MLS Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Conference finals edition
Toronto FC’s 7-0 humiliation of New York City FC was the most lopsided margin of victory in MLS Cup Playoffs history (two-leg tie era), so it comes as very little surprise the Reds sit atop the latest edition of MLS Power Rankings.
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Note: Five games of soccer — anywhere between 450 and 540 minutes — is all that remains in the 2016 MLS season. Unbelievable.
1. Toronto FC
Hell hath no fury like an MVP scorned. Sebastian Giovinco was not happy about being left off the list of finalists for 2016 MVP despite leading the league in goals and assists combined for a second straight season. Poor NYCFC paid the price in the conference semis, most notably his hat trick in Sunday’s second leg. The formula to winning in the playoffs is the furthest thing from science. The New York Red Bulls, for instance, finished the regular season 16 games unbeaten, and their season is over after 180 minutes of playoff soccer — there goes the “hottest team to finish the year” theory. Same goes for FC Dallas and “the best team all season” (though the injury to Mauro Diaz undoubtedly had played its part). TFC were neither of those things coming into the playoffs (just two wins in their last eight regular-season games), and they didn’t even benefit from a knockout-round bye, which meant they faced three games in eight grueling days. In the end, finished third was a godsend for Greg Vanney’s side, as Giovinco, who missed a month due to injury before returning in mid-October, needed that one more game to reach full fitness and sharpness. TFC’s perfect path to a first-ever conference finals appearance was a complicated one, because of course it was.
2. Seattle Sounders
The July-to-October turnaround is, for my money, the best MLS story this decade — from last place in the Western Conference late in the summer, to conference finalists for the third time in their eight MLS seasons, all rescued over the course of three and a half months. The injuries are piling up, though, and could be their ultimate undoing: Jordan Morris (hamstring) left Sunday’s second leg against FCD with a hamstring; as did fellow striker Nelson Valdez due to a calf injury, to go along with Roman Torres’ continued fight for fitness, Andreas Ivanschitz knee injury and Alvaro Fernandez’s hamstring strain, all three of whom missed both legs of the tie against FCD; and, of course, Clint Dempsey, who’s out for the season with an irregular heartbeat. Brian Schmetzer has done a masterful job massaging an aching roster for weeks now, which is cause for optimism, until you realize the Sounders are set for 180 minutes against one of the most accomplished fouling sides in the league, the Rapids (13.5 per game, 3rd-most in 2016). With the first leg of the conference finals to be played in Seattle, though, expect a repeat performance of the first-leg demolition of FCD to earn their first-ever trip to MLS Cup.
3. Montreal Impact
Way back in the middle of summer, I practically begged MLS to give us TFC versus Montreal in the East finals, because at the time they looked far and away the two best sides with the highest ceilings. Then came an abysmal finish to the season for Montreal (five wins in their final 18 games), so naturally they’ve rallied and on Sunday eliminated the East’s top seed in the conference semis, barely breaking a sweat in doing so. As was the case when everything was great early in the season, Ignacio Piatti has gone to another level in the postseason (three goals and an assists in three games, including both goals in Sunday’s second-leg victory at Red Bull Arena). Speaking of playoff formulas, defend-deep-and-counter is the way to go if you’ve got the requisite personnel to pull it off. With center backs Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera hitting their stride following an up-and-down regular season, the Marco Donadel, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello midfield-three suddenly looks like a world-beater in midfield. With Piatti on one side and Dominic Oduro on the other, and Matteo Mancosu a capable finisher in between them, that’s a formula meant to squeeze every last drop out of a group set to undergo extensive changes in the offseason.
4. Colorado Rapids
If the conference finals go to chalk, the Colorado Rapids, who finished 18th out of 20 teams in a single-table format last year, will be hosting MLS Cup 2016 just 13 months later. It’s
not always almost never been easy on the eye this season — Sunday’s second leg comeback and penalty-kick triumph over the LA Galaxy perfectly exemplified this — but Pablo Mastroeni’s grind-it-out style sure has been effective thus far. The problem: while they’ve certainly not perfected the art as have the 2016 Rapids, FCD tried that in leg 1 of the conference semis, and that ended horrifically for them. By design, the playoff format levels the playing field to an unfair degree (in my opinion) and puts all the pressure on the higher-seeded side in the first leg: don’t fall victim to an insurmoutable deficit while playing for 0-0 on the road. If Shkelzen Gashi (ankle/leg injury on Sunday) isn’t able to go and provide the game-changing moments, it’ll be tough sledding against the Sounders.