Friday, August 3, 2018

Pick 'em - Take two

In retrospect, I should have waited for the transfer deadline to make my MLS season predictions. Too many late-arriving transfers and injury crises mucking up the premature works.

Yeah, sure, I called a handful of teams spot on; they currently stand right where I picked them at the beginning of March. About as many clubs are either soaring higher than I thought possible or badly failing to live up to my best expectations.

These three outcomes to my preseason prognostication are all easily visible in the East, where three (or perhaps four) teams are running away, leaving everyone else to scramble for two playoff spots. I'm expecting a crazy roller coaster finish for both the conference crown and the 5/6 slots.

Let's start with the current top six in points-per-game (a ka the playoff zone), and I'll finish up the East by running down the chasers tomorrow. We'll cover the wild West in the same two-part fashion on Monday and Tuesday.

Club names are followed by number of games played, and then current PPG.

Atlanta United (23, 2.04)

The Five Stripes look every bit the part of Supporters Shield winners, no great surprise to anyone. They're as good on the road as they are at home, and they've stayed consistent through key injuries/absences better than I expected. Atlanta still needs to find a way to bust bunkers before Europe comes calling for their stars. And geez, can we please keep the clubhouse drama-free?

Outlook: They have hurdles to clear before I'll call them the outright MLS Cup favorites, but they are the most overtly scary group among all the top title hunters.

New York City FC (22, 1.95)

Everyone and their mother saw NYCFC's hearty challenge for the Eastern crown coming down the Lincoln Tunnel, but who would have thought they'd stay top-shelf when David Villa sits out (6-2-1 so far). Maxi Moralez has been near MVP-caliber all season, few teams are as deep as the Pigeons and even fewer can match their technical team play. The only question is: Can they do it in the postseason?

Outlook: To that question, I say yes. With their smaller field surface hampering the two main Eastern rivals a bit, they can definitely go all the way.

New York Red Bulls (21, 1.95)

I clearly underestimated the production to be offered by some new acquistions and academy products in my preseason prediction (which had the Red Bulls finishing seventh... oof). They were terrific up until Jesse Marsch's departure, but look a little more shaky in recent weeks.

Outlook: Honestly, I feel new boss Chris Armas is messing around with things too much, too fast. If he keeps them on the program that got them here, they have as good a chance to survive the Eastern battle royale as anybody. We shall see if they're still recognizable come playoff time.

Columbus (23, 1.57)

Gosh, I pretty much clocked the Crew in preseason. They currently sit fourth, Zardes is a legit Comeback Player of the Year candidate, Afful is largely back to his best and Valenzuela has been money. And, hey, now they have two capable strikers. But until somebody, anybody provides a goal threat from the flank, Columbus will come up short trying to escape the East in the end.

Outlook: If they can find Meram's scoring boots, title contender status it is. If not, they will eventually need to rely on shutting down either Atlanta or NYCFC at home. Good luck with that.

New England (21, 1.33)

The Revs played/collected points a fair amount better than I expected in the early part of the season. Now, they're back to sliding down chutes. Plural. There still isn't a top-tier difference maker in attack to lean on in rough times and the defense still tends toward some rough times. They also play eight of their last 13 on the road, which is far from favorable for this team.

Outlook: The midfield and surprise standout Penilla will win them some games down the stretch, just probably not enough. They won't finish bottom of the East like I predicted during the preseason, but they are headed in that general direction. Ending up in, let's say, seventh... doh!

Philadelphia: (21, 1.29)

With Bedoya and Medunjanin directing traffic in midfield, the Union should be able to be in any game. Poor finishing and mistakes at the back sometimes keep that from happening, but Philly look to me like the tortoise in this race. A tortoise who can actually play better.

Outlook: As things stand, I'm pegging them to snare the last playoff spot in the East (even if the real Accam can't finally show up). If someone else in this race makes a move of great impact before the deadline, that could easily change.


Back tomorrow with the rest of the East...

- Greg Seltzer

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