By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Nov 1, 2018) US Soccer Players - It’s finally playoff time, when MLS games carry an extraordinary amount of weight compared to the regular season. While teams have a vast amount of leeway during the regular season, now the margin of error is nonexistent.
It's the stretch run that turns teams into playoff threats. The top three teams in this month’s power rankings all come in hot, but it's the fifth team in the power rankings that is the hottest team in the league. One month from now, when the dust has almost settled on the season, it is likely that two of those four will still be alive and close to fighting it out for the championship.
1. Seattle Sounders (ranked 1 in October)
The final regular season game sums up the 2018 Sounders season. They looked average, nothing special against San Jose and created their own problems by scoring an own-goal. Then Seattle nabbed a late goal, and then another, and the game that looked lost turned into a win. Dead in the water over the summer, Seattle rebounded and finished the season with a first-round bye and 4th-overall in the league table. That come-from-behind win over San Jose might be a preview of what’s to come this postseason, and if so the club might walk away with its second MLS Cup in three years.
2. New York Red Bulls (3)
Losing Jesse Marsch as coach could have been a death blow for the New York Red Bulls, but the club enters the postseason as the newly-crowned Supporters’ Shield winners. New York won all three of its games in October and last five overall to claim their third Shield in the last six seasons but the club wants more. MLS Cup is within reach. The team needs to perform in November and December to do that, and so far that has not happened.
3. Sporting KC (5)
Few teams enter the postseason on as impressive of form as Sporting KC. The club won its final three games of the regular season, including the finale against LAFC, a match that had the conference title riding on it for both sides. Sporting KC looks like the favorites to come out of the West.
4. Atlanta United (2)
An outstanding sophomore season is not immune to disappointment. Such is the case for Atlanta, who dropped the regular-season finale against Toronto FC by 4-1. The loss kept Atlanta from winning the Supporters’ Shield and means the club will play New York City FC in the semifinals. With coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino gone at season’s end, Atlanta has some motivation to play for as the players would like to send their coach off with a championship.
5. DC United (8)
Wayne Rooney for MVP. The league does not like to give awards to players who arrive mid-stream but how else to look at Rooney's contributions? Rooney helped turn around a DC United squad that was one of the poorest in the Eastern Conference into a team that nobody wants to face. DC United won just two of its first 14 games, but by contrast lost just two of its last 17. Part of that success is also attributed to Audi Field as the club did not have to travel much down the stretch either. Still, without Rooney, DC United is nowhere near the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed.
6. New York City FC (11)
NYCFC went through some difficult times in 2018. They lost star David Villa to injury for much of the summer and coach Patrick Vieira for good to French side Nice. But Villa recovered with five goals in his last six matches while new coach Dominic Torrent found his footing too. NYCFC may not be favorites in its series against Atlanta United but the clubs will put on an attractive show of soccer no less.
7. LAFC (6)
The regular season finale doesn't taint a spectacular expansion season. LAFC could have won the Western Conference but instead lost by 2-1 to Sporting KC and slipped to 3rd-place, setting up a knockout round match. No bother. LAFC came in with guns blazing in 2018 and go into the playoffs not as an expansion side but as a legitimate contender to reach MLS Cup.
8. Portland Timbers (10)
Diego Valeri scored twice and looked rather dangerous for the Timbers in their knockout round win over FC Dallas on Halloween. Valeri seemed to raise his level of play as he had scored just once since August 11 coming into the match. If the Timbers can elevate their level of play as a whole the way Valeri did, this team could make another run at MLS Cup. The club has the advantage of playing the first leg of its conference semifinal series at home, where the Timbers had a conference-high 11 wins.
9. FC Dallas (4)
FC Dallas’ season was solid but not spectacular up until the very end. That's when the bottom fell out. The club’s final month of the season was bad. They posted a three-game losing streak to close out 2018 and that carried over into the playoffs, which was much worse. FC Dallas’ season-ending 2-1 loss to a 10-man Portland team was typical of a streaky team. The talent and coaching are there but the club still underwhelmed.
10. Real Salt Lake (9)
RSL was dead in the water, likely making offseason plans before the season was officially over. Houston’s miraculous comeback victory against the LA Galaxy propelled RSL to the knockout round. It may be that RSL’s season will extend just four days more, but to reach the playoffs in a strong Western Conference was an accomplishment. RSL may have backed into the postseason at the end but it was only because the club did well to put itself in that position. They beat the Galaxy 6-2 in early September in what ultimately was the club’s ticket to the postseason.
11. Columbus Crew (7)
Columbus had a strong start to the season but finishing fifth does not reflect that. Perhaps the constant distractions got to the club. A possible move to Austin that is still not resolved and coach Gregg Berhalter’s potential exit from the team are enough to create drama. The team did well to stay the course despite major distractions. Gyasi Zardes had a phenomenal campaign with 19 goals and is certainly the club’s most valuable player this season. Zardes though will need to work magic if Columbus is to advance beyond the knockout round.
12. Philadelphia Union (12)
Reaching the playoffs was an accomplishment for this team. In nine seasons now, Philadelphia has reached the postseason just three times, including 2018. Still, that does not make the finish that less painful for the club. The team certainly has talent. Borek Dockal led the league in assists with 18 while Fafa Picault and Corey Blake each had 10 goals. A few more complementary pieces and this team could be quite solid next season.
13. LA Galaxy (13)
What a disappointing end to a disappointing season. The Galaxy acted like the Galaxy of old, winning games with swagger down the stretch, only to remind everyone that the Galaxy of old is gone. This new Galaxy, in the wake of the Bruce Arena Era, does not play in the postseason or contend for titles. At least the club got its money worth with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored loads of goals and sold loads of jerseys. The rest of the league now will get on with the postseason while the Galaxy looks on from the side.
14. Vancouver Whitecaps (15)
After a strong March, Vancouver appeared ready to make a playoff push. Instead, the club struggled throughout the rest of the season, sacked its coach, and missed the playoffs by three points. Vancouver was a middling club this season but with a new coach and some defensive reinforcements, the team might be a playoff contender in 2019.
15. Montreal Impact (16)
The biggest loser in the Wayne Rooney sweepstakes was Montreal. Because of Rooney’s arrival and DC United’s subsequent rise, Montreal fell out of the playoff race. Montreal’s 46 points were good for 7th-place in the Eastern Conference, four points out of a playoff spot. Given DC’s pre-Rooney form, it is likely Montreal would have finished ahead of United. Still, the club’s holes are vast . The majority of the goals came from the midfield, for instance. Ignacio Piatti’s 16 goals were a bright spot but the club needs help if Montreal is to push for a playoff spot in 2019.
16. New England Revolution (17)
Brad Friedel’s first year as coach was not at all good. A nine-game winless skid over the summer cost the team any hopes of a playoff push. It was not bad enough to cost Friedel his job. The front office will need to work magic in the offseason as the roster overhaul will be massive. Players like Diego Fagundez, Juan Agudelo, and Kelyn Rowe might be on their way out. It’s likely that Friedel may have a shorter leash in 2019 as the club will try and avoid a fourth consecutive playoff-less season.
17. Toronto FC (19)
The defending champs did not go out without a fight after all. Toronto FC’s 4-1 win over Atlanta cost the second-year club the Supporters’ Shield. It is little solace for a club that entered the year with great expectations but it does show that this team does have fight left and perhaps may be able to show more of that in 2019.
18. Colorado Rapids (21)
Mediocrity continues to be the objective in the Rocky Mountains. Colorado completed yet another lousy campaign but there seems to be no surprise with this middling club. Expectations do not seem to be too high which means this team of average talent is stuck trying to compete in a solid Western Conference. Colorado did have its moments. The season-ending 2-1 win over FC Dallas was a highlight. Those were few and far between. The hope is that someone in the organization with power will care enough to bring in some real talent in the offseason to boost the club.
19. Houston Dynamo (18)
Houston won both of its cup finals this season. The US Open Cup was a solid win and so too was the team’s final game of the season against the LA Galaxy. Of course, there was no silverware on the line but Houston played the match as if it were a cup final. The team showed some seldom-seen road grit. Like Minnesota, Houston’s road form was nowhere near good enough. Winning the Open Cup title and the ticket to the Concacaf Champions League that comes with it could spur Houston into an offseason filled with strong roster moves.
20. Minnesota United FC (14)
Minnesota never quite figured out how to play on the road. At home, the Loons were okay, with a 10-6-1 home record but the club’s five road points were the lowest in the league. Darwin Quintero was the main bright spot for the club this season and gives Minnesota a strong piece to build around in 2019. Coach Adrian Heath though must figure out how to break the Loons from their poor play on the road. Such a mentality change is necessary before the club can start thinking about postseason runs.
21. Chicago Fire (20)
A strong 2017 season did not exactly carry over into 2018. Chicago was a major disappointment from the start. The team failed to get the players to help Bastian Schweinsteiger continue what he started last season. The Fire was abysmal down the stretch, going winless in July and winning only twice over the season’s last four months. With Schweinsteiger only getting older, it is unlikely that he can be an MVP-type player even if he does return. It is difficult to see from here just how the Fire will be competitive in 2019.
22. Orlando City SC (23)
A season that started off with much promise turned into a nightmare that the team never awoke from. Despite talents such as Sacha Kljestan and Dom Dwyer available, Orlando was one of the worst teams in MLS. The lone bright spot was a 2-1 win over playoff-bound Columbus on October 21. Nevermind that both goals were penalty kicks. The Lions led the league in goals allowed (74), had a minus-31 goal differential, and only Colorado scored fewer than Orlando’s 43 goals. A truly ghastly and disappointing campaign.
23. San Jose Earthquakes (22)
Ask Minnesota and FC Dallas about San Jose’s 2018 squad and the clubs will likely tell you how tough the ‘Quakes were. Ask anyone else and you’ll get a different answer. San Jose managed just four wins this season, two against Minnesota and two against FC Dallas. San Jose’s futility was nearly record-breaking. The four wins are one more than the league record for fewest wins in a season. The hope is that the team did not scare off incoming coach Matias Almeyda before he even gets the chance to start work.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
More From Luis Bueno :
- The Galaxy's demise
- Will we see a playoff El Trafico?
- Is 2018 turning out worse than 2017 for the LA Galaxy?
- Matias Almeyda and the future in San Jose
Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com