MLS Contenders and Pretenders

The 2018 MLS regular season is nearly one-third of the way toward completion. For some teams, the first eleven weeks have been very much status quo. Teams like Atlanta, NYCFC, and Sporting KC have lived up to expectations. For others, however, the 2018 campaign has been abysmal (looking at you Seattle). Some of the super smart soccer brains at Total MLS have put together a list of 2018 MLS Cup Contenders and Pretenders of all current playoff eligible teams in each conference after Week 11, with a couple of ‘others receiving votes’.

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United FC: Contenders

The Five Stripes have gotten off to a blazing start in 2018, leading MLS in goals and sitting atop the Supporters' Shield standings. The Eastern Conference is by far the tougher conference this year, but if ATLUTD keep playing well, they have a legitimate shot at both MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield. As long as they’re able to keep key pieces like Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, look for Atlanta United to be playing in early December.

Columbus Crew: Contenders

After losing first team staples in Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, the Crew haven’t missed a beat in 2018. Gyasi Zardes has found his form in Gregg Berhalter’s striker-friendly system. In fact, he's tied with Josef Martinez for the lead in the Golden Boot race. Pipa Higuain refuses to age, and the solid core of Will Trapp, Pedro Santos, and Cristian Martinez continue to churn out good performances. With New York’s finest Grelladinho coming back from injury, and one of MLS’ best defenses, Columbus will be a very difficult out come playoff time.

New York City FC: Contenders

City may boast the deepest squad in MLS. Game in and game out, they have quality oozing out of their 18. With Patrick Vieira at the helm, it would take a significant performance to best them in a two-legged tie. When two squad players make World Cup Rosters, you know that depth is a strength. David Villa is quietly off to another fast start, and with the increase in talent around him, NYCFC may just have the most talented roster in MLS. The only thing they’re missing, it appears, is a stadium...

Orlando City SC: Pretenders

One thing for certain is when you tune into a Lions game, you will be entertained. Between the goals, on the field dramatics, and rookie sensations, Orlando City are seemingly becoming must watch TV. Offensively, few pose more weapons than the Lions. Dom Dwyer is off to a great start, and rookie Chris Mueller has been a pleasant addition that seems to contribute something every game. With Sasha Kljestan pulling the strings in midfield, goals are not an issue for the men in purple. Rather, their main problem is leaking goals. Albeit an improvement over previous years, their defense is still their Achilles heel, and with a difficult schedule upcoming, we could see them move out of the Eastern Conference top six. Although fun to watch, Orlando is not good enough at the back to make a deep playoff run.

New York Red Bulls: Contenders

Aesthetically, RBNY may be the most pleasing team to watch. Jesse Marsch’s squad is one of the most organized in MLS, and their high press and quick passing leads to some great soccer viewing. Kaku doesn’t seem to need an adjustment year, and BWP is doing BWP things. With this possibly being the last year of Tyler Adams in a Red Bulls jersey, I anticipate a deep playoff run. In fact, a New York Derby to move onto the MLS Cup could be very much in the future.

New England Revolution: Pretenders

A pleasant surprise to many, the Revs have had a nice start to the 2018 campaign, and Brad Friedel deserves some serious praise. Cristian Penilla may be the best player that no one is talking about, and Teal Bunbury is the biggest benefactor. Between Toronto, Orlando, and New England, there look to be two playoff spots open. It’ll be interesting to see if they can squeeze in, but I just don’t think this team has enough ‘oomph’ to get it done in the postseason.

Western Conference

Sporting KC:  Contenders

After an iffy start defensively, Sporting KC have absolutely shaken off the rust and look to be one of the most solid teams in MLS. While not particularly spectacular in any facet, they have the most well-rounded squad in the West, and are serious Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup contenders. Foreign import Johnny Russell looks the real deal, and Tim Melia is a stonewall at the other end. Sporting have one of the best defenses in MLS, and with the combination of Peter Vermes and an electric home crowd, they’re the West’s best bet for MLS Cup in 2018.

LAFC:  Contenders

In case you haven’t heard, the new kids on the block are pretty good. They have the most dangerous attack in the West, and if it wasn’t a World Cup year, Carlos Vela would be the favorite for MVP (he still might be). With Laurent Ciman and the defense starting to gel, and the addition of Lee Nguyen, LAFC might have the most talented expansion squad in MLS history. With a weaker Western Conference and Bob Bradley in charge, LAFC could go on to make history this year.

FC Dallas: Pretenders

After an early CCL knockout to Panamanian side Tauro, it looked like another long, frustrating year for the men from Dallas. Fast forward eleven weeks, and they sit in third in the Western Conference through only nine games played. Oscar Pareja is making his veterans earn their playing time, pulling both Mauro Diaz and Michael Barrios off the bench a couple of times this year. I don’t anticipate Roland Lamah continuing to score on almost every other shot (currently 45%), but contributing for eight goals in nine games is nothing to scoff at either. At the end of the day, this team is probably the fourth best team in the West, and I just can’t see them hoisting the MLS Cup in 2018.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Pretenders

At this point if you’re a Vancouver fan, you have to take a look around and wonder how the heck you currently hold the fourth seed in the West. Statistically speaking they have one of the worst defenses in MLS, and they’re not exactly what you would call an offensive juggernaut. Despite their current position, they have a -8 goal differential. To be fair, much of that is attributed to a 6-0 waxing by Sporting KC; however, their GD would still be negative if that game is taken out of the equation. Twelve goals in eleven games is bad any way you slice it, and at this point you just have to hope they can hang on to a playoff spot if you’re a Whitecaps fan.

Portland Timbers: Contenders

There’s a ‘been there, done that’ factor that I just can’t get out of my head when I think of the Timbers. Their 2018 start has not been extremely encouraging, but when you consider that six of their first nine games have been on the road, there’s room for leeway. They’re perfect at home so far, and have the reigning MLS MVP along with a very good sidekick in Chucky Blanco. I expect them to overtake LAFC and FC Dallas in the standings later this summer, and then let experience kick in come postseason time.

Real Salt Lake: Pretenders

The Claret and Cobalt are one of the strangest stories of the 2018 season thus far. They seemed to address nearly all their needs in the offseason; they retained all their major offenses weapons, Justen Glad has another year under his belt, they finally got their #8 in Demir Kreilach. Yet, RSL have been arguably the biggest disappointment behind Seattle this year, and at least the Sounders have injuries as an excuse. It’s difficult to say what the problem is with Mike Petke’s squad, but they, like Vancouver, also post a -8 goal differential and are letting in nearly two goals a game on average. Things could turn around as this roster has a lot of talent in the starting XI, but it doesn’t look good for RSL.

Others Receiving Votes

Toronto FC: Contenders

They’re not currently in playoff position, which is why they’re not featured above, but it’s hard to argue that the reigning champs aren’t favorites again in 2018. They may have dug themselves too big of a hole to get home field advantage come playoff time, but this is the most experienced team in MLS when it comes to going on the road and taking care of business. Look for this season to turn around, and fast. However, their 0-4-0 record on the road in MLS is concerning, if nothing else.

Seattle Sounders: TBD

Meh. It’s Seattle, they’ve started slow before and managed to rebound. If this team can get healthy and get into the playoffs, they have the experience and talent to make a run. That being said, Brian Schmetzer has his hands full in the turnaround effort this year. With quotes claiming they’ll be in the market for a big summer signing, look for them to hit the transfer market hard and get Deuce one last chance at postseason glory.