I mean, it's pretty obvious isn't it? It was to these 4 authors as well (who were each assigned a team at random). Every team still in it at this point still has a shot, and we'll break down why each of the four conference finalists will be the ones to go all the way.
All season long, the Colorado Rapids have maintained a level of consistency in gaining points the team has not seen since, well…ever. Even in their 2010 winning season, the Rapids suffered a mid-season stumble that saw them scrape away with five points in seven matches between most of June and July (This team wasn’t even outfitted with international superstars, so the World Cup could not have been used as an excuse). This year, Mastroeni’s men have only allowed two consecutive games to end in a loss, and this happened once. In fact, aside from that “streak” and one other loss, each match with no points was answered immediately with a win. They aren’t comeback kings, because the team has been up front the entire time.
The loss of Gashi and Howard will surely make an impact on the remaining fixtures, surely. However, the Rapids have proven repeatedly that the team is well-oiled even if certain parts are replaced. Gashi was left on the bench eight times during the regular season, and Colorado only lost once without his help; they failed to score only twice in those matches. The biggest concern will be where the goals come from on the road; Gashi’s nine goals were padded by eight away from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Dominique Badji, however, has netted four of his six away from home, holds a similar G/90min, and is superior when given scoring chances. At home, Kevin Doyle’s expertise will need to shine. The help from Marlon Hairston and Marco Pappa will also be crucial, especially Pappa in Seattle, where he has the most experience with the Sounders. However, what has gotten Colorado this far hasn’t been because of their goal scoring prowess. Their defense has remained steadfast, allowing the fewest goals in the league, under 1 per game!
In net, Howard’s absence may not be as worrisome as some may lead to believe. Sure, his contributions have been staggering: seven clean sheets (four off the pace of leader Luis Robles in half as many matches), third best save percentage with ten or more starts in in the league at 74%, and three saved penalties (most in the league); but Zac MacMath’s numbers run similar on almost every category. Additionally, the back line of Sjoberg, Burch, Miller, and Watts was able to hold the LA Galaxy to only a single goal in two matches – the same LA Galaxy that scored 17 goals in their previous nine matches. In comparison, the Sounders scored 14 in their nine prior to their whooping of FC Dallas. The test of containing Jordan Morris as well as marking Chad Marshall on set pieces will be key to winning the Western Conference Final. Following that, either the threats of Altidore/Giovinco or Piatti/Mancosu/Drogba (maybe) will be just as challenging.
The Rapids all year have proven that they have the capability and the depth needed to win matches when key elements are missing. Even the repeated off-and-on streaks Jermaine Jones exhibits hasn’t deterred the team’s performance, counter to what his absence meant in New England. Of all the remaining clubs in MLS contending for the Cup, the Rapids have the best chance thanks to their consistent efforts on their half of the field. The old saying, “defense wins championships,” may prove true once again in Colorado.
- Steven Clark
When Chivas USA left the league all those years ago, it was obviously an act of kindness - mercy even. It was unquestionably the right call to make at the time, and even though I knew that in my heart of hearts, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sorrow over the loss of something I held dear. Was it the almost guaranteed 6 points for my preferred side? Sure, that was certainly appreciated, but what MLS fans truly lost when Chivas was pruned from the league was our reliable punchline. Need to make a joke at some team’s expense? Chivas USA has you covered. Nobody is going to be offended.
I only bring this up because I know that when Toronto FC lift MLS Cup in December, I’m going to experience a similar sensation of loss. Until the past few seasons Toronto FC’s ability to disappoint its fans was matched only by their ambition, and if there is anything more fun to laugh at than a disaster of an organization performing badly, it’s the team trying to buy their way to the top of the mountain and still getting bogged down part way through the ascent.
Toronto FC has always managed to find a way to fail in spite of themselves. It’s hard to think of another team that so frequently managed to snatch defeat straight out of the jaws of victory. Even their own supporters, passionate as they may be, could often be heard muttering “That’s so TFC” under their breath as the team repeatedly faltered in the home stretch of the season failing to earn a single postseason berth until last year.
Yep. That’s all in the past now. Toronto FC will win MLS Cup in 2016 because there simply isn’t a team left in the competition that can match them for talent or hunger. Giovinco is playing some of the best soccer of his life (and that’s saying something). Jozy Altidore is regularly finding the net and Michael Bradley looks much more like Captain America when suiting up for TFC than when turning out for the national side. If you add in solid production from guys like Jonathan Osorio, Justin Morrow, Armando Cooper, Steven Beitashour, and Drew Moor, you’ll start to see why Greg Vanney’s team have to be considered the runaway favorites.
You’d forgive a Toronto FC supporter for being nervous heading into a play-in round with Philadelphia. Giovinco nearly brushed them aside single-handedly. You’d even understand why an upstart like NYCFC with a guy like David Villa might cause some concern amongst the BMO faithful, but Toronto cruised to a 2-0 victory in the first leg. Even before the second leg you could still see fans on Twitter guarding themselves from celebrating prematurely. “We could still blow this”. “We are Toronto FC after all.” Obviously, they needn’t have worried, Toronto FC went to New York and laid a comprehensive beat down on the hosts. It’s rare that you can say a 5-0 scoreline flattered the losers, but that was certainly the case here. Do you know what I didn’t hear any serious fan asking: Are Toronto this good? Or was NYCFC that bad? Toronto FC looked at times like they were playing a different and far more entertaining sport. They’ve outscored their opponents 8-1 over the last three matches and as much as they’ve got their attacking engine humming, you can’t help but think they still have another gear left.
Montreal is the next test for our cup favorites. Expect a hell of a series. Toronto got the better of a short-handed Montreal in a home and away series in the Canadian Championship earlier this year, but Montreal managed to snag points off their big spending neighbors twice out of three times they matched up in MLS play. Rivalry games don’t always go like they’re supposed to on paper, and so guarding against complacency and keeping 11 players on the field is going to be crucial. Assuming they make it through Montreal, Toronto FC fans should be praying for the health and form of Jordan Morris as Seattle present a far more attractive matchup in the final. In addition to having hosting rights over the Sounders, Colorado might be the only team left that’s organized well enough defensively to frustrate Giovinco and company. While I don’t favor any team to beat Toronto this year, Colorado (who would host a potential final) probably have the best chance.
It shouldn’t matter though. The city of Toronto and the devoted fans of their soccer club’s wait is about to be over. The years of “That’s so TFC” are over. Or, maybe not. Maybe they’ll just mean something different now. Toronto FC’s ambition and the support of their loyal and patient fans haven’t been in doubt for a long time, but now we’re starting to see the on field displays to match them. Let’s go ahead and get MLS Cup a passport. What can I say? It’s their year.
Seattle Sounders FC
The city of Seattle certainly knows the heights and depths of emotions that sports bring. The Mariners have been awful, forever. The Sonics skipped town in 2008. The Seahawks, while quite good in the last few years, were one of the laughing stocks of the NFL for a long time. But the Sounders... There's always been something different about the Sounders. Nearly a decade of dominance, that’s what Seattle has brought to MLS. US Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, playoffs every year of their existence, in addition to the record setting crowds and top players. But an elusive MLS Cup has always seemed just out of their grasp. And although the Sounders have won just about everything except a MLS Cup title, their wait is about to end.
2016 was looking as if it was going to be a season to forget. An awful start followed by the mutual parting of ways with long time coach Sigi Schmidt, capped off with the diagnosis of Clint Dempsey’s irregular heartbeat; it was starting to look as if the only bright spot would be the young Jordan Morris’ outstanding play.
Then along came an Uruguayan from Boca Juniors by the name of Nicolas Lodeiro, and everything started to change.
His presence made the ball roll smoother on the carpet, I mean field, as if the air was fresher and his breath breathed new life into a floundering club. Lodeiro was a catalyst, and with his addition as well as the return of defender Roman Torres and the steady hand of now permanent head coach Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders got a much needed shot in the arm, albeit extremely late in the season.
It’s really been a tale of two seasons for Seattle. The month of July is when it all turned around. On July 26th, Brian Schmetzer officially took over as interim head coach. A day later, Nico Lodeiro was announced. However, in the run from the beginning of July until the end of the regular season, the Sounders went 10 wins, 5 losses, and 5 draws, moving up from as low as 9th in the West to finishing 4th, largely on the back of Jordan Morris’ fantastic Rookie of the Year scoring pace and Nico Lodeiro’s contributions as well.
Seattle entered the playoffs as the hottest team in MLS, and it didn’t take long for them to prove they belonged to be there. After a nervous play-in match win against SKC, the Sounders dispatched the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners, and my god, Nelson Valdez has been scoring.
Although they are now up against a stingy defensive team like Colorado, it’s fair to say that the momentum and team depth that carried the Sounders to where they are, should make them the favourite in the conference finals. Should they get through to feature in their first ever MLS Cup final against Montreal, a jam packed Century Link will be the 12th man to carry the Sounders on to victory.
The Montreal Impact came into the MLS Cup Playoffs as a bit of a Wild Card. A true Jekyll and Hyde team late in the season, the Impact weren’t given much of a shot on the road against a hot DC United in the knockout round. A dominating performance in that game led them to a two leg series against the regular season Eastern Conference winners, the New York Red Bulls. A win in both legs of that series, leaves the Impact flying high into the conference final against their Canadian rivals. Can their confidence and stellar form continue? You betcha.
Montreal is the only remaining team that cannot host MLS Cup, but why should that stop them? After wins at RFK and Red Bull Arena, the Impact aren’t afraid of playing and performing well on the road. Hosting the first leg of the east final at the Olympic Stadium, in front of sixty thousand fans, is a massive boost. The return leg at BMO Field won’t be a picnic but a chance to deliver a blow to Toronto in front of a raucous crowd is something Montreal will relish. If they can take down Toronto, a trip to Seattle or Colorado for MLS Cup will be seen as icing on the cake. A chance to cap their fairy-tale run with the ultimate glass slipper, a shiny trophy.
So, how do they do it? How can the Impact take down Toronto and a possible West foe? The answer to that starts and ends with Ignacio Piatti. Sebastian Giovinco is arguably the best player in Major League Soccer but the Argentine playmaker across the field from him this weekend is not far behind in terms of skill. Piatti had a season that would be MVP worthy in a lot of seasons but his “snub” has only led him to even crank up his game in the playoffs. With a goal and an assist against DC and a brace to see off the Red Bulls, Piatti is the hottest player in the playoffs. NHL teams can ride a hot goaltender to a trophy and the Impact will look to do the same with their on-fire playmaker.
The biggest x-factor for Montreal, and for that matter, all of the playoffs, is Didier Drogba. After a fall out with Mauro Biello led many to think Drogba’s time in Canada was done, the Ivorian striker returned against the Red Bulls and is set to play a role for the remainder of the postseason. Matteo Mancosu has played well in Drogba’s stead so Biello has a decision to make on who leads the Impact line. Didier Drogba as a super sub, it seems almost unfair.
With a potent offense, it’s been the Impact defense that has quietly steered the club to this position in the playoffs. Last year’s Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman has been phenomenal and goalkeeper Evan Bush, who saved a penalty in New Jersey, continues to play well between the sticks. Are the Impact the favorites to win it all? No, but that’s perfectly fine with them. They’ve got Toronto, and the league, right where they want them.