Monday, October 10, 2011

Top 5 MLS Cup favorites

In early September I ran my top 5 picks for MLS Cup dark horses. Some look promising now (RSL), some not so much (Chicago). Now, with most of MLS taking a break this weekend, we level our gaze on the top five frontrunners. It's all about the big dogs today. With the wild card round almost two weeks away and the picture rapidly crystallizing, here are the top five teams most likely to take home hardware in November. Philly gets the coveted honor of making up enough ground in a month to qualify for both lists.

5. FC Dallas

Yes, I have not yet given up on the Hoops, though it seems as though most have. I can't blame you for abandoning ship. FCD has been in a vicious tailspin since the start of September. If we all agree that the height of FCD's season came Aug. 17 with a 1-0 win over Pumas in Mexico City, the building they erected on that day has been crumbling ever since. FCD is 3-8-1 in all competitions since that memorable first win in Mexico and they've lost their last four. If catching a hot spell at the right time is the ultimate key to flashing through the playoffs like a blur -- as Colorado learned last year -- this is not the way to do it.

But FCD has a strong ally on its side in October and November, and that's defense. In only four of those 12 matches since the Pumas win did FCD surrender more than one goal, and only two of those were in league play. George John has been somewhat absent since returning to the side from a failed sale to Blackburn, but his pairing with Ugo Ihemelu remains one of the better tandems up the base of the spine in the league. Jair Benitez's recent contract extension speaks to his staying power, and Zach Loyd is a tremendous talent at right back. In the playoffs last year, FCD only gave up three goals in four matches, and one of those was an unfortunate deflection in the final. Even as the spiky attack play suffers through gradients of fatigue and bouts of goal-less exacerbation -- it's been since Aug. 27 that FCD has even scored in MLS -- the defense is resolute. And that has to count for something.

I'm sure I'll have somebody disagree with me here in favor of RSL, and that's fine. The Royal Mormons are five points clear of Dallas in the West, and while neither team has been in great form lately, they'll probably secure the last automatic qualifier. But Dallas' ceiling is much higher given the notion that they finally pull in all these floating pieces into one cohesive unit. If that happens, there's no reason why FCD can't win it all.

4. Philadelphia

One name: Freddy Adu.

Adu is the most volatile talent in the league. He's been up and down, brilliant in spurts and absent in others, but few can deny his overreaching impact as the attack organizer for Peter Nowak's bunch. The game of the weekend was the Union's 2-0 win over an emotionally depleted Sounders side with a goal from Adu, who wouldn't surprise by being the most valuable player in the playoffs. Pop on some Vivaldi and peep this.

If Adu is the arm of the machine, Sebastian Le Toux has been the apparatus itself. With the exception of DeRo, Le Toux has been the league's most impressive scorer over the last month and a half. He's up to 10 now, and with Philly's normally secure back line, Philly is no push-over in November. As it is, it looks like they might win the East.

3. Sporting KC

Two Eastern teams? What, am I crazy?? In all seriousness, SKC snuck up on all of us. Peter Vermes' crew played the opening months of the season away from home while the final touches were put on the palatial Livestrong Park, and they contested 12 matches before they won one for the first time in June. Most of us had by then completely written off Kansas City as an also-ran with more ground to make up than they had talent to cover for. But a hot summer, convalescence at the back and one of the best homefield advantages in the country have switched everything around.

A quick glance at the Castrol Index is revealing. Defenders Chance Myers (9.21) and Aurelien Collin (9.12) are both in the top five. At No. 27, Matt Besler isn't far behind, putting three of SKC's four defenders in the top 30 of the most efficient players in the league. But it's not all D. Omar Bravo, CJ Sapong, set piece maestro Graham Zusi and Teal Bunbury are all threats up top and SKC has quietly melded its group into the 4-3-3 ethos with success. And Collin, who was thought to be a bust after a poor first month in MLS, is emerging as one of the best center backs in the league. Go figure.

2. Seattle

Buoyed by a third straight USOC trophy, the Sounders are sky high right now. If not for LA's otherworldly run, Seattle would be up for the Supporter's Shield. With CCL group play winding down and USOC duties done, Seattle is squarely focused on the playoffs, and that's a scary prospect.

Fredy Montero + big moments = fun viewing.

1. LA Galaxy

I'll say this right now: LA is potentially the best team in MLS history. Had Robbie Keane been in Los Angeles since March I cringe to think how much sooner LA would've secured the Supporter's Shield, which was still pretty dern quick.

There is not a team that can match LA's star power, depth or conviction. So the pressure's on. The excuses rained down last year after a deflating 3-0 loss to FCD in the playoffs, but there can be none this time. If LA doesn't win the Cup this year, heads should roll.

- Will Parchman

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