Friday, September 14, 2012

Top 5 MLS Cup Dark Horses

"The other Higuain." So hot right now.
About this time last year, I did one of these with the intention of handicapping some names to recognize when October rolled around. As it turns out, none were particularly savvy, but it illustrated the fickleness of the thing itself. Dark horses by their nature are shrouded in a cloudy, brutally obfuscating mist, kept hidden by inconsistent performances, a penchant for intermittent failure and a maddening capacity to wow one day and drop off the cliff the next. But that's the very type of team built to win in MLS' playoff structure. As Colorado learned in 2010, your regular season form is only as valuable as your ability to get into the playoffs. After that? Release the proverbial hounds. Parity-driven leagues are free-for-alls in playoff formats.

It's a little hard to abide by my biggest rule from last year, that being the omission of any and all automatic qualifiers. With that number being bumped from three to five in the offseason, that more or less relegates me to going with, like, Montreal. Which isn't a bad thing in itself, but it's limiting. And remember, this as much a measure of unlikelihood as it is anything else. So I'll merely go with my gut this time. Since I just ate pit-smoked barbecue, this is going to be good.

#5. Vancouver Whitecaps

This one's a stretch, I'll acknowledge. Vancouver is in full-on free fall mode, losing four in a row spurred on by a dreadful 2-0 loss to FCD in mid-August in which Vancouver turned into a bunch of Vinnie Joneses bent on ripping ligaments and crushing dreams. In all, Vancouver is 3-7-2 since July started, and the 'Caps' offense has been on the blink. This flies in the face of the notion that the teams that get hot at the right time are typically the ones that grab this dark horse mantle by the scruff. That said, Saturday's game against FCD will determine a lot about Vancouver's season. This team still has the horses to make bigger, badder teams sweat in the playoffs, and a 2-0 stretch against RSL at mid-summer illustrates that as well as anything. But they'll have to get the flagging attack in gear before the season careens off the rails, and quick. Of the current playoff qualifiers, Vancouver has easily the lowest goals per game output at 1.32. As is, the sixth and seventh-place Eastern teams boast offenses more robust than that. But letting Camilo and Darren Mattocks out of the box in the playoffs could lead to some surprising results. Operative world: could. Can a brother get an 'unlikely?'

Crown: smooth. MCL sprains: not smooth.

#4. DC United

DC just got so, so much more dark horsey. How unlikely is an MLS Cup run now that DeRo is shelved for the rest of the season? Is that even quantifiable? Eternal questions, these. The fact remains that DC is limping along in the outside lane, looking for an opportunity to hop forward on its one good leg and splay its limbs across the finish line first. Is it possible? Yes, but just. Chris Pontius just became critical, as did DC's overworked fleet of holding midfielders. *ahem*hello Perry Kitchen*ahem*. The "bonus" I suppose is that Ben Olsen will be able to pull Hamdi Salihi off the bench for DeRo, who most recently played up top in a 1-0 loss to RSL. That said, losing him is not a positive. DeRo was second in the league in assists at the time of his injury with 12 — the second-best single-season tally of his career — and had finally flipped the switch on a season that started dreadfully slow. Still, for teams to write off DC, which is just a point off the fifth-place pace set by Columbus, would be foolhardy. I see track meets in this team's future. Hopefully a foot doesn't fall off.

#3. FC Dallas

Some number of things still have to fall into place for the Hoops to even have a shot at getting to the postseason. For one, they'll have to upend Vancouver on Saturday night. That'll close the gap for the fifth spot in the West to a single point with the 'Caps holding a game in hand. But now, at this point in the season, that task has more or less become do-or-die. They're not mathematically eliminated if they can't take all three against Vancouver, but you can more or less write FCD off. Vancouver has an extremely friendly home schedule the rest of the way while FCD has to hit the bricks several times still. The thing that makes this team dangerous? Health. Ferreira, Shea, John and Perez are all finally healthy at the same time, and Fabian Castillo looks set to make his return against Vancouver. Also? If FCD does take down Vancouver, that's a huge confidence boost for the final push, which will suddenly turn into a dead heat race. At this point, FCD is the very definition of a dark horse. If they make the playoffs, they'll do so riding one hell of a wave.

#2. LA Galaxy

LA may end up having to travel for key games in the playoffs by virtue of its spotty regular season form, but the Galaxy are as consistent home and away as any team in the country. They're one of just four teams in the league to have an away goal differential in the black. It's impossible to ignore the return of Landon Donovan from a hamstring strain, especially after he set up Pat Noonan for a goal and then scored one of his own minutes later in a reserve match earlier this week. Having what is presumably a healthy and rested Donovan ready for the stretch run is an invaluable resource, especially as LA have muddled their way through a mostly forgettable, choppy season. The bonus here is that the constant deck shuffle Bruce Arena's done with the XI hasn't made much of a negative impact on the results column. With Marcelo Sarvas pressed into wing duty last week, LA still legged out a comfortable 2-0 victory over Vancouver. Here's the most encouraging bit: LA hasn't lost since a 4-0 shellacking administered by Seattle on Aug. 5. LA is 5-0-1 since.

#1. Columbus Crew

It's hard to adequately put into perspective how much of a revival the Crew have undergone since we were set upon by the heat of summer. The Crew started the year a pedestrian 2-4-2 and it was unclear from where the goals would come and, frankly, who would provide them. Since adding Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain, few MLS sides have been hotter. Columbus is 7-4-3 since the start of June and was on a six-game unbeaten heater before being knocked off by New England in a surprising 2-0 result last week. It's easy enough to look at the introductions of Higuain (three goals and six assists in just 463 minutes) and Arrieta (five goals and two assists in 11 games) as catalysts, and there's no question those two spark plugs hastened Columbus' ascent. But the under-the-radar acquisition of midfielder Chris Birchall in May has been a boon. Columbus struggled through injuries in the middle of the park early, and the former Galaxy man has provided stability and a composed presence in the meat of midfield. If there's any unconventional team in the league nobody wants to see right now, it's Columbus.

- Will Parchman


BTM said...

LA is not a dark horse by any stretch.

Apollo Computers said...

LA is not a dark horse for sure.. but what if it is proved this time of it being a dark horse against mls vancouver?