A tight battle in the Eastern Conference
The race for the sixth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot will likely come down to three teams: Orlando City, the New England Revolution, and D.C. United. Columbus Crew SC may or may not have something to say about that in the near future, but at the current moment, it's the above three clubs who will be mainly contesting for a berth in the playoffs. Here are the current standings:
The Montreal Impact are comfortably in fifth, and it seems likely that they won't drop any farther below that. DCU and Orlando are tied on points, with 27, but in MLS, the tiebreaker is total wins, and D.C. have one more than OCSC in that category. New England, who have played one more game than the teams ahead of them, are a single point out of sixth. The Crew, who have at least one game in hand on the four teams directly ahead of them, are ninth with 20 points.
The Fire are tenth with 19 points (and 22 games played) but I seriously doubt we see Veljko Paunovic's side make any kind of run at anything except for the number-one draft pick.
It's a tight race. And because this is Major League Soccer, it's not something I recommend betting on. It's really, really hard to predict who is going to end up winning the race.
Trying to figure out whether United's new acquisitions will be enough to advance them to the next conference tier is hard to do, as is attempting to decipher what kind of impact Jason Kreis will have in Orlando, and whether his presence can move OCSC up the ranks. The Revs have the pieces, but are they tailoring their play style enough to suit them? The Crew also have enough talent, but is it enough to make up that much ground in the standings?
These are tough questions to answer, and that's why this is such a complicated playoff battle. We don't really know how each team will shake out, what new weaknesses will arise, or whether there's some new European signing coming soon that we don't know about yet.
I guess that makes it interesting.
D.C. should be the favorites after they revamped their attack during the summer transfer window. Patrick Mullins adds a constant goal-scoring threat to go along with veteran No. 9 bench players Alhaji Kamara and Alvaro Saborio, who were the usual starters before the Mullins trade. Kamara and Saborio, however, remain valuable assets for Ben Olsen, as their height and strength will help D.C. late in games when they need a goal and all they can do is have Taylor Kemp lump high balls into the box.
To go along with Mullins, Lloyd Sam was acquired from rivals New York Red Bulls (their opponent this weekend) to start on the right wing and be a threatening goal-scoring threat in the box. Speedy Ghanaian Patrick Nyarko balances out Sam with his ability to run on the counter and break away from slow right backs, and Lamar Neagle remains an option on the bench along with Kennedy Igboananike and, maybe in the future, Chris Rolfe.
With Kemp and Sean Franklin bombing up and down the flanks, D.C. end up with a fairly formidable attack, and we haven't even mentioned Luciano Acosta yet.
The issue? That would be 34-year old defensive midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, who generally sits at the base of their 4-1-4-1 formation as the lone d-mid. He's played well this season — very well in fact, well enough to warrant all-star consideration — but he's 34, and they have no viable backup should he get tired or get suspended or get injured. The only other player I could imagine playing as a No. 6 for them (in fact, he already has) is Rob Vincent, who I don't see filling in adequately for the Brazilian.
Even if he stays in the lineup, teams could have an easier time of finding space outside of DCU's backline. Sarvas can be beaten by speed, and if isolated, could be taken out of the equation entirely with intricate passing and enough attacking numbers centrally. Players like Jared Jeffrey and Nick DeLeon would have to stay slightly deeper to protect against that happening.
Still, D.C. remain the best bet to nab the final spot. They are the most balanced team still in the race, and they seem to have fixed a lot of what ailed them in the transfer window.
Orlando, fresh off the hiring of Jason Kreis, aren't expected to make the playoffs — they were in total disarray when they hired Kreis — but they have managed to stick around, and now they have nothing to lose as we enter the stretch run.
But how long they're able to hang in there may not be particularly long. They lack organization in midfield — they've become very old in that area after they traded Darwin Ceren — and they are beaten on the flanks more than any other team in the league. Brek Shea hasn't been great this year, and players like Rafael Ramos, Kevin Alston, and Luke Boden just don't cut it.
To go along with that, they have the hardest remaining schedule of any team in MLS, and they are projected to finish slightly behind D.C. United according MLSsoccer.com's expected points metric. From an analytics viewpoint, it doesn't look great for OCSC.
They shouldn't be disregarded completely, though. Kaka still exists, and so does Cyle Larin. If Kreis can get them into positions where they can play off each other and make each other better, Orlando will stay alive. That's tough to do, and they've struggled with it at times throughout this season and last season, so I wouldn't necessarily count on them riding their stars to a playoff berth.
The Revolution's current situation will yield Orlando fans will some semblance of hope, however. New England had a bit of a shocker last weekend against the Union, getting thrashed 4-0 at home against their conference rivals. It was a dispiriting and apathetic performance that plainly showcased their calamitous defensive woes, which could end up proving fatal by the end of the season. They've played too many of those demoralizing games of late, maybe enough to allow D.C. to overtake them in the standings.
The counter-argument to this negativity is that they still have (arguably) better talent and more depth than the other two teams they're mainly competing with. An elite goal-scorer in Kei Kamara, a high-level No. 10 in Lee Nguyen, and young, livewire attackers surrounding them. Scott Caldwell is an above-average defensive midfielder (which any playoff team needs), and Chris Tierney is one of the better overlapping left backs in the league. They really should be doing better.
But those defensive issues will linger, and the attack is not perfect either. As mentioned above, they have ground to gain (they've played one more game than DCU and Orlando) and they aren't showing many signs of significant improvement.
There are goods and there are bads for each team, and that's why this is so tough to predict. It's possible D.C. United could run away with it and make this entire article moot, and it's also a possibility that these three teams will kill each other and open the door for a Crew side ready to make a late run.
Anything could happen, and that's the beauty of it.
— NYCFC and the LA Galaxy play on Saturday afternoon in, among other things, the most star-studded game of the season. It's, unfortunately, at Yankee Stadium, making it much harder to watch due to the ridiculous field. The advantage should go to LA here, partly because of the location of the game and partly because they're the better team.
I'm interested to see, however, when the Galaxy will regress to the mean. They haven't been creating a ton of shots and while they are finishing them at a higher rate than any team in MLS, it's not likely that they'll be able to keep up this production.
— Colorado won't have Jermaine Jones again, but they should be able to grab the full three points at home against Orlando. Games like these are must-wins for the Rapids if they're going to make a serious attempt at the Supporters' Shield.
They have two games in hand on FC Dallas and they are only two points behind them in the Western Conference standings. FCD have a crowded remaining schedule — CCL and USOC — while Colorado are able to focus only on MLS for the rest of the season. It sets up well for the Rapids.
— D.C. United play the New York Red Bulls in one of the better MLS rivalries this weekend. The Red Bulls have adequately survived without Dax McCarty in the lineup, and partial credit for that goes to Sean Davis, who has been effective in his recent starts, scoring twice in his last two games. McCarty himself has given Davis praise:
"I think myself and Sacha [Kljestan] and Jesse [Marsch], I think we’ve stressed from day one that Sean Davis is a fantastic player and he’s just a guy that needs an opportunity," McCarty said on a radio broadcast via MLSsoccer.com.
— Seattle and Portland cap the weekend off with a crucial Sunday evening rivalry match. With a win, the Sounders can pull within two points of the Timbers, who hold the sixth playoff place in the West. Seattle will play Houston mid-week and then Portland next weekend, so these next three games will go a long way towards deciding their playoff hopes.