Everything is set for the Major League Soccer playoffs, and the Western Conference again has come out the strongest in the regular season. That was the case last year, too, but Sporting Kansas City ended up hosting and winning the MLS Cup final.
That dark-horse candidate from the East this year could be the New England Revolution, or, if winning the conference can make a team a dark horse, D.C. United. New England had an impressive second half of the season, while D.C. scratched its way to the lowest loss total in the conference.
The Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy fought head-to-head for the Supporters’ Shield over the last two weeks, and Seattle came out on top. Both teams played like contenders, and they're on a crash course to meet again in the Western Conference final if they can avoid slipping up. The winner of that series would be the odds-on favorite to win it all, especially given that it would host the title match.
With just 10 teams still in play for the 2014 MLS Cup, it’s time for a postseason edition of the Power Rankings. Here’s how likely each team is to be lifting the trophy on Dec. 7:
MLS Playoff Power Rankings
1. Seattle Sounders (20-10-4)
Last week’s results: 2-0 vs. LA
First playoff matchup: FC Dallas or Vancouver Whitecaps
With a win over the Galaxy capped by Marco Pappa’s late introduction and two goals, Seattle joined the 2003 Chicago Fire as the only teams to win both the U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield in the same year. The Sounders also finished the regular season with the highest win total in the post-shootout era, so the unprecedented treble is still very much in play.
If center back rock Chad Marshall is at less than full strength after appearing to take a knock against the Galaxy on Saturday, it would hinder Seattle's chances. But the Sounders are clicking and entering the postseason with utmost momentum and confidence.
2. LA Galaxy (17-7-10)
Last week’s results: 0-2 at Seattle
First playoff matchup: Real Salt Lake
After an upstart 10-week period from the end of July that included just one loss, the Galaxy haven't won in three matches, including losing the Supporters’ Shield to Seattle. However, LA is still the West’s hottest team in the second half of the season, advancing above sixth place in the West for the first time on July 16 and never falling below second since late August.
Landon Donovan will be gunning to end his career with a record sixth MLS Cup, and if there's any coach that knows how to navigate the MLS playoffs, it's Bruce Arena. Nemesis Real Salt Lake will certainly provide ample competition in the conference semifinals, though, and has the components to play the role of spoiler as Donovan's retirement tour reaches its end.
3. New England Revolution (17-13-4)
Last week’s results: 1-0 vs. Toronto
First playoff matchup: Columbus Crew
It’s amazing that a team that went on an eight-game losing streak and lost nine of 10 from May to August is currently one of the favorites to win the trophy. The Revs have to be considered a top contender, paced by Lee Nguyen’s 18-goal, five-assist season and having lost once in the last 12 games — but just one-third of those games were against playoff teams.
Jermaine Jones' influence since signing with the club after the World Cup has been tangible, and coach Jay Heaps has worked wonders with his assortment of attacking pieces to mold one of the more entertaining sides in MLS.
4. D.C. United (17-9-8)
Last week’s results: 1-1 at Montreal
First playoff matchup: New York Red Bulls or Sporting Kansas City
D.C. completed its worst-to-first season in the Eastern Conference with a six-game unbeaten run and losing just twice in its final 12 matches. It’s often not a pretty win when United gets all three points, but the team prides itself on a workmanlike performance every match, which could be important in grinding out playoff results.
If D.C. gets drawn into a skills battle with any opponent, that might be its downfall. Ben Olsen, despite being a Coach of the Year candidate, often eschews tactical preparation in favor of more motivational techniques, which will make it difficult against teams that can handle the physicality and answer with brains — including Seattle and LA, both of which beat D.C. in the regular season.
5. Real Salt Lake (15-8-11)
Last week’s results: 2-0 vs. Chivas USA
First playoff matchup: LA Galaxy
A 12-game unbeaten run at the beginning of the season was never going to be sustainable, but RSL didn’t look as dangerous in midseason when its World Cup players were missing. The first playoff series will be a good test of where the team stands now, as Salt Lake went 1-1-1 against the Galaxy in the regular season with just four goals total among all three games.
LA has been a frequent playoff nemesis the last few years, and RSL prides itself on its small-market mentality and taking on the team from Tinseltown. A strong defense will be important in navigating the gauntlet of high-scoring Western Conference playoff teams, and Nick Rimando is goal is the best anchor in the league to those efforts.
6. FC Dallas (16-12-6)
Last week’s results: 0-2 vs. Portland
First playoff matchup: Vancouver Whitecaps
After its usual strong start to the season, Dallas stumbled through an eight-game winless streak in late spring. A second-half resurgence saw Óscar Pareja’s team lead the league in points per game since July 1, although that couldn’t prevent it from landing in the difficult situation of having to host the play-in game.
Pareja's' work the last couple seasons has been overshadowed by impressive team turnarounds by Portland's Caleb Porter and D.C.'s Ben Olsen, but he's been the most consistent coach over the last two years in terms of squeezing every drop from his team. With his presence on the bench, Fabián Castillo and Andrés Escobar in the attack and Matt Hedges and Zach Loyd in the back, Dallas has as solid a spine as any team in the playoffs.
7. Columbus Crew (14-10-10)
Last week’s results: 2-1 vs. Philadelphia
First playoff matchup: New England Revolution
The Crew’s stretch of 16 games with just one win early in the season shows both how weak the Eastern Conference is (52 points would have barely made the postseason in the West) and how impressive its second half of the season was (10 of its 14 wins came after mid-July). It’s been an inconsistent season for Columbus, which could spell trouble in the playoffs.
Gregg Berhalter's team is in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, which is an accomplishment in itself. The team also set a new attendance record, leaving a solid base for the future; anything from this point on is just a bonus.
8. Vancouver Whitecaps (12-8-14)
Last week’s results: 1-0 vs. Colorado
First playoff matchup: FC Dallas
Carl Robinson’s team ended the season with five must-win games in a row, and the Whitecaps won all but one of them (helped by Portland slipping on the same day). It took a lot to get into the playoffs for Vancouver, and being the fifth seed in the conference always means it’s tough to do much in the postseason.
Kendall Waston has proven to be the most impactful midseason signing, and the Costa Rican center back scored again on Saturday to drag his team into the playoffs. Robinson's willingness to throw his younger players into matches has provided a nice balance to Waston and Pedro Morales' experience, but the playoffs are different than any regular-season match.
9. New York Red Bulls (13-10-11)
Last week’s results: 2-0 at Sporting Kansas City
First playoff matchup: Sporting Kansas City
A win over SKC on the final day ensured New York would get to host the knockout round match against the same opponent, and it also gave the Red Bulls a psychological edge over their team that they’ve beaten in their previous two meetings. A year after winning the Supporters’ Shield, New York’s record isn’t as good as it was in 2013, but MLS single-season record-tying goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips is dangerous for any MLS defense to handle.
This could be Thierry Henry's last stand, and the competitor in him won't want to go out with a loss. But the real questions come on the defensive end, where New York has given up 50 goals, the most of any playoff team in the East.
10. Sporting Kansas City (14-13-7)
Last week’s results: 0-2 vs. New York
First playoff matchup: New York Red Bulls
At one point, Sporting Kansas City was at the top of the Eastern Conference and almost running away with it. Now, the defending MLS Cup champs would be lucky to get past the knockout round of the playoffs, as two wins in the last 10 games make it the coldest team heading into the postseason.
Sporting Park has become far less of a fortress than it was last year as well, with four of the team's last five home games ending in losses. The core of the MLS Cup-winning team is still there, and Dom Dwyer is as dangerous as any striker in the league on his day, but there's a much different feel to the team this year — the fear factor is gone for opponents.