MLS Playoff Power Rankings: Who is most likely to win MLS Cup?
“We will be here next year. Will you?”
The banner displayed by Vancouver Whitecaps fans as their team took on the Portland Timbers on Decision Day said it all. While the Timbers were fighting for their first away win of the year, and a necessary one in order to make the 2016 MLS playoffs, the Whitecaps players were playing to prove they deserve a spot in next season’s squad after a disappointing season.
You may think that the desire for greater success would trump that of wanting to not end on a bad note. You would be wrong. Vancouver didn’t just beat Portland, it dominated the defending MLS Cup champs, to the tune of a 4–1 win that was far and away the most surprising result from an otherwise tame Decision Day.
"There has to be some long, hard discussions, reflection on what went wrong," Portland head coach Caleb Porter told reporters in the aftermath of the game. “We’re definitely very disappointed in the season...there are going to be some changes.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is the imbalance of the MLS playoff field, a fixture of a league that inexplicably continued to admit over 50% of its teams to the postseason. Some of the remaining 12 teams are quite good. Some are just a level below. But with some, you could make a compelling case that, based on the eye test alone, these teams don’t deserve the chance to take home the most important trophy in the league.
This week’s Power Rankings concern only the teams involved in the playoffs, but it feels like there’s just as much of a difference from top spot to last as there ever was with all 20 squads involved.
Offensive player of the week: Giles Barnes, Vancouver Whitecaps
Of all of the disappointments Vancouver has dealt with this season, Giles Barnes may be up near the top despite only being acquired midseason from the Houston Dynamo. The Jamaica international was brought to Vancouver to aid the team’s ailing attack, but he didn’t score his first goals for the club until breaking out with a fine double on Sunday. Barnes was everywhere, pressuring Portland’s back four, getting his teammates involved, and providing goals via strong blasts:
And nice, delicate little touches:
If only he'd produced that more frequently and earlier in the season.
Defensive player of the week: Jelle Van Damme, LA Galaxy
This is a tough week to judge defenders considering that so many teams played weakened sides and the stakes were not the same for all. But within that context, Jelle Van Damme had another fine game at center back for the Galaxy in a 0–0 draw with FC Dallas. Dallas only needed a tie and LA already confirmed its seeding, but all the same, Van Damme was imperious in shutting down attacks and making sure nothing could dent the Galaxy’s confidence heading into its playoff match next weekend.
A 2–0 win over Philadelphia means the Red Bulls ended the season on a remarkable 16-game unbeaten run, the longest such streak in the league this year and tied for third-longest all-time. Bradley Wright-Phillips is the golden boot winner (he scored on Sunday), Sacha Kjlestan is tied for the second-most assists all-time with 19, 21-year-old Alex Muyl is coming into his own, and the team has no major injury concerns. Oh, and they also have a week of rest and home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Without a doubt, the Red Bulls are the team to beat heading in to the postseason.
FC Dallas didn’t look particularly impressive in a 0–0 draw with Los Angeles, but then it didn’t really have to either. LA had nothing to play for, and all Dallas needed was a draw anyway. With the U.S. Open Cup and now the Supporters’ Shield in tow, no team will be facing pressure like Dallas is. The first domestic treble in MLS history would be a remarkable feat, made even more so that they’ll need to earn the last (and arguably the most important) of those three without MVP candidate Mauro Diaz. Dallas is deep enough as a team to do it on paper, but can Oscar Pareja pull things together in time for them to be an effective unit?
United coach Ben Olsen made what ended up being the best managerial move of the weekend, putting out a second-string lineup in a 4–2 loss to Orlando City. The move had some risks considering that a win would have guaranteed United a home playoff game in the knockout round, but Montreal’s loss to New England took care of that for them. Now United has a fresh XI and is still in great form having won four straight before Sunday’s loss by the B-team. Olsen has strength and experience up and down the squad. If you’re looking for an MLS Cup sleeper pick, D.C. is the way to go.
Toronto FC’s recent five-match winless run may have cost the team a shot at a bye in the first round, but Sunday’s 3–2 win over Chicago will boost TFC’s confidence heading into the playoffs, and it'll have the advantage of playing a Philadelphia team that has been awful lately. Sebastian Giovinco still doesn’t look 100% after his recent adductor injury, but even at 70-80% the Italian star is still extremely dangerous. In 10 seasons of play, this will be the first time BMO Field will host a playoff game–a stat that speaks more to the side’s history of failure rather than its present-tense status as one of the most dangerous teams in the playoff field.
Between two late missed chances from Kevin Doyle and Dominique Badji, the Rapids were mere inches away from ending their excellent season with a win but settled for a 1-1 draw with Houston. The Rapids are the type of team that will love flying under the radar while the focus goes to FC Dallas’ treble pursuit, or the star power of NYCFC and Toronto. Their slow, methodical style of play is effective in grinding out results through a lengthy regular season, but will it work in the playoffs? It’s tough to tell, considering that we haven’t seen this edition of the team in this stage. Its second-place finish came after years in which it finished eighth and 10th, missing the playoffs both times. Colorado’s ability to play beyond its pedigree–especially in the attacking third–will determine the club's playoff fate.
Win or lose or tie, NYCFC has been nothing if not exciting to watch this season. Sunday’s 4–1 win over Columbus secured a first-round bye for Patrick Vieira’s side, which will be making its first appearance in the playoffs. In David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo, the team has found a rare combination of big-name DPs that know how to play well together, Jack Harrison is a strong contender for Rookie of the Year, and Khiry Shelton has ended his second pro season strongly. The biggest question mark over this team is the defense, which was among the league’s worst in goals allowed. Ill-timed goals become season-enders in the playoffs.
The Galaxy had nothing to play for on Decision Day, so they did the same thing they’ve done for nearly half the games this season: They tied. Bruce Arena has his team playing with his trademark organization throughout, but all too often it's lacked the killer instinct to finish games off. However, the team has all but admitted to bringing Landon Donovan back specifically for the playoffs, a competition Donovan has ruled like no other in the league’s history. Even as a sub that is still getting his game legs back, it’s completely hard to count out the Galaxy with Donovan on the roster.
No team in the playoff field has been through more turmoil this season than Seattle. Yet even after the preseason sale of a star striker (Obafemi Martins), a subsequent awful start, the firing of a tenured coach, and the loss of another star striker to a health issue (Clint Dempsey), interim head coach Brian Schmetzer has the Sounders playing well heading into the playoffs. Nicolas Lodeiro was fantastic in the team’s 2–1 win over Real Salt Lake on Decision Day, and he’s the type of player that can make a difference in big playoff moments. The Sounders have plenty of flaws, but you could argue that no team outside of Dallas is playing with more togetherness right now.
Even after 34 games, it’s tough to know what to make of Sporting Kansas City. The team has traded moderate runs of good form with a few bad stretches this season, and heads into the playoffs with a 2-1-2 record in its last five. What isn’t up for debate is the team’s reliance on Dom Dwyer as the focal point of the attack. Dwyer may not have scored in Sunday’s 2–0, playoff-clinching win vs. San Jose, but he was instrumental as always, particularly in Graham Zusi’s clincher.
The Impact needed to win against the Revolution to have a chance of hosting its knockout round game, but instead the Canadian side put forth a strangely uninspired performance in a 3–0 loss to New England. In the space of a couple weeks, DP striker Dider Drogba has gone from being a useful piece of the roster to a distraction at the worst possible time. Montreal was in decent form before the Drogba mess and this latest loss, though, so there’s no saying it can’t pull it together and beat D.C. But it’ll be tougher than it needed to be.
Sure, Real Salt Lake lost to Seattle on Decision Day, but that loss isn’t the reason they’re ranked so low. No, RSL is ranked so low because its last win came on August 26th. In the seven games since, it's gone 0–4–3. That is the exact opposite of the type of form a team needs heading into the playoffs. To make matters worse, both of its previous games against the LA Galaxy have featured plenty of goals, and neither were wins: one was a 5–2 loss, the other a 3–3 draw.
It should say plenty that the Union were ranked 14th in last week’s league-wide Power Rankings–a spot that would put them outside the playoff picture if these rankings determined the field. Philly has been one of the worst teams in the league to close the season, going from Eastern Conference challenger to first-round knockout fodder in the process. Like RSL, the Union haven’t won in seven games, but amazingly their record is worse than Salt Lake’s in that span: 0–5–2. The Union don’t match up well with Toronto in just about any area, so a win at BMO Field in the knockout round would really be shocking.