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Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo.
It usually takes about five months and two-dozen or so matches for Major League Soccer’s table to finally break into definable tiers — ahead of the stretch run, here we are.
Seattle is on fire, unbeaten in eight and currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Western Conference.
But given the congestion in the standings and the preeminence of the East – the Sounders are currently closer to the playoff cutoff line than they are to Supporters’ Shield-leading Toronto – what does that actually mean for its MLS Cup title defense? Which teams should be considered legitimate contenders to the throne, and which can be dismissed?
Starting at the bottom, let’s break this down bit by digestible bit.
Stick a fork in them
Fare thee well, Pablo Mastroeni and that glorious facial hair of yours.
In critical condition
Only the reputation of Sigi Schmid and the club itself keeps the Galaxy from filing into the previous category. On paper, this team is in deep trouble.
Eastern Conference also-rans
New England Revolution
Last year, one of this trailing quartet would have gotten into the postseason just to make up the numbers. (Hi, 2016 Union.) With expansion Atlanta currently occupying the sixth-and-final qualifying place with a five-point cushion and backload of home games, its United’s spot to lose. In regards to the rest, I highly recommend Paul Tenorio’s breakdown of Orlando’s uncertain future over at FourFourTwo.
Not going down without a fight
Real Salt Lake
Outside of Seattle, there’s no hotter team in MLS than an RSL squad once left for dead. Rejuvenated under coach Mike Petke, Salt Lake is unbeaten in six, having won 6-2 in Los Angeles, 4-1 in Portland and 1-0 in D.C. over that stretch. A playoff berth looks unlikely with Vancouver still two points ahead with three games in hand, but if nothing else, the future suddenly looks very bright for a team with a fun young core.
On unsteady footing
San Jose Earthquakes
The Whitecaps looked well placed until Matias Laba tore his ACL during Saturday’s loss at New England, and the loss of such an important cog for the rest of season cakes everything with a film of uncertainty.
The ‘Quakes have seemingly been running on this same hamster wheel for years now – they’re a resilient bunch heavy on grit and light on talent. The Timbers are the opposite, with all kinds of technical skill but the backbone of an invertebrate.
“The way a few guys hung their heads (was) extremely disappointing,” Portland coach Caleb Porter said after this weekend’s 4-1 loss in Toronto. “… That won’t happen again.”
And yet this is not an unfamiliar script. Until Portland can shore up this nagging weakness, trust them at your own peril.
Feisty but flawed
New York Red Bulls
Columbus has played well lately and is coming off an impressive home victory over third-place Chicago. After seasons of regular-season success followed by playoff disappointment, New York looks to be peaking at the right time for once.
This might feel harsh on the Dynamo, which currently tops the West and has a goal-differential that hints at sustainability. This team feels a year away from genuine title contention, however. Gain some valuable postseason experience now and make a deep run for silverware in 2018.
Western Conference front runners
Sporting Kansas City
This trio is a cut above everybody else in the conference when it comes to evaluating playoff odds.
I still think the Sounders could’ve used a Designated Player signing in the summer transfer window to edge them to the front of this queue, but they’re going to be in the thick of the hunt for first-round byes regardless. Sporting feels due some positive playoff karma after consecutive heartbreaking losses to the eventual champions.
And even if FC Dallas hasn’t been especially convincing in recent weeks, it still has a top gear few others can match and a point to prove after Mauro Diaz’s injury robbed them of a title shot last year.
Take any of these Eastern Conference contenders in a playoff series against anybody in the West
New York City FC
Atlanta might seem like a stretch in this category, but its points-per-game average is better than anybody in the Western Conference save Dallas, with which it is tied (1.59ppg). All of these teams have a better goal-differential than anybody on the other side of the bracket, and all of them would fancy their chances in either a home-and-home series or a one-off final it would likely host. For the first time since 2008, MLS Cup finally looks set to cross back East over the Mississippi.
The clear-cut favorite
This is as good and as dominant an MLS team as any since the Sounders and Galaxy took the 2014 Supporters’ Shield hunt into the final weekend then met again in the Western Conference finals.
TFC is balanced, deep and talented, and inspired by the burning memory of their near-miss in last year’s Cup final. Toronto has scored more goals than any team in the league and surrendered fewer than anybody sans Kansas City.
Anything can happen in the playoffs, of course, small sample size and frivolous bounces and all that. More than just about any contender in the past few years, though, Toronto is giving itself as good a shot a possible.
You can also read Matt Pentz’s work in Resurgence: How Sounders FC Roared Back to Win MLS Cup, Prost Publishing’s collaborative effort to commemorate Seattle’s first postseason crown. Pentz is joined by distinguished journalists Ari Liljenwall, Andrew Harvey, Richard Fleming, and Art Thiel along with Zach Scott himself. Special $19.74 pre-sale price available now here.