By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Dec 6, 2018) US Soccer Players – Only two teams are left standing in what has been an entertaining and memorable 2018 MLS season. Atlanta United will host the Portland Timbers as one team will lock down immortality while the other will rue the day for years to come.
The final will culminate a month-long march that has had moments of drama and surprise. While only a handful of teams actually played over the last month, the rankings still included a great deal of movement. The postseason has not gone according to script, and that certainly counts.
1. Atlanta United (ranked 4 in November)
Why this ranking: Eastern Conference champions, the choice from here to win MLS Cup.
How to improve this rank: Can’t be done. As always, it is tougher to stay on top than it is to get there, which will be Atlanta’s challenge.
Update: Atlanta, of course, has one more win to go to join the ranks of the immortals. Already the club has racked up some impressive accolades: Coach of the Year (Gerardo “Tata” Martino), Most Valuable Player (Josef Martinez), Golden Boot (Martinez with an MLS-record 31 goals), as well as various attendance records. With a likely record crowd of more than 70,000 expected, everything seems to point toward an emphatic Atlanta victory.
2. Portland Timbers (8)
Why this ranking: Made a run at MLS Cup by knocking off an impressive collection of clubs – FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, Sporting KC.
How to improve this ranking: A win over Atlanta in MLS Cup would do it. Two MLS Cup wins in a span of four years would be an impressive feat as well.
Update: Portland will have something to say about Atlanta’s impressive run. Portland has already pulled off road upsets in winning at FC Dallas, Seattle, and Sporting KC. Winning under those circumstances was certainly impressive. However, the challenge that faces the club at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be much greater than those. Still, Portland has been up to the challenge already this postseason and will not easily roll over.
3. Seattle Sounders (1)
Why this ranking: Seattle was the most impressive team in the league since the middle of the summer but could not get it done against Portland.
How to improve this ranking: Catch fire a bit earlier than July 2019 and carry the momentum to MLS Cup.
Update: Seattle lost on penalties after beating Portland in an exciting second-leg matchup in the Western Conference final. Such a shootout is not a measure of skill but rather fortune. Seattle’s form was second to nobody in the league. Had the Sounders gotten past Portland, it would be Seattle heading down to Atlanta to play for the championship. Still, the Sounders made the playoffs in every year of its existence. Another postseason appearance next season would tie the record for most consecutive playoff appearances, an impressive feat in a growing league.
4. Sporting KC (3)
Why this ranking: Lost at home to Portland with a ticket to MLS Cup on the line.
How to improve this ranking: Defend Children’s Mercy Park better, and that goes for all games. Sporting KC had 10 home wins, fewer than eight other MLS teams.
Update: Sporting KC had MLS Cup within its sights but was done in by the away-goals rule and sloppy defending. Had Sporting KC done better to put a goal away in its trip to Portland in the first-leg of the Western Conference championship series, perhaps things would have been different in the second-leg. As it stood, Sporting KC could not hold onto a lead and was unable to respond when things started to fall apart. This team is solid though and should be tough to knock off from its perch atop the Western Conference regular-season standings.
5. New York Red Bulls (2)
Why this ranking: Losing by a 3-1 aggregate and having little luck at home in a must-win game was an unfortunate end to what was otherwise a great season.
How to improve this ranking: See the job through. The Supporters’ Shield was nice, but it’s about what MLS teams do in November and December, not March through October.
Update: How quickly fortunes change. New York entered the postseason as the favorites to at least reach MLS Cup if not win it. Instead, they flamed out. Then the club shipped Tyler Adams to German club and sister side Red Bull Leipzig. Still, there is one thing that they can salvage from this season. If Atlanta wins MLS Cup, the Red Bulls qualify for the 2019 Concacaf Champions League. That is a bitter feeling as Red Bull fans are likely not excited about supporting a budding rival in a cup final.
6. New York City FC (6)
Why this ranking: Fell in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta after an effortless win over Philadelphia in the knockout round.
How to improve this ranking:> Find a replacement for David Villa.
Update: NYCFC lost their heart and soul after Villa announced he was leaving the club with his contract up at the end of the year. Villa surpassed all expectations, regarded as one of the best signings in league history. That did not translate into a league title. It did help NYCFC build legitimacy. It will be interesting to see how the club fills Villa’s absence.
7. Columbus Crew (11)
Why this ranking: Columbus ran out of steam against New York after clawing past DC United in the knockout round.
How to improve this ranking: Making the right coaching hire will go a long way to helping the team climb.
Update: No team is more in flux than Columbus. Gregg Berhalter left the club to take over the US national team coaching vacancy and leaves behind some big shoes to fill. Although it is likely the club will stay in Columbus after toying with Austin, nothing is final and that may be a sticking point with potential hires.
8. Real Salt Lake (10)
Why this ranking: RSL surprised LAFC at Banc of California Stadium to reach the Western Conference semifinals.
How to improve this ranking: Play more games on the road the way the club did against LAFC.
Update: RSL was miserable on the road in 2018 until it counted. They had just three road wins during the regular season but scored a resounding triumph when the season was on the line, winning 3-2 at LAFC. RSL though needs to show much more consistency next season when playing away from Rio Tinto Stadium. A solid signing or two would also help keep the club in the top 10.
9. DC United (5)
Why this ranking: Wayne Rooney helped DC into the postseason and the top 10 of this rankings list with a torrid run down the stretch.
How to improve this ranking: Practice penalty kicks.
Update: DC United fell to Columbus in the knockout round on penalties. With better precision from the spot, DC could have gotten through to the semifinals and a matchup with rivals New York. Anything can happen in a derby match. Still, DC must be feeling good about 2019 as Rooney will be around from the start.
10. LAFC (7)
Why this ranking: An impressive expansion year ultimately finished in disappointment.
How to improve this ranking: Take the early playoff exit as motivation to improve.
Update: LAFC needs only to look at Atlanta United for motivation. Atlanta had a standout expansion season, exceeding expectations by reaching the playoffs. They faltered in the knockout round but came back stronger the second year and reached MLS Cup. LAFC will enter 2019 as a legitimate title contender. The club does need a standout center back to pair with Walker Zimmerman, but the pieces are in place for a strong 2019.
11. FC Dallas (9)
Why this ranking: Losing in the knockout round was not a great way to finish the season.
How to improve this ranking: Hire the right coach.
Update: FC Dallas slipped to 11th mostly on its poor showing in the postseason. The club also lost some of its power when coach Oscar Pareja split for Liga MX’s Club Tijuana, reuniting with former FC Dallas standout Fabian Castillo. FC Dallas might be keen to wait a few months to see if Tijuana goes on a losing streak and sacks Pareja. Stranger things have happened in Liga MX. That may not be the best way to conduct a coaching search. This could be a make-or-break hiring though as FC Dallas seems like its fortunes could go either way in 2019.
12. Philadelphia Union (12)
Why this ranking: Philadelphia was the worst team in the playoffs, but at least they made the postseason.
How to improve this ranking: Win more games at home.
Update: Technically Philadelphia had one more point than Real Salt Lake (50 to 49) but Philadelphia was all but an afterthought in its series against NYCFC. The club needs more success at home – nine home wins all season – and could use a scorer. Fafa Picault and Cory Burke tied for the team lead with goals with just 10 apiece.
13. LA Galaxy (13)
Why this ranking: Just missed the postseason.
How to improve this ranking: Allow fewer goals, especially at home.
Update: The Galaxy could be higher if Dennis te Kloese was already on board. He improves their squad significantly. However, the club has much work to do this offseason. Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks like he will return after reportedly turning down an offer from AC Milan. The squad will have changes if and when te Kloese takes over as the director of soccer operations. If that does happen, the Galaxy may not be this low in the rankings at any point in 2019.
14. Montreal Impact (15)
Why this ranking: Narrowly missed the postseason.
How to improve this ranking: Play better on the road.
Update: Montreal had a strong home record. The Impact’s 35 points from home should have been enough to finish in the East’s top six, but the club earned just 11 road points. By contrast, 6th-place Philadelphia earned 29 points at home and 21 away. Ignacio Piatti had perhaps his finest season in the league with 16 goals and 13 assists and even earned some votes for Most Valuable Player. Montreal is wasting his form.
15. Vancouver Whitecaps (14)
Why this ranking: Vancouver was in the playoff race until October.
How to improve this ranking: Take the next step from fringe playoff contender to bona fide playoff participant.
Update: Vancouver is pinning its hopes on an untested coach with Marc Dos Santos. The club is also giving him the power to make roster moves, which is risky given his lack of MLS experience. Dos Santos spent 2017 as an assistant with LAFC and has coached several USL teams. The biggest loss though is Alphonso Davies’s departure. Sure, it is great for the youngster to head to Bayern Munich and speaks well of the club’s ability to produce talent but the team will miss his energy.
16. New England Revolution (16)
Why this ranking: Mediocre results earn a mediocre ranking.
How to improve this ranking: Do not go two months without winning next season.
Update: New England was hanging around the playoff picture until going winless in July and August. Two points in the summer is not the way to reach the postseason. The team needs to have more of its draws turned into wins next season. Certainly, Brad Friedel learned a great deal during his first season as Revs coach that can help out next year. Perhaps instead of looking for players to fill a specific technical need, Friedel should look for players who are strong leaders and can help gut out victories.
17. Toronto FC (17)
Why this ranking: Poor results. This team has plenty of talent despite finishing near the bottom of the table.
How to improve this ranking: Forget this year happened and play like it was 2017 again.
Update: Toronto FC’s season was rather strange. The year started off so promising, with a strong Champions League win over Tigres UANL followed by a tough loss in the final to Chivas on penalty kicks. The club never recovered from that stretch and was never able to get into a rhythm. Toronto FC won consecutive games just once all season, beating Chicago two straight times in late July. Perhaps that was the price the team had to pay for winning MLS Cup 2017. If so then the team needs to consider the debt paid and return to its former glory next year.
18. Houston Dynamo (19)
Why this ranking: Knocking the LA Galaxy out of the playoffs was a strong finish to the season.
How to improve this ranking: Play more games the way it did in the second half of the final game of the season.
Update: Houston showed great class and character in taking down the LA Galaxy on October 28. The team could have folded after going down 2-0 at halftime but instead came out and put three away to win. Houston did show a lot of that in 2018 but mostly in US Open Cup play, where it won the championship. On the strength of that finish, Houston reached the Champions League and a Round of 16 matchup against Guatemalan outfit CD Guastatoya awaits in February. Houston needs to improve from now until then to have a chance of reaching the quarterfinals.
19. Colorado Rapids (18)
Why this ranking: Colorado won two games in October to help climb up the table.
How to improve this ranking: Having Kellyn Acosta around the whole season will help. Update: Colorado needs more talent. Acosta is a good starting point, but the club needs more than him to compete in what looks to be a crowded Western Conference. Dominique Badji led the team with seven goals scored, so goals is a priority in the offseason. Tim Howard will return, but he needs to find the fountain of youth himself and fend off the effects of age. Colorado though has a proven track record and staying at or near these rankings seems an inevitability.
20. Minnesota United FC (20)
Why this ranking: Road record of 1-14-2.
How to improve this ranking: Be better on the road. Being bad on the road in 2019 would be an improvement as this team was downright atrocious this year.
Update: Had Minnesota had an average road record, the team could have competed for a playoff spot. Minnesota had 31 points at home but just five on the road. By contrast, Seattle had 32 points at home while LAFC had 34. Minnesota’s defense was awful as well, which means this team needs an upgrade in talent on the backline to improve for 2108.
21. Chicago Fire (21)
Why this ranking: Yet another dull and drab year in Bridgetown.
How to improve this ranking: Bring in talent and depth across the board.
Update: Chicago’s season was inconsistent but then bottomed out with an eight-game losing streak in July and August. It might be tough to tell that happened given that the Fire will be rewarding coach Veljko Paunovic with a three-year contract extension following a miserable 2018. The club is also bringing back Bastian Schweinsteiger, which also seems surprising given his age. However, Schweinsteiger is three years younger than David Villa so perhaps expecting him to produce at a high rate is not out of the question.
22. Orlando City SC (22)
Why this ranking: The league-high 74 goals allowed. League-worst 15 road losses. Minus-31 goal-differential. Pick your poison.
How to improve this ranking: A change of mentality is certainly necessary.
Update: As expected following disastrous years, the club parted ways with GM Niki Budalic following the season. Budalic helped put together a roster that looked solid at the start of the season but completely fell apart as the year kept going. The club is reportedly set on hiring Luiz Muzzi of FC Dallas to take over the GM role. Whoever does will have plenty of work to do. Likely, this will be the second consecutive season that will see significant changes. Whether the club can respond is the question.
23. San Jose Earthquakes (23)
Why this ranking: There are not 24 spots on this list.
How to improve this ranking: Be anything but one of the worst clubs in league history.
Update: Four wins means that San Jose is at the bottom of these rankings. It is unfathomable how a team can play 34 games and win just four of them. To ownership’s credit, the club made a bold hire in bringing in Matias Almeyda to lead the team. Almeyda will bring a different style of thinking not just to the organization but to MLS. How quickly that will translate over to success on the field is hard to know, but at least there is hope.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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