Major League Soccer is wrapping up regular season play, with most teams having five games remaining on their schedule.
As the only soccer league in the world that has a playoff series, 12 of the 20 teams in MLS will qualify to have a shot at lifting the MLS Cup in December. Let’s take a look at each of these contenders within their conference, since the top six teams from each conference will qualify.
New York Red Bulls- Currently one point off the leaders but with two games at hand, this team will finish at the top of the table in the East. With the highest average points per game and a conference-high goal differential of +15, they are the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference. Manager Jesse Marsch has won four MLS Cups as a player and has managed at the MLS and international level for Bob Bradley. Aside from acquiring and developing a talent-laden team, the Red Bulls might just be the only team to have a pair of British brothers on their squad (Bradley and Shaun Wright-Phillips),
New England Revolution- The Revs will finish a close second to the Red Bulls. Owned by the Kraft family and managed by Jay Heaps (former Revs player) and Tom Soehn (former DC United player and assistant manager), they have a balanced attack with Diego Fagundez and former U.S. international striker Charlie Davis. Their midfield is anchored by Lee Nyugen and Jermaine Jones, and the defense has only ceded 32 goals in 27 games (fewest in the East).
DC United- With a goal differential of only +1, how can this team be so high up in the standings? While their goal scoring is tied for last in the conference, United possesses a tenacious defense with a veteran back line anchored by Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin and a top flight goalkeeper in Bill Hamid. A solid defense tends to keep matches competitive, and Ben Olsen has made the most of his team’s assets during his tenure as manager. As a result, United have remained near the top of the table through mostly low scoring affairs.
Columbus Crew SC- One of the original charter teams in MLS, they had produced some under-performing seasons recently, but this year they seem to have played at and above their potential. As yet another team managed by an ex-MLS and U.S. international player (Gregg Berhalter), the Black and Gold last won the MLS cup in 2008. They have strength at each position, with Argentinian Federico Higuain in the midfield, Michael Parkhurst anchoring the defense and current MLS-leading goal scorer Kai Kamara up front. A recent game saw the Crew come back from a three-goal deficit in Philadelphia, demonstrating this team’s tenacity and never-quit mentality.
Toronto FC- Could it be that since their inaugural season in MLS in 2006, the fan faithful in Toronto will finally be rewarded with a post-season? It looks like it will happen, as Toronto has the pieces in place to qualify. Led by managers Greg Vanney and Robin Fraser (both former MLS players), they have acquired the talent needed to win, beginning with Michael Bradley in the midfield and Jozy Altidore up front. But the biggest difference-maker has been the acquisition of Sebastian Giovinco of Italy, who has 17 goals and 13 assists thus far this season. While they might not have everything needed to advance to the championship game, this team should remain strong for the next few years.
Montreal Impact- Can another Canadian team make it to the playoffs from the Eastern Conference in 2015? Yes, when two of the final four teams are recent MLS expansions (Orlando and New York City) with the Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire rounding out the bottom-dwellers. What do they have going for them, other than a bilingual web site? For starters, guichets fermes (full houses). Their fan base are rabid supporters of the team, and they play to raucous sellout crowds at Stade Saputo regularly. They are the only team that will qualify for the playoffs with an interim manager (Mauro Biello) and a goal scoring average of a low 1.27 goals per game. They have recently acquired former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, but at age 37, his impact on the team will more likely be felt as a mentor than a goal-scorer. Expect to say an early adieu to the Impact this year.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC- Arguably the best team in MLS this season, the Whitecaps might just be the ultimate blue-collar team today. There are no marquis players on the roster, and manager Carl Robinson has his team performing at their peak. The Welshman is a former international player who played in England and in MLS, and holds a UEFA Pro-License, the highest coaching license available. His team has managed an outstanding 1.71 points per game and has amassed a goal differential of +12. This squad has an excellent chance of bringing the MLS Cup to Canada for the first time in MLS history.
FC Dallas-An original MLS team that started out as the Dallas Burn, they have been to the MLS Cup game once, losing to the Colorado Rapids in 2010. Dallas has the talent to advance deep into the playoffs, starting with current manager and former MLS star Oscar Pareja, who resigned his managerial post in Colorado to take over at Dallas. Their veteran goalkeeper, Dan Kennedy, came to Dallas after Chivas USA disbanded and was considered the best asset of the Chivas squad. They have a solid defense anchored by Zach Loyd and Atiba Harris, both MLS fixtures. Their recent addition from Dutch side FC Groningen, Uruguayan David Texeira, had a lackluster season in 2014 but has rebounded in 2015 in both goals and assists. If this team has an Achilles’ heel, it would be their play on the road, where they have a goal differential of -5. Regardless, expect Dallas to extend their play well into the playoffs.
LA Galaxy- Bruce Arena has recently acquired some new players, notably Mexican international Giovani dos Santos and England international and former Liverpool star Steven Gerrard. Add these names to an already talent-laden team and expectations have risen to Cup level. This is a team with a strong history, having won the Cup five times, most recently in 2014. The Galaxy already had a strong stable of players with Gyasi Zardes, Juninho and Robbie Keane. While they have enjoyed success this season and are only one point behind in the competition for the Supporters’ Shield, there are two potential challenges for this squad as they move forward. The first is that while there is no question that they are laden with talent, it remains to be seen how they interact as a unit rather than individual players. The second problem they need to overcome is their play away from StubHub Center, since their goal differential at home is +27 while their away goal differential is -11. But if both of these questions are resolved, there are high expectations for Bruce Arena’s team in the playoffs.
Sporting Kansas City- At the onset of the 2015 season, many had thought that the 2015 campaign would have been more successful that it has been thus far for Kansas City. While still in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield, it is unlikely that they will have the most points in MLS this season. However, that’s not to say that this team has had a subpar year by any means. They will still have a better record than most teams, and can compete with any of the other teams in either conference on any given day. Led by managers Peter Vermes and Kerry Zavagnin (both former MLS players), they have quality players in all positions. Sporting KC is anchored on defense by Jalil Anibaba and Matt Besler, in the midfield by Benny Feilhaber and Roger Espinoza and up front by Dom Dwyer. They are a talented team, but have played unevenly at times this season, and should be considered a question mark heading into the playoffs.
Seattle Sounders FC- With the most populous fan base of any city in MLS (they are currently taking ticket reservations for life), Seattle is coming off of a disappointing season in 2014. Sigi Schmid’s position as manager was rumored to be in jeopardy if the team did not show a marked improvement in 2015. With only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, it is possible that nothing less than an appearance in the MLS Cup finals will salvage the Sounders’ season and manager Schmid’s job. No one would question the talent on their squad, from Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins up front to veteran Troy Perkins in goal. It’s not too late for this team to make a push deep into the playoffs, but it will require better team play than what has been demonstrated thus far in 2015.
Portland Timbers- Just behind the Seattle Sounders are Portland, their Cascadia rivals and a team that dates back to the days of the North American Soccer League. Their manager Caleb Porter is not a believer of paying for designated players, instead building a team based upon hard work, hustle and determination. This team is all that and more, but it should also be pointed out that they are the only Western Conference team to advance to the playoffs with a negative goal differential. Expect Portland to play their opponents closely in the score line, but to bow out early in the competition.