By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Nov 11, 2020) US Soccer Players - The strangest regular season in league history has come to a close. Nobody could have ever imagined a season that saw a complete shutdown after two games, a midseason tournament, and games with no fans in the stands. Yet, the league persevered with some not-so-minor setbacks, and now the playoffs are looming.
In a season like this, that has seen fewer regular-season games played and an expanded playoffs, the silverware is still very much revered. Winning MLS Cup will carry as much weight this year as it has any other year. It's the same with the Union's Supporters' Shield.
The only difference perhaps is how teams were able, or rather unable, to develop over the course of the season. With teams only playing regularly for roughly three months, this might seem more like midseason form. Whatever the case, this is how teams stand heading into what should be an interesting and captivating playoffs.
1. Philadelphia Union (4 in October)
Philadelphia earned its first-ever Supporters' Shield with a convincing stretch of results at the finish. Philadelphia won four of its last five games to overtake a slumping Toronto FC and win its first piece of silverware. Now, a realistic run at MLS Cup is within reach. Sergio Santos came through down the stretch, scoring six goals in October and November. If Santos can keep up his strong pace and the club can get something out of forward Kacper Przybylko (one goal since September 20), they'll be a postseason force.
2. Seattle Sounders (6)
The end of the season may have been of some concern given that Seattle failed to secure 1st-place in the Western Conference. Seattle had a 1-1-1 record in November, dropping points in a draw at the LA Galaxy and losing by 3-1 at Colorado. While those points would have given Seattle the top spot out West, they are not quite a red flag for their MLS Cup chances. The team is as strong as any other heading into the postseason. The talent is there, and this team knows how to win. Despite what the table shows, Seattle is the best team in the Western Conference.
3. Toronto FC (2)
Things were going great for Toronto FC until the final four games. Instead of doubling down and securing the Supporters' Shield, Toronto FC inexplicably fell apart. Toronto was no match for Philadelphia on October 24, losing 5-0, and then lost two of the next three games to finish three points short of the Union in the race for the Shield. Playing away from the comforts of BMO Field has not been easy, particularly after the club has done it for so long. Toronto needs to hang on just a bit longer and try to make a run to at least the Eastern Conference final.
4. Portland Timbers (1)
Portland had a series of challenging games down the stretch. While results were not always the best, it helped the club get ready for gritty playoff games. Save for a 5-2 rout of a hapless Galaxy side, all but one of the last seven games were either draws or decided by one goal. A slight bit of concern could be the offense as Portland scored just once in the final two games against playoff-bound teams Colorado and LAFC. Part of that concern is Jeremy Ebobisse's health. Ebobisse did not play in the final six regular-season contests due to a concussion.
5. Sporting KC (9)
The top three teams in the Western Conference all finished with the same amount of points but played different amounts of games. Sporting KC finished top, reaching 39 points in fewer games. That required three wins in a row to close out the season. They'll be well-rested for their playoff opener. Due to Covid-19 cancellations, Sporting KC has played just once since October 28.
6. Orlando City SC (5)
Nevermind that last hiccup, Orlando City SC could make some noise come playoff time. The club completed a complete turnaround from a year ago. In 2019, Orlando had 37 points over the course of a full season. This year, they had 41 points in 23 games, and looked impressive doing so. Orlando is a balanced side, with tough defense to go along with top scorers. Tied for third in goal-differential at +15 with Columbus, the two sides are heading in opposite directions.
7. Minnesota United FC (11)
Minnesota was a tough team to beat down the stretch. The club last lost a match on September 23. Since then, the Loons compiled a 4-0-4 record to finish 4th in the West. During that stretch, Minnesota seemed to figure out its defensive issues. The club had five clean sheets in those eight matches, with just two before that. Minnesota can score goals (36 goals scored, +10 goal differential) and will need some of that balance to win its first-ever MLS playoff match.
8. Columbus Crew (3)
After topping the rankings over the summer, Columbus has steadily declined. The Crew cannot find consistency. The last time the Crew won consecutive games was in mid-September. Since then, the team has a subpar 3-5-2 record. The Crew needs to solidify its defense in order to get back to its midsummer level. In these last ten games, the Crew has given up 16 goals. Compare that to the two goals in nine games Columbus allowed in July and August, and the source of the problem is easy to spot.
9. LAFC (7)
Perhaps no other club has quite the pressure of winning a championship that LAFC does, but for different reasons. Los Angeles has suddenly become Title Town after the LA Lakers won the NBA Finals and the LA Dodgers won the World Series. LAFC will get the full Los Angeles spotlight if the club can reach and win MLS Cup. To do that, the club must win more than two consecutive games, something they haven't done this season. Carlos Vela did return from injury last month, going the full 90 in the regular-season finale for the first time since March 8.
10. NYCFC (8)
Typically after losing a key player in the attack, clubs falter. NYCFC has done the opposite. After the surprising departure of Alexandru Mitrita, NYCFC did indeed hit a cold spell, getting one point in three games. Since then, the club has reeled off four consecutive wins, including a 5-2 demolition of rivals New York Red Bulls. Three of the four wins were against playoff teams, while the fourth was against Chicago, who needed a win to get into the playoffs. NYCFC has been getting playoff-ready against these teams. Even without Mitrita, the club looks poised to create havoc in the Eastern Conference.
11. Colorado Rapids (22)
Colorado never really got to stretch its legs this season. Due to Covid-19 cases that made their way around the club, Colorado played just 18 matches and finished with 28 points, six fewer than the club directly beneath it in the table. Colorado didn't play a game between September 23 and October 24, with points per game getting them a playoff spot. Andre Shinyashiki scored four goals in his final eight games to pace the Colorado attack. They'll need more of the same to succeed in the playoffs.
12. FC Dallas (13)
For long stretches of the season, FC Dallas seems like an all-or-nothing type of club. They twice had three-game winning streaks yet also lost matches by lopsided scorelines, such as the 3-0 season-ending loss at Minnesota United. Franco Jara led the team in goals with 7 and scored two goals in his last three appearances. Jara will need to show more of that finishing touch to help FC Dallas get past Portland in the first round of the playoffs.
13. New York Red Bulls (19)
No other team had quite the turnaround that New York Red Bulls had this season. The club was floundering at the bottom of these rankings with the likes of FC Cincinnati and DC United, but did well to reinvent itself. The Red Bulls finished with a 3-3-1 record, pulling off a massive turnaround. Now the club faces a Columbus team that New York has not seen since July. With its newfound bite and tenacity, they should feel like a postseason run is imminent.
14. New England Revolution (10)
In some aspects, New England had a disappointing season. New England had a solid defense, allowing 25 goals in 23 games, but the club had its problems scoring goals with just 26 this season. Among all 18 playoff teams, the Revolution only outscored expansion teams Nashville and Inter Miami. The team had injury problems. Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou were among the attacking players the team lost for different spells. Fortunately, both players are healthy. If the duo can help trigger that dormant offense, the Revs might do some damage in the postseason.
15. Nashville SC (12)
The Covid-19 pandemic affected all teams in different ways but for Nashville SC the effects were particularly rough. Aside from the missed opportunities for fans, the club was not able to properly build as a team on the field. They seem to be rolling now at season's end as Nashville became the first team to win at Orlando City SC this season. Up next is a surprising playoff berth against fellow first-year entrant Inter Miami. A loss would sting, but the team has already overshot its expectations.
16. San Jose Earthquakes (21)
A year ago, Mathias Almeyda took over the reins at San Jose, had an up-and-down season, and barely missed out on a playoff appearance. This year, the club had peaks and valleys, but Almeyda got the team through to the playoffs. Chris Wondolowski continues to defy time, finishing the season with seven goals in 22 games while starting only 13 of them. The never-say-die attitude of this Quakes side could be tough to deal with come playoff time.
17. Montreal Impact (14)
Montreal can either be one of the top teams in the league or a side lacking ideas and killer instinct. They needed a victory over lowly DC United on the final day of the season to get into the postseason and they got it. Bojan Krkic and Romell Quioto have done well to pace the attack and create danger for the Impact. Still, the more likely result is that this team will hit an inevitable low patch and crash out of the postseason because of it.
18. Vancouver Whitecaps (17)
Vancouver finished just shy of a playoff spot behind San Jose. The Whitecaps played well at times but quite poor at others, perhaps suffering more than Toronto and Montreal with their US-based home schedule. Despite that, Vancouver stepped up against its Western Conference rivals but not often enough. They closed out the season with a convincing 3-0 "home" win over the LA Galaxy.
19. Inter Miami CF (18)
Yes, playoff spots ran 10 deep in a 14-team Eastern Conference, which means it was statistically less challenging to make the playoffs than to miss them. Maimi isn't complaining. They made strides with midseason acquisitions Blaise Matuidi and Gonzalo Higuain. While Higuain has scored just once, his quality had a positive impact on the side. He could easily come through with a clutch goal or two in the postseason.
20. Chicago Fire (23)
Things are heading in the right direction in Chicago, but it may take longer to get there than anticipated. Coach Raphael Wicky could not will the team into the postseason despite having it set up for the club on the season's final day. Chicago needed just a win to get there but couldn't do it, wasting striker Robert Beric's 12th goal of the season in a 4-3 loss to NYCFC. Chicago could use a full season with Wicky in charge to learn to play not only more cohesively but to figure out how to see games through to the end.
21. Houston Dynamo (16)
Things just never came together for Houston. There was some stellar play in moments under new coach Tab Ramos. Houston missed out partly because the teams in the mix for the last few playoff spots - Colorado, FC Dallas, LAFC - have that core. Once the Dynamo gets more stable and has the chance to build, it will be Houston keeping others from the postseason.
22. Real Salt Lake (20)
For years, RSL has been the little team that could. They made do without any high-priced name players, would underwhelm with its roster yet somehow remain a contender and reach the playoffs year in and year out .This season, the team fell apart despite having no high-priced players and a blue-collar mentality. Their main problem is paltry goal-scoring, finishing with just 25, the second-fewest total in the league.
23. Atlanta United (15)
Not two years removed from winning MLS Cup, Atlanta United suddenly can't finish in the top 10 in the East. The season got off to a poor start with a season-ending injury to star Josef Martinez. The hope is that Martinez will return healthy in 2021 as he is still quite a valuable commodity. Atlanta is also hopeful of bringing in a new coach before the year is out. Fortunately for Atlanta supporters, this club is not afraid to take risks and make a splash. This could be the lowest the club finds itself in these power rankings for a long time.
24. LA Galaxy (24)
This would have been the worst season in club history had it not been for 2017. Well, 2006 was terrible as well. Actually, all of 2006-2008 were awful, and 2018 was a headache. The bottom dropped out on the Galaxy for the second time in the last four years. If the Galaxy can dig out of this hole is the question. With so much uncertainty and negativity hanging around the club, the short- and long-term future in Carson looks bleak.
25. DC United (26)
DC offered false hope late, heading into the final week of the season within reach of a playoff spot, as unlikely as that seems. That was a product of the team's late run, but getting into the postseason would have likely meant little except for more heartache. The team now must focus on bringing in the right coach and trying to overhaul the roster.
26. FC Cincinnati (25)
The second season went about as poorly as the first. The team could not score goals, could not prevent them, and did little to upgrade its attack. Perhaps the tumultuous coaching situation at the beginning of the year was foreshadowing. Jaap Stam now has an offseason in front of him to figure out how next season will be different.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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