The Colorado Rapids have clinched the 2nd seed for the playoffs in the Western Conference and a first round bye, which, wow. Can you imagine reading that six months ago? And this weekend, with a win and an FC Dallas loss, they would even move up to top seed and Supporters Shield. But that’s not what I’m interested in.
I’m interested in our first round opponent, which we will get after the teams survive the knockout round, and who we might prefer to meet up with. Here are the options:
LA Galaxy (have locked up the 3rd seed):
The Galaxy are a team you really, really don’t want to meet in the playoffs. When their attack is clicking and Robbie Keane is healthy, they can score virtually at will. Giovani Dos Santos, with 13 goals and 12 assists, is an absolute terror who can take over a game. Bruce Arena is the most experienced, most successful coach in MLS. But with Nigel De Jong gone and Gyasi Zardes and Steven Gerrard out with injury, this team’s midfield options are the talented Sebastian Lletget and whole lot of question marks. Jeff Larentowicz and Baggio Husidic are servicable if not flashy. Emmanuel Boateng offers speed and not a lot else. Landon Donovan is still getting his sea legs about him. So the Galaxy have their vulnerabilities, but are a team I’d rather avoid.
Real Salt Lake (currently the 4th seed):
RSL are winless in their last six matches, and were blanked in four of those games. That’s a streak running back to August 26, when they beat the Rapids at Rio Tinto. So they’ve gone a bit cold, and at precisely the wrong time. The front three of Joao Plata, Yura Movsisyan and Juan ‘Burrito’ Martinez can hurt you in so many ways. Their defense, led by youngsters Aaron Maund and Justin Glad, has been surprisingly good. Maund went down with a foot injury last month, but Jamison Olave or Chris Schuler have been fine in relief. But their midfield, like the Galaxy’s, is lacking, especially in speed. Kyle Beckerman is being asked to do a lot to support Pedro Morales, and Morales along with Luke Mulholland lack speed. Add to all of this the ‘grudge factor’ of meeting our Rocky Mountain Cup-rivals in a meaningful playoff game, and you have the makings of a really good playoff matchup in which, at least on paper, the Rapids look like they have the edge.
Seattle Sounders (currently the 5th seed):
Seattle have been hit hard by injuries, as Clint Dempsey (irregular heartbeat), Chad Marshall (ankle), Brad Evans (calf), Oalex Anderson (hamstring) and Andreas Ivanschitz (knee) have all gone down in the last weeks. None of that matters, because 1) Panamanian international Roman Torres has rejoined them after rehabbing a torn ACL, and he’s a beast. And 2) Nicolas Lodeiro joined the team from Boca Juniors in Argentina, and he’s a beast. In 12 games with the Sounders, Lodeiro has 4 goals and 8 assists. And 3) Jordan Morris, AKA Stanford Messi, has 12 goals in his rookie campaign at striker, although it’s still unclear if he has a left foot. And 4) they’re 7-4-2 (WTL) since July 31st. If the question is ‘do you want to meet the Sounders in the playoffs, put me down as a rock-solid ‘no’.
Sporting Kansas City (currently the 6th seed):
SKC are in 6th place right now with a 12-8-13 record and a goal differential of -1, one goal ahead of Portland at -2, which sets up for a very exciting final match for them at home against San Jose - were I not already going to the Rapids game, I’d want to watch that one. The Blue Hellians have been bumping along the league, roughly going win-loss-draw, win-loss-draw all season. This team, which features USMNT regulars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi along with USMNT snub Benny Feilhaber, was excellent in 2015, but in 2016, the same crew looks a bit more musty. Their defense is solid: 4th in Goals Against in MLS, but scoring has been inconsistent, anf their midfield of Soni Mustivar, Paulo Nagamura, and Feilhaber isn’t really getting the job done. The Rapids swept Sporting this year with three wins in three matches, and in all three, the Commerce City crew pipped SKC for a game-winning goal after the 75th minute, with the Rapids high press generating several catastrophic midfield turnovers. I don’t expect SKC to survive the knockout round, but if they do, I consider them virtual chum before the hungry sharks of Colorado.
Portland Timbers (currently the 7th seed, AKA playing golf in November)
‘Oh how the mighty have fallen!’ The current holders of the MLS Cup are on playoff life-support as of this writing. The Timbers need a win on the road in Vancouver Sunday by at least a goal, but probably two or three, to make the playoffs. Their problem is simple: they are among MLS’ best teams at home, with a 12-2-3 record at Providence Park. They are horrifically putrid on the road this year, with an 0-6-10 record. Normally, I think we make too much of the home-away impact in sports, but in this case, something’s really wrong with Portland when they travel. Maybe the team really hates airline seats. Maybe the team falls into despair when not inundated with constant drizzle, men in handlebar mustaches and fixed-gear bicycles, and independent Italian coffee bars that double as feminist bookstores. Maybe coach Caleb Porter’s approach on the road is bad. I dunno. What I do know is: this team has only scored 12 goals on the road this year, worst in MLS. That all said, Portland are still dangerous: Fanendo Adi has 16 goals this year, and Diego Valeri has 13. If Portland can survive tomorrow’s road game in Vancouver AND a certain first round knockout game on the road, it’d be shocking. And yet, I still would rather face SKC or RSL, because if the Timbers could do it all in 2015, who’s to say they couldn’t do it again this year?