a conference crown, but it could easily be a death blow in the playoffs.

Drilling down -- Key stat: After that 1-6-3 start on the road (pending stadium completion) the Eastern Conference champs went 12-3-9 from there.

Regular season finish: 49, points, +4 goal difference, 2nd in the East

Why they might win it: The Dynamo has been a better team lately (4-0-2 heading into the playoffs) thanks in part to two changes. Adam Moffat is now smartly screening the defense. (Did you see the golazo he nailed Sunday night against Los Angeles? Wow.) And Geoff Cameron is back to his occasional home at center back, where he instantly looked like a guy who has been there all his life. Tally Hall, in his first year as a starter, is one of the league's underrated goalkeepers. Set-piece specialist Brad Davis had his best season yet with a league-best 16 assists (one better than a fellow named Beckham). Finally, a lot of teams have more talent and play prettier soccer, but rare is the side that out-competes a Dominic Kinnear side -- and that means a lot in a league where referees look the other way on too much rough stuff.

Why they might not: Although Honduran striker Carlo Costly is finding his scoring feet lately, lack of dependable strikers has made goals sometimes hard to come by for the Orange. Part of the issue is Brian Ching, who has a lot of miles, wear and tear on his 33-year-old body and simply cannot be the same goal-scoring battering ram he was before, when Houston was a perennial title challenger. Meanwhile, midfielder Danny Cruz and defender Andrew Hainault are prone to bad tackles and cards, which could hurt with the wrong referee on the wrong night.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Ching's five goals this year was his lowest total in nine years with the club, and his 15 starts was the lowest since 2005. No Dynamo man, in fact, struck more than five times this year.

Regular season finish: 49 points, +3 goal difference, 5th in the West

Why they might win it: The Pablo Mastroeni-Jeff Larentwowicz central midfield tandem remains one of the league's toughest and smartest. And while the rear guard may not be Galaxy-esque, it's not bad either. Where to utilize Drew Moor, having another good campaign, remains a conundrum; coach Gary Smith deploy the veteran at left back or center back, depending on circumstances. Jamie Smith, when healthy, is one of the league's underrated commodities, wise and able along the flank. Amid front office tumult, the Rapids showed late this year they can still grind out a result.

Why they might not: It hasn't been a terrible season around DSG Park. On the other hand, it has been quite average, seeming to validate sentiments that last year's championship was equal parts performance, timing and fortune. Conor Casey's season ending Achilles injury back in July didn't help. And lately, front office feuding has given the championship season even more of a un-championship feel. Bottom line: if the Rapids repeat, it'll be a major surprise. Larentowicz leads the team with seven goals -- and when your tough-guy central midfielder is top of the scoring chart, something has gone wrong.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Omar Cummings' production feel precipitously from his career season in 2010, when he hit 14 goals and 5 assists. This year he managed just 3 goals and 6 assists.

Regular season finish: 48 points, +8 goal difference, 3rd in the East

Why they might win it: It really is difficult to get a fix on Peter Nowak's sophomore side, which was 3-2-5 over its final 10 in the regular season. Not bad at all, right? But not wholly inspiring either. One thing going right is Sebastien Le Toux's sizzling, late season goal-grabbing form. He hit 10 times during Philly's final dozen, providing the scoring power for the club's first playoff berth. Sheanon Williams' excellent rookie season at right back was another 2011 highlight. Freddy Adu had some bright moments (although probably not quite enough of them) after his late-summer signing. His passing can still open up a defense.

Why they might not: For all the early acclaim that fell on center back Carlos Valdes, he's prone to a wobbly moment here and there. Behind him, the veteran know-how and communication provided by goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was invaluable to a vastly improved defense -- but the wily back-stopper missed all or part of eight matches through a concerning tendency to be nicked by injury. The Union roster is full of promising young talent, like the Farfan brother (Michael and Gabriel), Kyle Nakazawa, Roger Torres, Danny Mwanga and Williams. But is there sufficient seasoning to carry the "second season?"

Drilling down -- Key stat: What a great first-round matchup for Philly; The Union is 2-0-2 against Houston so far, with a win in Houston and a tie at PPL Park this year.

Regular season finish: 47 points, -1 goal difference, 4th in the East

Why they might win it: The rebuilt Crew proved hard to beat this year when healthy. And don't look now, but Robert Warzycha's men are fairly healthy heading into the postseason. Big center back Chad Marshall is past some issues and Eddie Gaven's return from injury two weeks ago is great news. There's a real maturity about Gaven's game now, and the two-way midfielder's contributions, doing all the little things, cannot be overestimated. All that, and Andres Mendoza has been scoring goals from the run of play lately, finally making good on his DP salary. Emanuel Ekpo has blossomed as a valuably versatile midfielder, although he remains inconsistent (and will miss the first playoff game due to suspension).

Why they might not: While several contributors have returned from injury recently, Robbie Rogers' hamstring strain kept him from three starts in October. Even if he isn't full speed, his presence helps because he's a natural winger who hugs the touchline and stretches defenses across the field. If a seven-game winless skid through late August and September told us anything, it's that Columbus remains young and slightly fragile when starters miss due to injury.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Take away his five PK goals, and Mendoza has eight for the season. Not bad, but probably not DP-level production.

Regular season finish: 46 points, +6 goal difference, 5th in the East

Why they might win it: The guy in the No. 14 shirt knows something about big competitions. Thierry Henry has a World Cup and a European Championship on his mantle, not to mention a whole buffet of domestic titles and individual decoration. So it's safe to say the MLS playoffs won't overwhelm him. (By the way, some of his 14 goals this year were absolute jaw-droppers.) Neither will playoff soccer faze veteran Mexican international Rafa Marquez -- assuming he's sufficiently interested. Dane Richards has proven his ability to rise in the playoffs. So this remains a talented team, front to back. Henry and Marquez hog up the hype, but the side truly thrives on Joel Lindpere's midfield industry and on Luke Rodgers' grit and guile as a target presence.

Why they might not: Whatever ailed the league's most visible team during all those listless summer months did not disappear just because the Red Bulls prevailed last week in one game they simply had to have. Marquez can still pass, but his tracking from midfield is pedestrian at best. Fullback Jan Gunnar Solli gives the side plenty of push up the right side, but he's a natural midfielder and frequently stretched while defending. And Tim Ream? What can you say? He's just not as good this year as in last year's breakout, rookie campaign. Finally, how's this for a potential playoff-run killer: The Red Bulls' 10 goals conceded from corner kicks was most in MLS this year. And 16 conceded directly from set pieces was also a league worst. Yikes.

Drilling down -- Key stat: Hans Backe's men are slow starters. Their nine goals allowed in the first 15 minutes are most among the 10 playoff sides. And their nine allowed between minutes 46-60 is also worst among postseason qualifiers.