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MLS Cup Playoffs Preview: How the Regular Season Fits into the Postseason

(Photo by Double G Media)

(Photo by Double G Media)


As our attention shifts to the MLS Cup playoffs, beginning tonight, the regular season becomes a resource of sorts, aiding us in our understanding of how the playoffs will turn out and who will be crowned MLS Cup champion on December 10. Yet, the stories of the regular season are not just archived material to be used as reference during the playoffs; they are alive and well, and part of the story that connects the regular season to the postseason. Here is a look at those stories that still prevail, seven months after they began.

Drama on the red line

The red line, separating the haves and have-nots every year, saw many teams get close to it this year, none probably more discussed than the Seattle Sounders. Sitting bottom of the Western Conference as late as July, the Sounders revamped their team, firing the only coach they’ve known since joining MLS in 2009, Sigi Schmid, while also signing Nicolás Lodeiro from Boca Juniors. Losing only twice in their last 14 matches, the Sounders, under new coach Brian Schmetzer, slickly finished the regular season in fourth place.

A similar story developed in the East, where the New York Red Bulls, the reigning Supporters’ Shield champions, were bottom of their conference in May. A loss to longtime rivals DC United changed the tide, and lost only twice since then, making the jump from worst to first in the Eastern Conference.


(Photo by Catalina Fragoso - Double G Media)

(Photo by Catalina Fragoso – Double G Media)


Meanwhile in the East, a few teams did the opposite, as the Montréal Impact and the Philadelphia Union flirted with the top spot in the early months. By mid-summer, though, both the Impact and the Union had began a habit of dropping points, limping their way to the finish line with respective fifth and sixth place finishes.

The likes of the Red Bulls and the Sounders will have momentum on their side as they both battle for their first MLS Cups. Joining them as a team with building momentum is DC United, who teetered too close to the edge before winning four of their last five regular season matches. Meanwhile, the Impact and the Union will have the odds stacked against them, with their slumps defining them at the moment.

Changing shape altogether

While the ever-changing standings proved to be one of MLS’ most entertaining stories in 2016, two teams saved their dramatic transformations for the offseason. Last year, the Colorado Rapids and New York City FC missed out on the playoffs, impressing very few in the process. A year later, though, the two are legitimate contenders for MLS Cup.

New York City, for their part, decided an overhaul would be the best course of action after an abysmal first season of play, firing Jason Kreis and hiring Patrick Vieira. The change was met with skepticism; though Kreis obviously had not qualified for the playoffs, he was an experienced MLS coach with a record of being one of the top coaches in the country. Vieira, meanwhile, was a former player who made a name for himself playing for Arsenal in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and had no coaching experience. Adjusting to the incredibly different rules of MLS has historically been difficult for European coaches.


(Photo by Double G Media)

(Photo by Double G Media)


But with Vieira’s appointment came a New York City team that was not just entertaining to watch, but found the best utilization of Designated Players David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo, something Kreis had failed to do. They swapped their eighth place finish a year ago for a second place finish, booking their first ever trip to the playoffs.

As for the Rapids, they kept faith in the manager that led them to a last place finish in the Western Conference, though many were unsure Pablo Mastroeni could accomplish much. They started the season in surprisingly fantastic form, sitting atop the Western Conference in July. This was on the back of their strong defensive performances, led by second-year defender Axel Sjöberg. A goalkeeper switch midway through the season as new signing Tim Howard replaced Zac MacMath, could not mess with Colorado’s rhythm, and they remained in Supporters’ Shield contention until the very last day of the regular season.

The make or break players

Certain players have become the men to inspire their teams to victory, such as the aforementioned Nicolás Lodeiro, whose four goals and four assists in 13 games led Seattle to turn their season around. All eyes will be on him, and teammate Jordan Morris, whose 12 goals led him to the best rookie season for a forward in MLS history, when Seattle take the field this postseason.

Joining the group of players to watch will be the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, whose 17 goals and 15 assists have proven crucial in Toronto FC’s third place finish, booking them their first ever playoff match at home. The Italian has been directly involved in 63% of his team’s goals, and they struggled in his injury absence, winning one match in the five he missed.


Bradley Wright-Phillips (Photo by Catalina Fragoso - Double G Media)

Bradley Wright-Phillips (Photo by Catalina Fragoso – Double G Media)


Those in the Golden Boot race will also be looked at intensely, as David Villa’s 23 goals earned him the second-top scorer, just one behind the Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips. The Englishman will also be coupled with Sacha Kljestan, whose 20 assists are the highest since 2000, as the two have been involved in 73% of their team’s goals this season.

Missing from the playoffs, though, will be FC Dallas’ Mauro Díaz, who tore his Achilles tendon on the penultimate day of the season. His five goals and 13 assists were key in Dallas’ US Open Cup victory and in lifting the club’s first ever Supporters’ Shield as they go for the unprecedented treble.

The positives of the tie

Though draws on the road stirred much conversation toward the Red Bulls this season, perhaps it is actually a successful strategy in the playoffs. The negativity is founded; in the regular season, when the objective is, at the very least, to clinch a playoff spot, the points matter. In the case of the Red Bulls, in addition to the Rapids and the LA Galaxy, who drew a league high 13 and 16 times, respectively, the more points acquired can lead to securing safe passage into the conference semifinals while the others battle it out in the wild card rounds. In the end, despite their high number of draws, the Red Bulls and the Rapids finished high enough to skip the midweek wild card matches, while the Galaxy will meet Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.

However, sterling home form, which all three teams boast, coupled with a draw on the road, should be enough to book a ticket to the next round in a two-legged playoff round, which the conference semifinals and finals are. This strategy, though, could get complicated should these teams face away trips in a one-leg playoff round; the Galaxy, hosting RSL on Wednesday, would not immediately have this problem. Despite that, it is possible for any of these teams to play on the road in the MLS Cup final, where a draw may not be enough.

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Pardeep is the New York Red Bulls Beat Writer for while also covering other soccer teams and events.
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