• Toronto FC is the heavy favorite to win MLS Cup, but with the Eastern Conference littered with challengers–and MLS's format claiming top contenders with regularity–could a surprise squad lift the trophy in December?
By Brian Straus
October 24, 2017

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.

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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.

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