Monday, September 5, 2011

Top 5 MLS Cup Dark Horses

Did this irrevocably alter RSL's season? We'll see soon enough.
With MLS taking a break this weekend (good on 'ya, RSL) and the playoffs breathing down our necks, this is an appropriate time to take a look at some teams with a chance to break into the picture with an impressive, albeit unexpected playoff run a la Colorado last postseason. As a prereq, I'm not picking any current automatic qualifiers. That would be the top three of each division, all of which have shown plenty in terms of postseason moxie. 

We know about the Galaxy. Seattle and FCD have won in Mexico this year and appear locked and loaded to carry home a first MLS Cup. But what about the rest? The rope-a-dopers. Fear not, for NSC is here.

5. Portland

One thing I've learned this year: Portland can absolutely beat anybody and lose to anybody.

There are few more dangerous qualities about a team than one that has nothing to lose. The Timbers have often played the part this year. Exhibit No. 1 for Timbers fans has to be the 3-0 thrashing Portland dealt the Galaxy earlier this year. For a recent call-up squad that has more than a little to prove, there was no better legitimacy-gainer than dropping the most talented side in the league. The question is whether Portland can beat the teams it should beat to qualify.

The Timbers are, right now, even with New York on points and the last team out of the playoffs on goal differential. The bonus? Two of Portland's next three matches are at home, where the Timbers are nearly unassailable in first-year MLS team terms. Portland is 8-4-2 at home this year, which is an absurd record for an "expansion" side. The trouble is that the Timbers are abysmal away, winning a single match from 12 possible results. With a glut of attacking prowess that is admittedly hit-or-miss in many games (Kalif Alhassan has more potential than he knows what to do with), the Timbers are a scary team if they get hot in the last two months. If they even get one home playoff match, they'll win it. That's how impressive Jeld-Wen has been this year. But one brief bit of advice. Stop wearing the hell out of the Onward Rose City chant. It would make watching PTFC matches so, so much more enjoyable.

4. Real Salt Lake

RSL may not seem like an enormous dark horse. Their fourth-place position in the West is slightly misleading since, on points alone, they'd be clear atop the East by two points. Then again, so would the West's top five teams. But teams have proven its possible to conquer Rio Tinto this year. Seattle snapped RSL's 29-game home unbeaten streak in the league with a 2-1 win in May, and Columbus made Sandy, Utah home in July with a 2-0 win. Both results were unthinkable last year.

Don't forget the continued absence of star playmaker Javier Morales either. That ripped off the attacking rudder, or so it seemed. The reason why I like RSL for an inhuman postseason rise? Goal differential. Nick Rimando is a slippery smooth glovesman who nearly never falters, and as a result RSL have conceded just 21 goals, the second-lowest total in the league. And they've outscored opponents by 14 goals to boot. You hear so much about defense coming to bear in the playoffs, and I put the Nat Borchers/Jamison Olave pairing in the middle up with any group in the league, including FCD's George John and Ugo Ihemelu. In the playoffs, a resolute back line counts for more than anything.

3. Chicago

And here we have our first team currently out of the playoffs if the season ended today. This is probably one you could get me on, since Chicago has been pretty bad for a pretty long time. But I'm an eternal optimist, and things have looked up of late. The Fire qualified for the US Open Cup final in October with a 2-1 win over Richmond last week, and we all know what they say about momentum builders at the right time.

The Fire were 3-1-3 in the month of August, and they won three games in a row for the first time in two years to close out the month in grand fashion. Dominic Oduro is the most obvious acquisition with a mind for team improvement. Indeed, Oduro has nine goals this year, tied for fifth in the league and by far the best single season total of his MLS career. But the unsung signing is undoubtedly TFC castaway Dan Gargan, whom Chicago acquired on July 28 to fill in at right back. He's appeared in five straight matches and has shored up a sticking point for the club. It will take some doing for Chicago to qualify for the playoffs, but following on their recent performance arc, they'll be there just in time to make some noise.

2. Philadelphia

Nobody in a right state figured the Union would be able to keep hold of the East's top spot for long, but the fact that they were there at all is an impressive feat. Currently sitting on 34 points after a 2-1 loss to RSL, Philly has some work to do to qualify for the playoffs, but they're in good jockeying position. The Red Bulls are two points back for the last playoff spot, and Philly has a fairly favorable schedule left with the Revs, TFC and Portland at home still on the docket. Crucially though, Faryd Mongragon, your NSC pick for the top league pick-up of the year through July, is injured, which could throw this whole thing into uncertain orbit.

Still, I like Philly's makeup. They are a team oriented around defense that has added an important offensive piece in Freddy Adu, who may or may not turn the playoffs on its head depending on how he's deployed and how he reacts. I still think Philly's lack of a target forward could be their undoing in a low-scoring match that will rely on one big kick to decide it. Carlos Ruiz's departure is still rippling through the front office. But lets be honest. Peter Nowak has to be considered a miracle worker for his project this year. Counting the Union out on any kind of meaningful postseason run is beyond silly.

1. New York

The Red Bulls are a perfect example of the failings of the DP model in its current format. New York is so top heavy with talent that the slightest breeze topples the Red Bulls' threadbare roster. Unfortunately, New York has had the perfect storm this year. Luke Rodgers has struggled to stay healthy. Rafa Marquez has been wildly inconsistent. Thierry Henry is, well, he's Henry, but he's starved for reliable service. DeRo is gone, busting in goals from all angles in DC. Agudelo's season hasn't quite lived up to promise. And then there is the bench, or lack thereof. New York is painfully thin where it counts, which is why Hans Backe's crew is having what could very well turn out to be the most disappointing season in MLS history. When you load up on pricy DPs at the expense of development in this system without a suitable backup plan, this happens.

Incredibly, New York is only hanging on to the last wild card spot not by points but by goal differential. With the Timbers and Red Bulls both on 32 points, there's no telling how it shakes out with precious few games left. BUT, and this is a mammoth but, there is hope. There is no question that the Red Bulls are a sleeping giant, but the fact that they've been sleepwalking through large swaths of the season is troubling. Assuming they can even make it to the postseason, Henry is still the best player in the league. Agudelo still has the ability to produce gasps. And Joel Lindpere is still a stalwart in midfield. So yes, there is hope. But a lot of things have to fall in place. No safe bet.

- Will Parchman


SpinTheGlobe said...

Methinks you mean Chicago qualified for the US Open Cup Final last week. Otherwise you were privy to some smoky backroom dealing that you haven't yet shared with the rest of us...

Will Parchman said...

Ah yes of course, serves me right for writing in the dead of night. Although, Don Garber and I are cooking up some strange things.

Jay said...

I will take no post-season advice from someone hawking shoes in a blog comment. Besides: dumb luck doesn't strike twice.