Well, it’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing, Thanksgiving plans are being made, and Toronto FC are poised to make a run at their first-ever MLS Cup. Let’s take a look at the playoff teams and make some predictions:
- Toronto FC: After setting the all-time record for most points during the regular season with 69, the Reds enter the playoffs as clear favorites. A well-oiled attack led by 2015 MVP Sebastian Giovinco and USMNT striker Jozy Altidore has been enhanced by the addition of ex-Club Brugge standout Victor Vazquez, who tallied 16 assists in his first season in MLS. Add that to the fact that they’ll play all of their elimination games at home – where they’ve lost just once all year – and it’s hard to argue against Toronto to win it all after falling just short 12 months ago.
Crazy Stat: Toronto became the first team since the 2005 LA Galaxy to average at least two points per game.
2. New York City FC: Reigning MVP David Villa continues to amaze, and, at age 35, he’s compiled his best season yet, scoring 22 goals and contributing 9 assists. Coach Patrick Vieira has this team looking even better than it did a year ago, but I worry about how much this team relies on David Villa – they looked listless in attack when he was injured back in September. Other players to watch include newly-minted England youth international Jack Harrison and Argentine playmaker Maxi Moralez.
Crazy Stat: Center back Alexander Callens was one of two players in the entire league to play every single minute of all 34 games in the regular season.
3. Chicago Fire: They didn’t quite make a worst-to-first turnaround, but I don’t think any fans will complain about finishing third in a stacked Eastern Conference. The Fire have been great at home, although they didn’t play well against their knockout round opponent, the Red Bulls, in either of their two matchups this season. Can Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic continue his torrid pace and carry the Fire to the Cup? And perhaps more importantly: can midfield cogs Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho even play?
Crazy Stat: The Fire won 16 games this year – 1 more than in the previous two seasons combined.
4. Atlanta United: After becoming only the third expansion team in league history to make the playoffs in its first season, Atlanta is poised to make a serious run. If talisman forward Josef Martinez can stay healthy, this team can go head-to-head with anybody. The defense, which was a serious concern for much of the season, has greatly improved since mid-September. Hopefully, captain and star center back Michael Parkhurst is ready to go against Columbus after hurting his knee in the final regular season game.
Crazy Stat: Atlanta set the MLS record for single-game attendance twice this season, first in September and then again last weekend.
5. Columbus Crew: It’s hard to think about the playoffs right now when your owner announces that your team will most likely move to Austin within the next eighteen months. #SaveTheCrew. Luckily, this Crew team is in the best form of any playoff club, posting a 6-0-4 record since losing away to San Jose in August. If they can beat Atlanta, I honestly think they have the best shot at upending Toronto, as they’re the only playoff team from either conference to defeat the Canadian club during the regular season.
Crazy Stat: In the past three seasons, forwards with the surname “Kamara” have combined to score 61 goals for the Crew – Kei (now with the New England Revolution) scored 27 while Ola has 34.
6. New York Red Bulls: After finishing atop the Eastern Conference the last two seasons, it might seem like this year’s Red Bulls were a bit of a disappointment, but their collective playoff experience more than makes up for it. Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer lead a fearsome attack, while Aaron Long has been a revelation at center back and Luis Robles continues to be a steady presence at goalkeeper. The Red Bulls are fully capable of an upset or two, and make no mistake: they are here to play.
Crazy Stat: The Red Bulls have made the playoffs every year since 2009, though they still have yet to win the MLS Cup.
- Portland Timbers: This team is all-around solid enough to win a championship, and home-field advantage will certainly help. Diego Valeri has been this year’s undisputed MVP, becoming just the second player in league history to score 20+ goals and provide 10+ assists in the same season. If he goes down, though, the Timbers are in serious trouble. The attack becomes anemic without him, and the defense isn’t good enough to win a two-game series on its own.
Crazy Stat: The Timbers have made the playoffs each of the past three odd years (2013, 2015, and 2017) while missing out in each corresponding even year (2012, 2014, and 2016).
2. Seattle Sounders: The Sounders are the most battle-tested Western Conference team, and they’ve lost just twice in the second half of the season. The biggest question for them is whether they can minimize the damage on the road in the first game of their home-and-home in the conference semifinals before captain Clint Dempsey returns from his one-game suspension. Watch for last year’s postseason MVP, midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, to have another sterling performance.
Crazy Stat: Last year, the Sounders became the first team in league history to win the MLS Cup while failing to record a shot on target during the final when they defeated Toronto FC 5-4 on penalty kicks.
3. Vancouver Whitecaps: The Whitecaps round out the Cascadia trio, and they’ll look to follow in the footsteps of rivals Portland and Seattle in winning their first MLS Cup. Diminutive attacker Yordy Reyna was the league’s best midseason acquisition, and forward Fredy Montero’s production skyrocketed as a result. They’ve fallen off a bit since becoming the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff spot, but they are not to be underestimated.
Crazy Stat: The Whitecaps had the most away wins of any Western Conference playoff team (6) but the fewest home wins (9).
4. Houston Dynamo: Terrible news out of Houston yesterday as right back A.J. DeLaGarza was diagnosed with a torn ACL. In his absence, backup Jalil Anibaba will have to step up if the Dynamo are to advance. On the other side of the ball, the offense needs to learn how to play on the road – 14 goals in 17 away games is inexcusable. That being said, they’ve proven that they can grind out road results, and they’re capable of beating any Western Conference foe in the cozy confines of BBVA Compass Stadium, making them dangerous in a home-and-home series.
Crazy Stat: The Dynamo finished the regular season with 50 points, gaining 40 at home and only 10 on the road.
5. Sporting Kansas City: Defense is the name of the game for Sporting, as they gave up the fewest goals in the league this season. Ike Opara and Matt Besler deserve full credit for anchoring the league’s stingiest back line. The attack, however, leaves much to be desired. Parting ways with Krisztian Nemeth and (the admittedly overrated) Dom Dwyer in quick succession was a disaster, and it’s showed. In fact, KC scored a mere 40 goals this season, only one better than the team right below them in the Western Conference standings. That’s not promising.
Crazy Stat: Sporting have been eliminated in the Knockout Round each of the past three seasons, with all three of those losses coming on the road.
6. San Jose Earthquakes: I’m still in shock that a team with a -21 goal differential and a losing record managed to qualify for the postseason. Although they do have a respectable 4-3-1 record in their last eight games, I have a hard time envisioning San Jose making any real noise during the playoffs. However, if they can manage to get past Vancouver away, I suppose anything is possible…after all, Goonies never say die.
Crazy Stat: I can’t overstate how ridiculous the -21 GD is.
Chicago Fire 2-2 New York Red Bulls (New York wins on PKs)
Atlanta United 4-2 Columbus Crew
Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 San Jose Earthquakes
Houston Dynamo 2-1 Sporting Kansas City
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Toronto FC, Toronto FC 3-0 New York Red Bulls (Toronto FC 5-1 on aggregate)
Atlanta United 3-2 New York City FC, New York City FC 2-2 Atlanta United (Atlanta United 5-4 on aggregate)
Houston Dynamo 2-1 Portland Timbers, Portland Timbers 3-1 Houston Dynamo (Portland Timbers 4-3 on aggregate)
Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 Seattle Sounders, Seattle Sounders 1-1 Vancouver Whitecaps (Seattle wins on PKs)
Atlanta United 2-2 Toronto FC, Toronto FC 4-1 Atlanta United (Toronto FC 6-3 on aggregate)
Portland Timbers 1-1 Seattle Sounders, Seattle Sounders 2-0 Portland Timbers (Seattle Sounders 3-1 on aggregate)
Toronto FC 3-1 Seattle Sounders
And there you have it: a rematch of last year’s final, but the opposite result. In the end, Toronto is just too strong, and I think it would take an injury to Giovinco or Altidore to give another team a legitimate shot at the championship. We’ll see how it all plays out over the next month.