The best bet remains the field.
In 2003, MLS abandoned the best-of-three playoff series, which offered a genuine home-field advantage to the higher seed. In it’s place: the playing-field-leveling, regular-season-importance-reducing, home-and-home tie. During the league’s first seven years, four Supporters' Shield winners went on to lift MLS Cup. In the 15 seasons since the change, just two have managed the double. More than twice as many Shield holders have lost at the first hurdle (seven) than have advanced to the final (three).
Enter Toronto FC, a juggernaut that many already are calling the best team in league history. It set the MLS single-season record with 69 points and the record for largest Shield-winning margin with 12. Half its starting 11 could make a case for first-team league honors and, considering its domination of the Eastern Conference and the collective regression in the West, TFC is the most prohibitive MLS Cup favorite since D.C.’s late ‘90s dynasty.
Toronto is the likeliest champion. But history suggests the Reds still are unlikely to win. Such is the nature of the MLS Cup crapshoot, which claims favorites with ruthless regularity. TFC will open on the road against a knockout-round survivor—one of Atlanta United, Columbus Crew or New York Red Bulls.
The playoffs come quick. The 12-team field will be reduced to eight by late Thursday night. But everyone enters with a prayer. Here’s how the chances of getting an answer stand as the sprint to the title begins—and remember, deserve often has nothing to do with it.
1. Toronto FC
RECORD: 20-5-9 | First in East
They’ve won the Canadian Championship and the Supporters' Shield, but last year’s MLS Cup loss to Seattle will linger unless TFC goes one better in early December. “In the end, over 34 games, we were the best team. We proved that time and time again and we are proud of that,” captain Michael Bradley said. “Now, it all starts over—everything. Everybody starts at zero. Nobody is going to give us anything because we had a good regular season. Now it’s all about this little mini tournament over the next six or seven weeks.”
2. Portland Timbers
RECORD: 15-11-8 | First in West
Finishing with the West’s best record leaves the Timbers in just sixth place overall. But to win MLS Cup, a Western team has to be better or luckier than Toronto over only 90 minutes, instead of 180. And that, arguably, gives the West champ a bit of a boost relative to TFC’s Eastern rivals. Visiting teams, including Portland, have won the last two finals. So just get there. And with MVP favorite Diego Valeri pulling the strings and the Providence Park crowd behind them, the Timbers should be the slight favorite out West. If striker Fanendo Adi (hamstring) returns at some point, those prospects improve. Portland is 6-3-1 in his absence.
3. Seattle Sounders
RECORD: 14-9-11 | Second in West
The champs enter the playoffs with some issues up front. Jordan Morris (hamstring) is hurt and now Clint Dempsey will be suspended for at least one game—perhaps more—thanks to his red card and subsequent histrionics on Sunday. Midfield engine Ozzie Alonso (quad) has been out as well. But there’s still plenty of playoff seasoning, and Seattle has a championship-caliber defense that ranks second in the West. Parity and grit could see them through to the final where, as they proved last year, a couple plays and a couple bounces can make all the difference. The Sounders are hard to beat. They’ve lost only two of their past 18 matches.
4. Atlanta United FC
RECORD: 15-9-10 | Fourth in East
This is the team that should cause the most concern for Toronto. Atlanta is young, dynamic, well-coached and fearless, and playmaker Miguel Almirón is on his way back from a hamstring injury. He came on as a sub in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Reds. Atlanta is 5-1-2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and opens Thursday against a Columbus side that may not be the best version of itself. It should hit the conference semifinals on a roll and if it upsets TFC—they drew twice this season—United No. 3 will be in position to host the final.
5. Vancouver Whitecaps
RECORD: 15-12-7 | Third in West
Vancouver fell from first to third on Decision Day thanks in large part to a loss to Portland. But not everything’s gloomy in Canadian Cascadia. The Caps host a below-.500 San Jose side in Wednesday’s knockout round. If Vancouver advances, it would host short-handed Seattle in the opening leg of the conference semis. Build a lead at BC Place and anything’s possible. The Whitecaps have won just one of their past five games, but the bracket is favorable. Fredy Montero will need to break out after four straight appearances without a goal or assist.
6. New York City FC
RECORD: 16-9-9 | Second in East
NYCFC faces a really tough road for a second seed, and it’s been in better form. The club has won just one of its past seven. The good news is that David Villa came alive in Sunday’s 2-2 tie with Columbus, scoring both goals. The 2016 league MVP had netted just one in the previous two months. NYC has been decent on the road (6-7-4) and if it faces Chicago or Columbus in the conference semis, Patrick Vieira’s squad should feel confident about its chances of returning to Yankee Stadium on good terms.
7. Chicago Fire
RECORD: 16-11-7 | Third in East
The season ended with Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Houston and will continue Wednesday with a knockout-round game against the New York Red Bulls. It’ll be no playoff experience vs. nightmarish playoff experience in the first playoff game at Toyota Park in five years. Unfortunately for the Fire, playing your best soccer in May and June isn’t a recipe for MLS Cup success, and injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael De Leeuw probably have dashed any realistic championship hopes. But on paper, Chicago remains good enough to get past NYRB and set up a showdown with the blue half of New York. Any team featuring a Golden Boot winner (Nemanja Nikolic) has a chance to pull of a surprise.
8. Houston Dynamo
RECORD: 13-10-11 | Fourth in West
Houston got some bad news Tuesday—veteran, championship-winning defender A.J. DeLaGarza has been lost with a torn ACL. That’s playoff experience the rebuilt Dynamo won’t be able to replace. They’re 12-1-4 this season but still face a tough knockout-round assignment against savvy SKC. In their favor: an attack that can hurt you in multiple ways from multiple places. Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres, Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis each hit double-digits this season.
9. Sporting Kansas City
RECORD: 12-9-13 | Fifth in West
It’s been another ugly run-in for Sporting, which has had issues with late-season swoons in the past. They’re 0-3-2 in their past five games. And on Tuesday, it was confirmed that MLS Goalkeeper of the Year favorite Tim Melia (hamstring) will miss Thursday’s knockout-round game in Houston. But somehow, it wouldn’t be shocking if SKC went on a run. The U.S. Open Cup champs are a veteran team comfortable in the knockout-round crucible. The defense anchored by Matt Besler and Ike Opera remains intact, and you don’t need to be prolific in the playoffs—just clutch.
10. Columbus Crew
RECORD: 16-12-6 | Fifth in East
Playoff runs require a bit of good fortune, and the Crew have none. They’re in the loaded half of the bracket and have to start Thursday night in Atlanta. Throw in the controversy and terrible timing of owner Anthony Precourt’s interest in Austin, and you have a recipe for a quick exit (or a Hollywood ending). Columbus likely will deserve a better fate, short and long term. This is a good, under-appreciated team with some exciting attacking pieces. The road just isn’t set up for them this year.
11. New York Red Bulls
RECORD: 14-12-8 | Sixth in East
There are too many high hurdles ahead for a club that’s so often its own worst enemy come playoff time. The Red Bulls have won just two of their past 11 games, but at least will enter Wednesday’s knockout-game somewhat rested after several regulars sat out the season finale in D.C. Despite the sluggish fall, coach Jesse Marsch said the club is “in the best moment we’ve been all year, truly.” Maybe reduced expectations are what New York really needs.
12. San Jose Earthquakes
RECORD: 13-14-7 | Sixth in West
San Jose is in thanks to Marco Ureña’s stoppage-time goal against Minnesota United, which broke hearts in Salt Lake City and Dallas. At the end of the first year of GM Jesse Fioranelli’s club overhaul, which included the June dismissal of coach Dom Kinnear, the Quakes now are playing with house money. They’re a losing team with nothing to lose. But in MLS, that leaves you with as good a chance as anyone else.