Welcome back to MLS’s version of Cavs-Warriors and Alabama-Clemson: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final.
We’ve seen this matchup twice already, and you might know what to expect from both teams by now. Seattle will play a 4-2-3-1 and keep the ball in front of them. Toronto will build through the middle and give the ball to Michael Bradley a lot.
Not everything is quite the same. Jozy Altidore is likely out, at least from the start, which means we’ll probably see Alejandro Pozuelo at the false nine. Seattle host this version, possibly encouraging more aggressive play. Let’s preview Round Three:
MLS Cup Final Preview: Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders
1. The last time we saw Toronto FC this late in a season was 2017, when they blitzed the Sounders in that year’s final and secured MLS’s first treble. They’ve morphed into a lesser version of that team in the time since. They collapsed in last year’s regular season and inexplicably missed the playoffs, souring relations with Sebastian Giovinco and wasting a year of the core they established back in 2015.
TFC let Giovinco walk in the offseason and replaced him with Pozuelo, a bona fide star. Pozuelo put up 12 goals and 12 assists this season as an attacking fulcrum. He surprisingly managed to find his way onto the league’s Best XI this year, a misleading indication of his abilities. He can float in and out of games, with his best moments overshadowing his quiet stretches. He is no Giovinco.
The rest of the team isn’t dramatically different. TAM winger Nicolas Benezet, acquired late in the summer window, replaced Victor Vazquez. Tsubasa Endoh carved out a role in the starting lineup. Quentin Westberg stole the starting goalkeeper job from the struggling Alex Bono.
The defense, which became the biggest problem in 2018, experienced similar struggles this year. However, they survived much better this time. Omar Gonzalez helped significantly, making his debut at center back in July and shoring things up at the back. Gonzalez hasn’t played in the playoffs due to injury, though.
Greg Vanney is still the coach, and he’s maintained the tactical flexibility he’s become known for. Hype for Vanney as one of the best American coaches has died out, but he has done well in the past month or so to help TFC navigate a tough playoff road despite injuries to two of their three best players.
2. The good money is on Toronto playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with Pozuelo up top as a free No. 9. They will take their opportunities to play on the ball, knowing that the Sounders will try to counter-attack when possible. TFC’s buildup will come primarily through the middle of the field, where Bradley is the fulcrum and Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado are capable ball-movers. Expect Auro and Justin Morrow to maneuver forward from outside back as well, though Auro will have to be cautious with the threat of Jordan Morris running the other way.
Seattle know how to play compact in midfield; you don’t beat LAFC without being able to get pressure to the ball. Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan are one of the most solid and trustworthy deep midfield duos in MLS.
One potential deficiency for Seattle that Steve Zakuani brought up on the HPS MLS podcast is Nicolas Lodeiro’s movement. Lodeiro goes everywhere, and while he is the key to everything the Sounders do, his positions when Seattle loses the ball could be a liability. When he vacates the middle of the field, Toronto could capitalize on the resulting space.
3. Some have theorized that TFC play a five-at-the-back, in anticipation of Seattle controlling play at home. Vanney should consider that approach. If Toronto take a lead at any time, we may see a midgame formation switch.
The Sounders are better when they’re attacking into space and playing fast. Their flaws poke through when they’re trying to move the ball and control the flow of the game. They tend to get bogged down in trying to move it into the final third, and then get trapped once they get there. By playing a deeper, more stout line, TFC would be able to induce Seattle into possessing the ball more, deflating Morris and the threatening counter-attack.
4. Concerns about the Sounders heading into the playoffs surrounded the center backs, where they no longer have the presence of the retired Chad Marshall. Xavier Arreaga has acquitted himself well. Roman Torres is a liability if he has to enter at some point (or if he starts over Arreaga). Toronto arguably have more pressing defensive concerns, especially without Gonzalez.
5. Seattle are the definite favorites. They have home-field advantage, and they profile as the more solid team. Altidore is an X-factor, given that he could come off the bench and influence the proceedings. In this year of unpredictable playoff results, I’m not stepping outside the box: Sounders in regular time.
Also Read: MLS Cup Final Odds
The MLS Cup playoffs are down to four. On Tuesday, LAFC will host the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference finals. On Wednesday, Atlanta United will host Toronto FC in the East.
Last time out, we all whiffed on Toronto. Are we under-estimated their chances? Let’s do some more predictions, with site editor Chops and contributor Peter Nolan.
LAFC vs. Seattle Sounders
Harrison Hamm: I have a hard time seeing how Seattle can pull this off in LA. They’ll have to condense the midfield as much as they can to cut off distribution centers, and release Jordan Morris into space. I don’t think they’ll do it. LAFC moves on.
Chops: Their match against the Galaxy was the perfect encapsulation of LAFC. They’re vulnerable defensively but just next level on offense. I don’t expect them to keep a clean sheet against Seattle. It’ll be a decent match. But LAFC will prevail.
Peter Nolan: Seattle will tell themselves that they can catch LAFC on the hop because, well, what else would they tell themselves? Yes, LAFC has set the record for the most points in an MLS season with 72 but they broke New York Bulls record of 71 set one year earlier and the Red Bulls didn’t win the title; they didn’t even get there.
Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC
Harrison Hamm: We haven’t had too many big surprises in these playoffs. The biggest one, clearly, was Toronto FC walking into New York and eliminating one-seed NYCFC last round. If TFC are going to score a second upset of a higher-seed, they probably have to get one of Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez back. Atlanta’s form makes the Five Stripes tough to pick against.
Chops: I still think there are some flaws with ATL. If Michael Parkhurst is healthy and fit that would alleviate one concern (sounds about 50/50 now). They’re still nowhere near as fluid as they were last year offensively. I’ve been impressed with Toronto this post-season. They know how to win. You’d just have to have brain damage to pick against ATLUTD at home in a big game.
Peter Nolan: This match features the two most recent MLS Cup champions and the two sides prior to LAFC’s reign that left MLS in ruins. Of the two, Atlanta has done a far better job of maintaining their standards in the wake of winning the Cup, and Atlanta will be favored to advance to the 2019 MLS Cup.
MLS Cup pick
Harrison Hamm: I had NYCFC at the beginning of the playoffs. That didn’t happen. I think LAFC is going to come through.
Chops: I think Bob Bradley is 10x the coach as FdB. LAFC has the best player. But I feel like this is Atlanta’s ‘Barry Switzer season.’ Enough of the old crew is there to power through one more MLS Cup win before the bottom falls out next season. ATL.
We’re back for another round of MLS Cup playoff predictions, this time for the second round. We have four games to get to, with myself, Chops, and Peter Nolan picking them. Let’s go.
NYCFC vs. Toronto FC
Harrison Hamm: TFC pulled away late from D.C. United in extra-time. The 5-1 score there probably overrates how well they played. Without Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez, they’ll have a hard time beating NYCFC in New York.
Chops: I don’t think NYCFC has much of a home-field advantage here. Like Harrison, if Toronto had Altidore and Gonzalez, I’d be all “We the North.” But NYCFC has been too good this year not to beat an under-manned squad.
Peter Nolan: This is a deeper, more versatile New York team than previous editions and therefore I give the nod to tonight’s traveling “home” team. With Maxi Moralez pulling the strings and Heber and Vincent Castellanos available to lead the line I think NYC has enough firepower to outslug a Toronto side that packs a wallop as well, particularly if Jozy Altidore can make it back.
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Harrison Hamm: I’m not particularly sold on either team, but RSL played better than expected against Portland and Seattle put up four against FC Dallas, led by Jordan Morris’s hat trick. The Sounders’ defense is concerning. RSL will find a way to put the ball in the net and pick up an away win.
Chops: I feel like I should start buying into RSL. But I’m stubborn. And I like Seattle’s attack. Going with the Sounders.
Peter Nolan: RSL has been a surprise packet this season under interim coach Freddy Juarez and is a team to watch for in the future with former Academy coach Juarez leading a very young team. The future, however, is not now and with Jordan Morris leading an experienced Sounders side in front of a big Seattle crowd, I look for a home team victory.
Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union
Harrison Hamm: Philly narrowly escaped against the Red Bulls on Sunday, giving up three soft goals. Andre Blake can’t be a liability in Atlanta. As interesting as it will be to watch the Union try to control the game at Mercedes-Benz, it’ll be Atlanta United moving through.
Chops: I’m going to this game. I want Atlanta to win. However, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw from ATL against New England. However however, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw from Philly (defensively at least). It’s hard not to ride with Atlanta at home. Going ATL here.
Peter Nolan: The Union are tough, they’re on on the rise, and they’re tough to pick against. And Atlanta will be without defenders Michael Parkhurst and Miles Robinson. So, the pick must be Philadelphia?
LAFC vs. LA Galaxy
Harrison Hamm: This is up there as one of the most anticipated games in MLS history. It should go similarly to other El Trafico games: The Galaxy will constrict the midfield and play through an energized Zlatan, while LAFC will try whatever they can to get Carlos Vela going. Unlike previous meetings, though, LAFC will pull out a victory.
Chops: Listen, do I think Galaxy is the better side? No. But Zlatan is to LAFC what Liverpool / Klopp are to Pep. They just rent real estate in their head. Zlatan finds some magic to derail LAFC only to lose the next round. But Galaxy here.
Peter Nolan: Bob Bradley’s LAFC has just completed the best regular season in MLS history, but we know that MLS Cup decides greatness in this league; just ask the Red Bulls. But the Galaxy have had their neighbor’s number this season and the Galaxy has Zlatan. It is easy to be seduced by the notion of Ibrahimovic leading the Galaxy to a historic victory over LAFC but I just can’t get there. Carlos Vela and company are just too good.
With the MLS playoffs starting this weekend, High Press Soccer is back with a roundtable of writers to predict the winners of the Eastern Conference, Western Conference, and MLS Cup.
On our panel: Site editor Chops, MLS contributor Peter Nolan, and American Soccer Analysis writer Harrison Crow, who recently joined me (Harrison Hamm) on the HPS MLS podcast to preview the postseason. Here are our picks.
Toronto vs DC United
Harrison Hamm: It’s easy to simplify this matchup as offense vs. defense — Toronto will beat teams in high-scoring barnburners, while D.C. will rely on a solid backline. TFC have home field advantage, and enter on better form. Jozy Altidore might be better than Wayne Rooney right now. I’m leaning toward Toronto.
Harrison Crow: I got DC United, in the cold and on the road. DC United is a really solid defensive team and they have a coach who knows how to be pragmatic and isn’t scared to go that route when it favors his team (or even when it doesn’t). Wayne Rooney has a legacy to uphold here in MLS and his level of commitment has been pretty impressive even after announcing his departure to Derby County after the season. TFC has had some small issues all year and I’m not sure if they, or even Greg Vanney, are up to the tactical match of trying to pull apart a scrappy and compact DC United team.
Chops: The best team in the Eastern Conference over the final five games of the season was Toronto. The third best was DCU. So both teams are playing their best going into the playoffs. They drew both times they played this season (0-0 and 1-1). Toronto is at home though and oddsmakers have them heavily favored. I’m going with Toronto here.
Peter Nolan: By definition the 4v5 matchup reckons to be the closest of all the playoff games and that should hold true here as number 4 Toronto hosts 5th seed DC United. This game would have been held in our nation’s capital, however DC was unable to defeat league worst on Decision Day, drawing 0-0 with Cincinnati while Toronto topped Columbus 1-0.
Toronto has more firepower, DC has finished the year with five consecutive shutouts. Jozy Altidore pulled out of the U.S. Nations League matches and DC has a solid 6-6-5 away mark, so the pick here is DC United to squeak through. Of course Altidore could recover…
Philadelphia Union vs New York Red Bulls
Harrison Hamm: I have no doubt that the Union are the superior team, but I trust the Red Bulls’ strength down the spine more than I do Philly’s, with the experienced Tim Parker and Aaron Long at center back. The Union might have trouble converting all of their chances. The Red Bulls, though, have some similar concerns, and haven’t inspired a ton of confidence recently. I’ll go with the Union. Tough one.
Harrison Crow: I flip flop on this one constantly but Philly is my dark horse so I’ll stick with them. I think New York is kind of hard to predict and under Chris Armas this season they’ve not been same team we’ve seen in recent years. Obviously with no Tyler Adams and an older BWP that’s probably not surprising. But it’s not just the quality it’s the change in tactics and even being gun shy to give opportunities to some of the young guys who were brought in to help carry the load left behind by Adams.
Philly is just a really solid team that knows their identify and is going to do work. They create a volume of chances and while they get exposed from time to time defensively they’re pretty good at limiting the high leverage opportunities forcing opponents more to rely upon half chances from beyond the box, not exactly the Red Bulls forte. I’m picking Philly… but this is gonna be a good one I think.
Chops: Changed my answer on this one a half dozen times. I don’t really trust either team. Comes down to this: Both are strong attacking down the wings. Philly isn’t good defending down the wings though. That may be the difference. I’m also concerned about the fitness of Kacper Przybylko and Alejandro Bedoya. Will they be at 100%? They need to be for Philly to win. I’ll go with RBNY here.
Peter Nolan: Philadelphia flirted with winning the Eastern Conference, while New York has been a year long disappointment. Red Bulls followed a record-setting Supporters Shield-winning 2018 with a year-long slump, inevitably following a good result with a bad one.
This is the best year in Philadelphia Union history and I expect it to continue for at least a little while longer.
Atlanta United vs New England
Harrison Hamm: I am intrigued to see how New England come out against Atlanta. Bruce Arena could try some interesting things, especially given that the Revs played in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. Atlanta is the easy pick here, though.
Harrison Crow: Atlanta should pretty easily dispose of New England. New England is the worst defensive playoff team in modern MLS history and their attack is going to have to be completely on point to compete on the road against Atlanta.
Chops: Finally, an easy one! Atlanta United is at home. Atlanta United will win.
Peter Nolan: Hats off to Bruce Arena for turning things around in New England after Brad Firedel’s disastrous debut as a head coach. Hopefully, Friedel will have learned some lessons for his next gig, should he get one.
However, Atlanta is too good for the Revs and the MLS Cup defenders could have another run to the MLS Cup in them.
Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy
Harrison Hamm: I, along with the rest of the league, am rooting for the Galaxy so we get an El Trafico match in the second round. Minnesota would be a fun story, and they might be a better team than the Galaxy right now. LA have the difference-makers. I will give them the edge.
Harrison Crow: I honestly think Minnesota is the better team. They have basically a better player at 9 of the 11 positions and yet… how do bet against Zlatan AND, furthermore, how do you bet against Zlatan who if he wins gets a chance to play LAFC again? I really really really want to pick Minnesota but the chaos inside me is picking LA. I’ll go with the Galaxy and may god have mercy on my soul.
Chops: Since this is a single elimination tournament, the only two Western Conference teams I see having a shot at stopping the LAFC juggernaut are Minnesota and LA Galaxy. Thanks to MLS’ wonky schedule making, these two teams wrapped up their season series in April. They’ve both evolved since then, so it’s harder to draw conclusions from previous results. Galaxy have slightly better quality overall. I think the consensus here is if Zlatan does Zlatan things, Galaxy prevails. Can he create a moment of excellence against the Loons defense? While my head is telling me Minnesota, I ride with Zlatan. Galaxy prevail.
Peter Nolan: As always it comes down to Zlatan, After all, there are no statues of Ethan Finlay- as far as I am aware. But former Premier League keeper Vito Mannone, (Arsenal, Sunderland) and once (and future) MLS Defender of the year Ike Opara have stabilized United’s formerly shaky defense and Opara may be the only center back in MLS with the athletic ability to compete with Ibra in the box.
And at 10-1-6 Minnesota’s home mark stands out versus road dogs L.A. at 5-10-2.
RSL vs Portland
Harrison Hamm: This one is going to be a cagey affair. It will come down to individual moments, and which team’s attackers come through when it matters. Portland’s injuries concern me, but I’m going with the Timbers.
Harrison Crow: Look, Portland have been bad this second half of the season. Baaaaaad. That’s the narrative, anyway. The reality is that they’ve been both bad and unlucky. It’s a terrible combo for sure but while they’ve cleaned up some of the “bad” they’ve continued to be extremely unlucky with closing out the season—the last game of the year not withstanding and now they go on the road, an element that suits their play style against the best defensive team in the second half of the season. RSL got here because their defensive organization and execution has been above every one since July. Allowing only 0.73 xG per game. Their problem is a complete lack of attacking ability. It’s the fourth worst in all of MLS and the worst for any playoff team in the pool.
RSL’s game is going to be about closing down the attack forcing terrible shots and then finding two or three opportunities over the course of the game on the break to win 1-0. I’ll take Portland, I really think they will pull through but I’ve been betting against RSL this whole season and they’ve done a miraculous job considering the off-season stuff they’ve had to overcome.
Chops: Of all the road teams, oddsmakers like the Timbers chances to win the best. I think this comes down to who scores first. RSL is great at protecting a lead, particularly at home. I just can’t get there with them. Going Portland here.
Peter Nolan: After starting the season with an epic road trip Portland tried its level best to miss out on the playoffs despite a home-heavy schedule to end the season, while Real Salt Lake survived the Mike Petke mess to earn a home game under interim coach Freddy Juarez.
Juarez came up through the academy ranks and it is no surprise that the RSL youngsters have responded. Look for MLS legend Nick Rimando’s retirement to be delayed at least one more week.
Seattle vs FC Dallas
Harrison Hamm: I’d like to see FC Dallas pull this one out, but they’re going to have a tough time traveling to Seattle and creating enough chances to strike fear in the Sounders. Jordan Morris is going to score and the Sounders are going to pull this one out.
Harrison Crow: I think Dallas has enough talent over all here to compete but the game is going to be decided by Seattle. Are they going to be able to create more than a few high quality looks. Will Lodeiro and Ruidiz be there to step up? Will Jordan Morris continue his run of being a vicious and relentless on the counter creating and even finding chances on his own. Likewise Dallas has the attacking trio of Zdenek Ondrasek, Michael Barrios and Paxton Pomykal which could do some work against a Seattle defensive line that has struggled since the lossing Chad Marshall. I’ll take Seattle but I think Dallas could make an absolute game of it.
Chops: I don’t like Dallas on the road. I know they tied 0-0 at Seattle few weeks ago but the Sounders are too strong at home. Seattle wins.
Peter Nolan: Seventh-place FC Dallas could be set for an upset of 2nd seed Seattle as they come roaring into the playoffs on the strength of a 6-0 shellacking laid on Sporting KC. But it may be a year too soon for Luchi Gonzalez’s youngsters, led by U.S. up and comers Reggie Cannon, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Sevania, Jesse Gonzaez, and (passport pending) Jesus Ferreria.
Seattle is just too solid from back to front, with playoff hero Stefan Frei in goal and a devastating front three of Niclas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raul Ruidiaz.
Who will win the MLS Cup?
Before each round, we’ll offer our pick for who will win the MLS Cup. Going into round 1 of the playoffs, here’s who we think will win.
Harrison Hamm: I don’t like to pick the favorite, especially with the new single-elimination format. NYCFC has impressed me the most outside of LAFC, and they have a first-round bye as the winners of the Eastern Conference. I could see Max Moralez giving LA’s midfield trouble. Mark-Anthony Kaye’s injury with Canada is mildly concerning.
Harrison Crow: LAFC. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, Bob Bradley somehow gets more out of guys than most of the coaches in this league. They’re the best team in MLS, perhaps EVER and they have the best player in MLS, perhaps EVER. I don’t want to sensationalize this team and I hate being part of the machine that continues to push a narrative of “OH THIS IS NOW THE BEST TEAM OF ALL TIME”… but LAFC are just SO GOOD that it’s impossible not to pick them. They’re one of the few teams in the history of the MLS Cup Playoffs to have a better probability of winning MLS Cup than the rest of the ENTIRE FIELD.
This is a remarkable team and right now they’re the best pick to win MLS Cup.
Chops: The single elimination format adds an element of chaos into the mix. Soccer is fluky on a game-by-game basis. Luck plays a big role. Because it’s single elimination I always favor the squad who has “been there before.” For the past year, Atlanta United has shown an ability to stop up in big moments. They know how to win. Going with Atlanta United.
Peter Nolan: I hate to be boring but it is hard to see past Bob Bradley-led juggernaut LAFC.
A new HPS MLS Podcast hosted by Harrison Hamm is up!
- Handicapping the RBNY-Philly matchup
- Favorite dark-horse?
- Tactical previews of each match
Look for our MLS playoff predictions post this week as well.
With the MLS playoffs starting this week, we’re taking a look at which teams will contend and which will be long shots. As we’ve seen, every team has a realistic shot, especially in the new one-off format. MLS parity is not quite as pronounced as it once was, though, and some teams are clearly better than others.
I’m not huge on the black-and-white-ness of power rankings, so think of this as a general outline of the contenders.
14. New England Revolution
The Revs are just happy to be here. Given their awful start under Brad Friedel, it’s a miracle that Bruce Arena has dragged this team to a playoff berth. They have a foundation for future success, and they have a handful of talented, difference-making attackers, but they just lost 3-1 in Atlanta on Decision Day and it’s hard to expect them to do anything different in the playoffs.
13. FC Dallas
A 6-0 win over rival Sporting KC on the last day of the season has FCD entering the postseason confident. But that win came after a crappy September, and Dallas only narrowly snuck into the seventh spot in the Western Conference. It would be great if this young and fun FCD team made a run, but they don’t quite have enough.
12. Real Salt Lake
The biggest concern for RSL: The lack of a game-changing attacker who can create something out of nothing in a cagey game. Real have the luxury of hosting the Timbers in the first round, and given RSL’s 4-9-4 record on the road, they should be glad they held onto the third spot in the west. It’s a good bet that the Portland-RSL match will be heavy on slow and conservative possession. Saturday night would be the perfect time for a Jefferson Savarino golazo.
11. D.C. United
DCU can keep the ball out of their net. Their case as a contender comes down to their ability to defend. Incredibly, D.C. are on a streak of five straight MLS clean sheets, elevating Bill Hamid to Goalkeeper of the Year favorite. But they struggle to score. It’s an open question as to whether they should even start Luciano Acosta, and they somehow didn’t score in 50 minutes of soccer against a nine-man FC Cincinnati on Decision Day. This feels like Benny Ball’s final form.
10. New York Red Bulls
This might be high for a Red Bulls team that lost 3-0 to Montreal a couple of weeks ago. Something about NYRB made me put them above DCU. Bradley Wright-Phillips will be as motivated as ever. New York are still solid down the spine. Their attackers are concerning, but Daniel Royer has a way of stealing goals at the back-post. Philly could be exploited in the first round.
9. Portland Timbers
Diego Valeri is listed as questionable as of this posting, and Brian Fernandez entered MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, rendering his participation unlikely in the Timbers’ first-round match. Portland will have to play to their identity (sitting deep and countering) and find a way to slip through a road game at altitude against RSL. Without their two best attackers, it’s a difficult task.
8. Toronto FC
Assuming Jozy Altidore plays, TFC have plenty of attacking talent. Alejandro Pozuelo is probably not as good as public opinion would indicate, but he could still be capable of magic. Toronto will create wide-open barnburners to overcome their lack of defensive acumen. On pure talent, they have a shot.
7. Seattle Sounders
Things aren’t perfect in Seattle. There is reasonable concern about the defensive corps, despite a reasonably good late season run. Good teams could exploit them down the middle as they wait on a true Chad Marshall replacement. Striker Raul Ruidiaiz’s slump has been a bit overblown, but the Sounders will need him to come through given the relatively weak supporting cast. The Nicolas Lodeiro-Cristian Roldan infrastructure might still be enough.
6. LA Galaxy
The only reason the Galaxy are this high is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They do actually have other competent players (Cristian Pavon, Jonathan dos Santos), but Zlatan is their entire system, for better or worse. For LA, it comes down to him.
5. Minnesota United
I debated putting Minnesota over Philly, but the Loons’ general weakness in attack kept me away. Darwin Quintero will have to be the superstar we know he can be. Their defense, led by Defender of the Year favorite Ike Opara, could win them games on its own. In the first round against Zlatan and the Galaxy, Opara should be able to hold his own.
4. Philadelphia Union
Philly have been great all season, and the playoffs would be more fun to watch if they keep it up. They play with possession and shapeshift tactically. Their midfield, with Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin, moves the ball well. The Union will win if the attack finishes its chances in front of goal, certainly not a guarantee.
3. Atlanta United
Atlanta will live or die by Josef Martinez, who has grown into by far their most important player. With a solid backline (featuring the mobile pairing of Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Miles Robinson), they have a chance to play tight with teams and strike on the counter. A Pity Martinez breakout will always be welcome. Atlanta’s homefield advantage is very real.
Regardless of where they play their home games, NYCFC will give any team trouble. They use actual tactics, something not every team can say, and they have no obvious weak spots across the field. Anton Tinnerholm is vastly underrated at right back. Keaton Parks has been fantastic in midfield. Valentin Castellanos is the best penalty-drawer in the league.
Was there really any question? LAFC is the best team in the league, with the best player (Carlos Vela) and the best midfield. Anything can happen in a one-off game, but it is tough to imagine any team knocking LA out. A potential El Trafico in the second round looms.
Where to Bet MLS Playoffs in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer online in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
With the end of the MLS regular season, it’s now Awards Time. And with a full international break to sit through until the playoffs start, we have plenty of time to argue about the races.
Let’s get right into it.
MLS Most Valuable Player
- Carlos Vela (LAFC)
- Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
I don’t think I really have to defend myself here. Everyone is going to pick Vela. The man had 34 goals and 15 assists on the best team in league history. He is the best player MLS has ever seen and he has no competition for this award.
Most people will have Josef and Zlatan behind Vela. For fear of over-valuing goal-scoring, I considered for a brief second throwing a guy like Maxi Moralez or Eduard Atuesta here over Ibrahimovic, who negatively impacts his team more than an MVP candidate should. But both Martinez and Ibra had incredible scoring seasons, and established a clear elite tier alongside Vela, the likes of which MLS has never seen.
MLS Goalkeeper of the Year
- Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
- Daniel Vega (San Jose Earthquakes)
This is a tough award. Turner was fantastic this season, but he played only 20 games thanks to injuries and the bumbling incompetence of Brad Friedel. There is a reasonable argument that a keeper has to play more games to see serious consideration for this award, barring some otherworldly performance.
I settled on Turner after considering the other options, none of which were enticing. Brad Guzan and Stefan Frei, two stalwarts, weren’t good enough. It would have been tough to seriously consider a guy like Tyler Miller, despite his team’s success. Analytically, Steve Clark and David Bingham are near the top, but neither really inspires confidence.
Choosing Nick Rimando as a sort of legacy award was the closest I came to usurping Turner. Rimando has somehow never won a GKOTY, and while his final season wouldn’t normally merit this award on its own, Rimando might be the best keeper in league history. Given the lack of clear favorites, Rimando isn’t a terrible choice.
After last year’s Zack Steffen-Frei debacle (in which Frei should have easily won), I couldn’t bring myself to give the award to someone who hasn’t been the best goalkeeper in the league. Thus, I come to Turner, who was certainly the best in the league this year, despite his smaller sample of games. Turner blows his competition away statistically with an outrageous -10.14 g-xG figure, meaning he’s making tougher saves than other keepers.
The Revs would not have made the postseason without Turner’s performance in the last stretch of the season, adding a certain layer of importance to his argument. Turner was clutch and crucial to his team’s performance.
Vega isn’t my favorite candidate, but he performs well by the underlying metrics. The Quakes improved dramatically, despite their late-season collapse.
MLS Defender of the Year
- Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)
- Ike Opara (Minnesota United)
Some have started to favor Opara and Atlanta’s Miles Robinson over Zimmerman, but I’m still leaning toward LAFC’s rock. However, I will concede that Zimmerman has not been quite as good in the second half of the season as he was in the first. A mistake-free, comfortable-on-the-ball force for such a dominant team is hard to pass over.
Opara and Robinson are both worthy contenders. Opara, especially, has a very good chance of winning for a second time, and he would be deserving.
Shout-out to all the fullbacks are consistently snubbed for this award. American Soccer Analysis made the case for Jorge Moreira, and while I can’t quite get there, I understand their case.
MLS Rookie of the Year
- Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union)
- Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United)
There are numerous good Rookie of the Year candidates this year. Aaronson, who has been a critical part of the Philadelphia Union’s success, is the best pick. He has excelled as an attacking midfielder, and has pushed star DP Marco Fabian out of the lineup.
Dotson has been a consistent starter for Minnesota. He’s worn a number of important hats for them, and the Loons’ success helps his case.
Shout-out to Andre Shinyashiki, who came close. Shinyashiki appeared in 31 games and scored seven goals for the revitalized Rapids. I also would have considered Keaton Parks, if I were convinced that he’s eligible for this award.
MLS Newcomer of the Year
- Carles Gil (New England Revolution)
- Heber (NYCFC)
Gil and Heber are the consensus favorites for this award. Orlando City’s Nani wasn’t too far off here; OCSC’s lack of success pretty much eliminated him. Cristian Espinoza would have had a better shot if San Jose hadn’t lost their last six games and choked away their playoff chances.
Heber was close. It’s true that his arrival as a No. 9 was a huge reason for NYCFC’s spring revival, but when Valentin Castellanos had to fill in up top as a result of Heber absences, NYC fared similarly.
Gil started all 34 of New England’s game, an impressive feat. 10 goals and 14 assists is a good haul, and Gil has been the Revs’ best player all season.
MLS Coach of the Year
- Bob Bradley (LAFC)
- Jim Curtain (Philadelphia Union)
These Coach of the Year awards tend to go to managers who turn bad teams around.
There are the usual slate of candidates who tout their club’s turnaround as their COTY case, but Bradley deserves this award over all of them. His LAFC, as we’ve mentioned plenty of times already, dominated the league. Bradley’s ability to develop players internally (Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, etc.) and maximize the tools at his disposal allowed LA to grow as much as they did.
Curtain improved as a tactician, successfully adjusting the Union’s formations and set-ups throughout the season. He crafted a team-oriented approach and integrated youth, deepening Philly’s player pool. He deserves second-place here.
Matias Almeyda, who completely turned the San Jose Earthquakes around, would probably have been here if not for the Quakes’ aforementioned collapse. Bruce Arena, Dome Torrent, and Luchi Gonzalez are also hanging around this race.
MLS Best XI of 2019
My only questions on this XI came with the full backs and in the midfield. Kai Wagner, Philly’s stalwart, deserves the left back spot. (I also had a hard time finding another deserving left back.) Anton Tinnerholm has long been underrated at right back. He is effective as a possession option in the final third for NYCFC.
Moralez and Eduard Atuesta weren’t difficult choices. Moralez is one of the more important players for his team in MLS, and Atuesta has by this point made a compelling case as the best d-mid in MLS. Darlington Nagbe has had a career year in Atlanta. The front three writes itself.
Shout-out to Jonathan dos Santos, Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Miles Robinson, and Gil.
Onto the playoffs.
Round 1 of MLS playoffs kick off October 19th & 20th.
Atlanta United look to defend their MLS Cup trophy. LAFC look to lay claim as being the greatest team in MLS history.
How do the MLS playoffs work?
Seven (7) teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs.
The format is now entirely single elimination, adding a degree of randomness that’s at least somewhat limited when you have home at home series.
Also, the top seed in each conference receives a first round bye. The top seed plays the winner of the #4 vs #5 seed game.
The higher seeded team hosts each round of the playoffs, including the final.
MLS playoff Round 1 odds
Here are the odds from all MLS round 1 playoff games. Home team is listed first.
|MLS PLAYOFFS||SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19TH|
|Toronto FC -182||Draw +335||DC United +430|
|Atlanta United -225||Draw +390||New England +480|
|Seattle Sounder -137||Draw +290||FC Dallas +340|
|Real Salt Lake +100||Draw +250||Portland Timbers +265|
|MLS PLAYOFFS||SUNDAY, OCTOBER 20TH|
|Philadelphia Union -112||Draw +275||New York Red Bulls +270|
|Minnesota United +110||Draw +255||LA Galaxy +230|
Odds & Ends
- Soccer is random as hell on a game-by-game basis. This won’t be all chalk. One of the road teams will surprise.
- In big matches like these, often is the individual moments of brilliance that determine outcomes.
- So if you’re looking for upsets / value, look at the teams with players who can create a moment of brilliance to win a game that their team is struggling. DC United with Wayne Rooney (+430) and LA Galaxy with Zlatan (+230) are your most likely upset candidates.
Where to Bet MLS Playoffs in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer online in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
By this point, it’s hard to argue that LAFC isn’t the greatest team MLS has ever seen.
They’ve won 19 of their 28 games, lead the league by 12 points, and are basically unbeatable at home (unless you’re Minnesota, apparently). They are on pace to squash the single-season points record set last year by the New York Red Bulls. They’re already tied for second most goals in a season, and have only given up 30, the best defensive record in the league.
With surefire MVP Carlos Vela and an astounding team of best XI players and award winners (Walker Zimmerman is the probable DOTY and Bob Bradley is the probable COTY), I’d take LA in a matchup against any MLS team in history.
But imagine this hypothetical: LAFC does not win MLS Cup in November. Say they make the final but get blitzed by Atlanta United, or perhaps fall prior to the final in a wild El Trafico against their kryptonite, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy. Such a flop would change their legacy, right?
Supporters’ Shield vs MLS Cup
This gets back to an enduring philosophical MLS dilemma: Is it better to win the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup?
The Shield is for the best regular season team, and the Cup for the winner of the playoffs. While the Shield may indicate the superior team over the entirety of the season, the Cup is the true champion. Players and fans want the Cup more than anything else. The MLS Cup champion defines the season, honoring the team that was able to get it done when it mattered.
You could argue that the Shield is better to win, because it means you’ve played well for a long stretch. But at the very least, perception rests on playoff performance — as is to be expected in American sports, the postseason is the true barometer, no matter the randomness and variability.
So there is certainly an argument that an MLS Cup is necessary for LAFC to say they are the “greatest MLS team ever,” even if they may very well be favored in a matchup against any other historical lineup. Two years ago, Toronto FC won every title they possibly could, and then lost the Concacaf Champions League final on a coin flip the following year. They are the team to beat for LAFC.
2019 LAFC = 2007 New England Patriots
The obvious comparison for the Black and Gold, if they were to finish without a Cup, is the 2007 New England Patriots. The Pats went 16-0 in the regular season and then lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Those Patriots were dominant, with a record-setting Tom Brady and Randy Moss. They might well be the best NFL team of all time regardless of the loss to the Giants.
For LAFC, their legacy will come down to their performance in the playoffs — more specifically, the nature of any potential loss. An early flame out, similar to last season’s, would disqualify them. Something more understandable, or subject to variability, would simply relegate them to a status as the team that couldn’t get it done when it mattered, even if they maintain the greatest title in the aggregate.
By the eye test, they are simply outstanding, and come close to making this whole discussion moot. Vela is the best the league has ever seen. The defense is mistake-free and rarely comes up short in emergency defending situations. The midfield is far and away the best in the league, with two legitimate best XI contenders. You could go on and on, and we have. LAFC deserve the plaudits.
When the dust has settled, we’ll probably be thinking of this team as the best in league history. They almost certainly won’t suffer some major playoff upset. Without a ring, they will add only a caveat — albeit a pretty noticeable one — to their legacy.
The New England Revolution can be presented as a case study on the effect of coaching in soccer.
Incredibly, they have lost just once since Brad Friedel was fired in early May. They experienced a slight new coach bump, as many teams do, but once Bruce Arena took over full-time in June, they flipped a switch and became legitimately competent.
Friedel was a demanding manager, and Arena appears to have provided a refreshing break from his predecessor’s intensity. Players look more confident as Arena has played them in the correct positions and in a compact, flexible system. The acquisition of Gustavo Bou, in theory symbolizing a new Revs outlook, helps an attack that looks much more threatening.
Arena’s tactical improvements
Tactically, Arena has simplified things, but also crafted enough of a tactical understanding to allow the Revs to alternate between formations and playing styles without sacrificing familiarity.
New England have used both four-at-the-back and five-at-the-back looks, playing high lines and deep lines, sometimes possessing the ball and other times playing more defensive. Other teams that have tried that sort of approach in MLS — Veljko Paunovic’s Chicago, notably, as well as prior versions of Dome Torrent’s NYCFC — and failed, tinkering too much and never establishing an identity. Arena is a good enough coach that he does not fall victim to the flaws of Paunovic and Torrent.
The personnel haven’t improved dramatically. Players are just better. Carles Gil has lived up to his DP status. The defense — while there are legitimate concerns — has stayed afloat. A notably less error-prone Wilfried Zahibo has paired well with Luis Caicedo in a double-pivot midfield. Second-year SuperDraft pick Brandon Bye has proven to be a legitimate contributor on the flank, both in his primary job as a right back and as a wingback.
Arena knew these Revs needed a shake-up, and he’s provided it. Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez, who have long been under-utilized as cogs in a broken Revs system, have played all over the field. Striker Teal Bunbury, known for his streakiness, scored five goals in six games in the middle of New England’s 11-game unbeaten streak.
All of a sudden, the Revs are sixth in the Eastern Conference and will likely make the playoffs, despite winning just two of their first 12 games. That is a pretty astounding turnaround. Competent coaching goes a long way.
To finish, let’s take a look at some interesting aspects of their upcoming match against the New York Red Bulls.
Revolution vs. Red Bulls Preview
We know what to expect from the Red Bulls by this point. They’ll press out of a 4-2-3-1 and play a high line, trying to coerce turnovers out of their opponents. It will be interesting to see how the Revs respond, and how conservative Arena is willing to get with his game-plan.
In Seattle last weekend, New England put out a three-at-the-back and played a relatively high line. It was an effort to put an extra defender on the field, knowing that the Revs had traveled cross-country to face an elite attacking opponent. At times they appeared stretched in midfield, but they never looked too disorganized, and they succeeded in generating chances on goal.
The Sounders match turned into a wild goal-fest, finishing 3-3 with a few video reviews and end-to-end action. Arena called it a s—show. It actually was a fairly quality game, though many of the pivotal occurrences ended up being products of luck — Arena called it a “game of accidents.” In spite of the craziness of the game, it is a testament to the Revs’ improvement that they were able to hang with Seattle on the road.
Their next task is hanging with the Red Bulls on the road. They will be up for it. NYRB lack the level of attacking firepower to overpower teams, and no longer are able to dominate the middle of the field the way they have been in the past. Bradley Wright-Phillips is a super-sub. Kaku openly wants out. They just sent dynamic young winger Derrick Etienne on loan to Cincinnati. They will continue to need a difference-making winger.
New England can create chances. Arena could set them up in a deeper block with the intent to attack on the counter, to mitigate the effect of the Red Bulls’ pressing. Cristian Penilla, a speedy winger who came off the bench in Seattle, could return to the starting lineup as an option on the counter. We’ve seen the Revs find success in this style (and others), so it’s reasonable to think they can put fear into NYRB on the road.
In thinking about the Aaron Long transfer saga, I came upon an interesting question: How many MLS players could step into the Premier League right now and handle themselves? I’m sure Long could. We’ve seen players like Miguel Almiron and DeAndre Yedlin do it.
But MLS is obviously a few ticks lower in quality than the Premier League. MLS is more physical, focused less on passing and a bit more on athleticism. The primary difference between MLS and top leagues is the speed of play, and how fast the ball moves. Top players think the game at a higher level and possess the ball skills required to execute their ideas.
The key for any player from a lower-level league entering the Premier League is finding a way to hang in with the increased pace. Not every star in MLS would be capable of stepping into the EPL. Houston’s Alberth Elis, for example, has a good scoring record for the Dynamo and can run past players anywhere, but he struggles to stay consistent and isn’t much of a passer. Elis’s abilities off the dribble, while at times effective in MLS, are based less on ball skills and more on pure acceleration.
There are plenty of MLS players who could do well in the Premier League, though. To complete this thought exercise, let’s go position-by-position.
I’ve listed 22 players who I am fully confident in, plus numerous others who I’m a bit more skeptical about, but who are still worth mentioning.
— Stefan Frei, Seattle Sounders
Frei will have to play for a lower-table team that doesn’t keep a ton of possession, because his passing skills are not really at PL level. But he rarely makes errors and can make big saves.
A lot of the players on this list are here because they could play well in theory if plopped in England. But only a few might actually be candidates for transfers. Frei is 33. He’s not going to the Premier League any time soon.
Any others? Brad Guzan and Tim Howard used to play in the PL, but they’ve both declined in the years since they left. Tim Melia from 2017 could do it, though he hasn’t been as good in the last couple of years. You could talk me into Luis Robles. Outside of that, I’m not willing to put any other keepers here. Maybe a guy like Maxime Crepeau or Jesse Gonzalez develops.
Zack Steffen, of course, was transferred to Manchester City this summer and is now on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga.
— Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls
— Walker Zimmerman, LAFC
— Ike Opara, Minnesota United
— Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, Atlanta United
Long and Zimmerman are consistent US national teamers. Zimmerman is the runaway favorite for the Defender of the Year award.
Opara can pass and is the best in MLS at defending in space. His ranginess would be very useful in the Premier League. Gonzalez-Pirez has a stronger build than Opara and can muscle players off the ball. LGP can dribble and take his space, too — if he were to play in the Premier League, his manager would have to make sure he doesn’t go rogue on dribbling exhibitions too often.
Any others? Philly’s Jack Elliott almost ended up on this list. He’s played every minute for the Union this season and has continued to excel.
TFC’s Laurent Ciman used to be a Belgian national teamer, so a few years ago he could have played well in the Premier League. (He is worse now.) Graham Zusi and Matt Besler could have in their primes, but Zusi only converted to right back a couple of years ago. Matt Hedges is a borderline pick.
— Julian Gressel, Atlanta United
— Paxton Pomykal, FC Dallas
— Eduard Atuesta, LAFC
— Maxi Moralez, NYCFC
— Alejandro Bedoya, Philadelphia Union
— Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers
— Diego Chara, Portland Timbers
— Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders
— Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC
There are a lot of good players on this list, many of them attackers. Gressel is best as a wingback — that’s the job I’d love to see him do in the Premier League — but can play pretty much anywhere in the midfield. Chara is still the best d-mid in MLS, and Atuesta is elite as a ball-mover and ground-coverer for LAFC.
Bedoya has been very good as a diamond shuttler in Philly. He was the one who required the most thought on this list, but watching him in the Union’s win over D.C. United last weekend convinced me that he deserves to be here. Pomykal is young (19) and will probably be transferred to a top league sooner rather than later. His field vision is his best asset.
Lodeiro, Moralez, and Pozuelo are game-changers as forward-thinking midfielders. Lodeiro — a World Cup vet with Uruguay — and Moralez might be the two most important players in the entire league, based on how much their teams need them. Valeri is a bit older now, but he remains a cerebral player.
Anyone else? Michael Bradley was the biggest snub here. The 2017 version of him would play well in the Premier League, but I found it hard to look at Toronto FC this year and put MB on this list.
Cristian Roldan, Alex Ring, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, Sebastian Mendez, Sebastian Blanco, Darlington Nagbe, Jamiro Monteiro, and Jackson Yueill were all contenders. I really thought about putting Kaye and Ring on there. They are very close. I’d still be confident in them if they showed up in the starting lineup of Bournemouth.
Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco are not there yet.
If we could bring back 2017 Jonathan Osorio, he would be a shoo-in here. (Sensing a theme with TFC players?)
Josef Martinez, Atlanta United
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy
Carlos Vela, LAFC
Diego Rossi, LAFC
Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC
Wayne Rooney, D.C. United
Out of these players, I waffled only on Rossi. I still want to see him create stuff without Vela doing everything, but if Rossi walked into a team with one or two other very good attackers, he is the perfect complement.
Zlatan and Vela are obvious. Rooney is older, but still very good. Josef is undersized, but he is persistent, and goal-scoring translates. He puts himself in good positions and he finishes his chances. Jozy Altidore is evidently not undersized, and he’s been a stud of late for TFC. I know he had a not great stint for Sunderland in 2013-2014, but I think he’s too good not to be here. In a better situation, he would score goals.
Anyone else? Similar to Josef, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Chris Wondolowski are good enough as scorers and poachers to succeed basically anywhere. BWP and Wondo are getting older, though, so I decided to leave them off.
Mauro Manotas deserves a shout here. He could have a future in a good league. Ignacio Piatti would have been amazing a few years ago in the PL, and even now he could be effective. Portland’s Brian Fernandez was close, though his recent cold spell was enough to exclude him.
Here’s the final XI:
Match: Atlanta United vs. NYCFC
Date and Time: Sunday, Aug 11 at 4:00pm ET
Stadium: Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Line: Atlanta United-136 | Draw +290 | NYCFC +330
Third place NYCFC is coming to town to battle second place Atlanta United, the top deck is open and tickets are going like __ (insert favorite Atlanta or Southern food here). This game is set up so well it could be an MLS regular-season game to excite even Zlatan!
And if not, why not? Both teams are coming off wins and looking to chase down first place Philadelphia Union (42 points) as we head into the business end of the season.
After a slow start to the campaign, 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez is back leading the Atlanta attack. Don’t look now Carlos Vela, but Martinez has scored in nine consecutive matches, tying his MLS record.
That scoring run has Martinez, who set the single season league record last year with 31, on 18 goals, just four behind Vela.
Atlanta is, of course, a different team this year without Miguel Almiron and with Frank de Boer behind the bench in place of Tata Martino.
Gone too is Atlanta’s expansive, easy on the eye style. The switch to de Boer’s more rigid ways took some adjusting to for 2018 MLS Cup Champions, as they seemed to be asking if it’s not broke, why fix it?
The one player that has benefitted from the new way is center back Miles Robinson, a 22-year-old American that finds himself in contention for the U23/Olympic team, having become a regular under de Boer, playing all 24 of United’s games in 2019, starting 23.
Interestingly, Robinson’s situation is a virtual echo of the one James Sands faces with NYCFC. Sands also went from a spare part under Torrent and his successor Partick Vieira in 2018 to a key piece of the puzzle for his club, starting at the center of a three-center back set.
Sands missed some time recently with a broken arm and Torrent rested the 19-year-old for Thursday night’s 3-2 win over Houston but expect the Rye, New York native back in the lineup Sunday against Martinez and company.
Sands is teamed with veterans Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens with the experienced pair also providing some beef that the 5’11” Sands, listed at 162 pounds lacks, allowing the former midfielder to showcase his ball-playing skills from the center of the defense.
It was a big moment for NYC against Houston when Maxi Moralez checked into the game Thursday night, mere moments after 10 man Houston had taken a 2-1 lead with a Mauro Manotas goal, decidedly against the run of play.
Moralez is the key to New York’s attack, teaming with Alexandru Mitrita and striker’s Heber and Valentin Castellanos who came off the bench to score the tying and winning goals versus Houston.
Atlanta has been extremely reliant on Martinez for goals this season. The Atlanta marksman’s 18 goals are a far cry from the four each tallied by Julian Gressel and Ezequiel Barco, next on Atlanta’s goals list.
Barco has yet to live up to the hype generated by his big money move to Atlanta prior to the 2018 season. Doubts were swirling around Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez earlier this season, but the tide seems to be turning. If Pity is synched up with Josef Martinez come playoff time, then Atlanta could mount a serious defense of its title.
As for Sunday, Atlanta’s home record of 9 wins, 1 loss, and 3 draws makes United a favorite against any team coming into Mercedes Benz, with the possible exception of LAFC. New York should make it tough on United and a draw isn’t out of the question, but with 70,00 plus screaming fans behind them Atlanta should enjoy some home cooking come Sunday.
Who: LAFC vs NY Red Bulls
When: SUN AUG 11, 10:00 PM ET on FS1 · TSN 1/4 · FOX Sports GO
Line: LAFC -315 | Draw +440 | +700
Already the best team in MLS by a wide margin, the Los Angeles Football Club has just added highly rated 19-year-old Uruguayan midfielder Brian Hernandez from Penarol as a Young Designated Player.
Diego Rossi also came to LAFC from Penarol, signing with the new LA side in December of 2017. Hernandez starred for Uruguay at the recent U20 World Cup and has experience playing in both the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.
As L.A.’s Bob Bradley-led juggernaut welcomes the New York Red Bulls to the Banc of California Park for a Sunday night showdown, NYRB has some transfer news of its own. The Red Bulls have just put pen to paper on a loan deal for 22 year-old winger Josh Sims, who comes to New York from Southampton on a Young DP contract for the rest of 2019.
Sims has made 20 Premier League appearances for the Saints, earning important minutes at the end of last season as Southampton successfully fought to secure its Premier League status.
With visa issues still to be resolved neither newcomer will be available on Sunday, although there will be plenty of talent on hand, particularly in the black and gold of the home team.
LAFC vs New York Red Bulls Match Preview
At 9 wins, 0 losses, and 1 draw, Los Angeles has a near-perfect home mark. They are not too bad on the road either, where they are 7-3-3.
The Red Bulls, third now in a tightly packed Eastern Conference, cannot come close to LA’s numbers and are 3-4-3 away from Red Bull Arena. If Chris Armas’ men are to get a result out of their cross country jaunt they will need to take some steps toward re-establishing the defensive chemistry that led New York’s MLS originals to the league’s best defensive record in 2018.
Perhaps the closing of the MLS transfer window on midnight Wednesday, August 7 will do the Red Bulls some good in that respect, now that Aaron Long knows where he will be playing his soccer for the immediate future.
The 2018 MLS Defender of the Year was reportedly close to a move to the Premier League’s West Ham, with other clubs in other league’s also said to be bidding for him. Long is a professional and seems unlikely to go into a funk, but performance levels have been known to drop when players are denied a move.
Long, goalkeeper Luis Robles and all the Red Bulls will need a big performance against L.A. who leads the league with 61 goals, 14 goals better than Philadelphia, second in MLS with 46.
Of course, goalkeeper Tyler Miller, center backs Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura have led LAFC to the best defensive record in the league, with LA having surrendered just 23 goals.
Of late, however, that defensive shield has shown a crack or two, with LA conceding twice after having built a 3-0 lead versus Atlanta on July 26. LAFC managed to close out that win, badly needed after Zlatan Ibrahimovich had hung a hattrick on them the previous week in a 3-2 loss to the L.A. Galaxy.
LA got back on track with a 2-0 win Saturday at New England behind goals from Diego Rossi and Latif Blessing. Rossi is second on the team and fourth in the league with 13 goals, with likely MVP Carlos Vela setting the pace with his MLS leading 22 goals and 13 assists, level with NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez for the top spot on the helpers chart.
With a very impressive record of 16 wins, 3 losses, and four draws, LAFC has obviously been consistent all season. From a points dropped standpoint, LA’s worst stretch was when they drew consecutive matches, 1-1 at Seattle on April 28 and 0-0 at home to Chicago on May 4.
As for the Red Bulls, consistently inconsistent might be the best way to describe their 2019 season. Going back to a pair of wins, 4-0 over Real Salt Lake on June 1, and 2-0 versus Cinncinatti on May 25, the Red Bull have alternated wins with losses, with just a 3-3 draw with Atlanta on July 7 breaking the win, lose, win, lose pattern.
NYRB are heavy underdogs at +700. With a +7 goal differential compared to LAFC’s +38, and on the road, they should be. Oddsmakers have the most likely outcome a 3-0 LAFC win (+800), meaning this could be a long night for the Red Bulls.
Another episode of the HPS MLS Pod is up!
Joining host Harrison Hamm this week is site-runner Chops.
- The potential impact of Mesut Ozil joining D.C. United
- How many MLS players could step into the Premier League right now?
- The Aaron Long transfer saga and MLS as a selling league
Who: New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC
When: Saturday, August 3rd @ 6:00pm ET on ESPN+
Where: Red Bull Arena
Line: New York Red Bulls -114 | Draw +285 | Toronto FC +270
Welcome back from the break, now, where were we?
Oh, yeah, on July 27, um last Saturday, the New York Red Bulls dropped a painful 3-2 decision at home to the hugely disappointing Columbus Crew – wasn’t Caleb Porter supposed to be better than this? – that left them sitting in 5th place with 34 points. Not terrible, but not great after 23 games from the defending Supporters Shield winners.
Now the Red Bulls hope to kick off a stretch run with a win against a side in worse shape than themselves, the struggling Toronto Football Club. Despite a 2-1 home win over FC Cincy last Saturday, TFC spent the break below the playoff line. However, a win on Saturday could push them as far up the table as 5th place, ahead of the Red Bulls and level on points with 4th place NYCFC.
New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC match preview
With the taste of that loss to Columbus and the lingering feeling that they should have done better than a 3-1 loss in Toronto back on July 17, the Red Bulls figure to be a somewhat angry side on Saturday night.
The Red Bulls have done well over the years against Toronto, especially at home, where the Bulls have are an impressive 11-2-2 versus the Reds over the years.
To keep that record climbing, New York will need to contend with Jozy Altidore, who has scored a goal in four consecutive games, some of them quite spectacular, and MLS All-Star Alejandro Puzuelo, who has been a smash hit since coming to the league. Puzuelo has nine goals and nine assists in 19 games. Giovinco-esque, no?
As for Altidore, the man a sizable portion of USMNT supporters love to hate, he has been flashing the combination of power and skill that first excited the American soccer community when he first appeared on the scene way back in 2006.
Altidore has nine goals in 13 games this season, just nine starts. Simply put, when Altidore is healthy, he is still far and away the best American striker and a top MLS star.
TFC has not been sharp defensively and is looking to another controversial USMNT man, Omar Gonzalez, to right that ship. Gonzalez has played three games for Toronto since returning to the league for the first time since 2015, when Gonzalez left the L.A. Galaxy for Mexico.
New York coach Chris Armas has yet to rely on Bradley Wright-Phillips for a full match since the veteran striker’s return. Instead, he is choosing to bring BWP off of the bench to replace or play alongside Reb Bulls joint-leading goal scorer Brian White.
Armas may be inclined to continue that strategy, although a surprise pairing from the start could upset TFC coach Greg Vanney’s plans. In our mid-season Report Card, we pointed out that it may be time for Derrick Etienne to make a jump from bit player to a more prominent role in the Red Bulls attack.
His confidence is on the up after playing an important part in Haiti’s Gold Cup campaign. The Haitian-American is quick, skillful and can be audacious, qualities the Red Bulls offense could surely use.
The Red Bulls finally have their health as they head into the final portion of the 2019 season. If the team is to make a run to the playoffs and perhaps do some damage once they get there, last season’s league leading defense simply must cut down on the mistakes and tighten up in front of Luis Robles.
The Tyler Adams effect has been real but with four international quality defenders in Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo, Aaron Long, and Tim Parker, the Red Bulls defense can and should be among the league’s best.
Some really big match-ups this week in MLS.
Coming off a Zlatan-depantsing, this year’s presumptive champs LAFC look to rebound against last year’s actual champs, Atlanta United. But that’s not the only major match-up.
Zlatan leads LA Galaxy to Portland as they try keep LAFC within their sights in the Western conference. Seattle takes on Houston in another important match-up for Western conference playoff aspirations. FC Dallas host RSL as both teams try to stay in the playoff race as well.
Lots of intriguing games. Here are the odds.
MLS Matchweek 21 Odds
As always, home team is listed first. Read how to bet MLS for a refresher.
|NYCFC -138||Draw +275||Sporting KC +360|
|LAFC -205||Draw +375||Atlanta United +450|
|New England -167||Draw +310||Orlando +410|
|New York Red Bulls -139||Draw +255||Columbus Crew +400|
|Chicago Fire -143||Draw +300||DC United +340|
|FC Dallas -130||Draw +270||Real Salt Lake +340|
|Houston Dynamo +100||Draw +270||Seattle Sounders +240|
|Minnesota United -275||Draw +400||Vancouver +650|
|Montreal Impact +148||Draw +245||Philadelphia Union +170|
|Toronto FC -286||Draw +470||Cincinnati +650|
|San Jose -240||Draw +400||Colorado Rapids +525|
|Portland Timbers -182||Draw +340||LA Galaxy +420|
Odds & Ends
Let’s focus on where the value is this week:
- At -205, LAFC might not be your traditional value play. However, it’s hard to imagine they don’t come out on Friday with something to prove against Atlanta.
- DC United is inconsistent af, but +340 against Chicago? Take a hard look at the draw (+300) or DC outright. They’re the better team and are +6 on Chicago on gd.
- Montreal may be in 6th place in the Eastern conference, but they have the 3rd worst goal differential (-11). If Philadelphia Union is for real, they’ll handle their business at +170.
- Yes, Portland looks much improved. But Galaxy at +420 is practically begging you to take them. Lots of value at that price even if you like the Timbers.
Watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic go off for a hat trick Friday night as LA Galaxy and LAFC played a thrilling, physical, proper derby, we started thinking:
To figure this out, we’ll explore:
- How good is LAFC in MLS?
- How much talent does LAFC have on their roster?
- How does MLS compare to European leagues?
- How does LAFC statistically stack up against European clubs?
How good is this year’s LAFC?
LAFC is a legitimate MLS juggernaut. Even with Friday’s loss, their third of the season, LAFC are still 9 points clear of Galaxy in the Western conference. More impressively, they have an absurd +35 goal differential after 21 games.
For comparison’s sake, last year’s MLS Cup winner and juggernaut themselves, Atlanta United, finished the 34-game season +26.
The best goal differential in MLS history belongs to the 1998 LA Galaxy squad. Propelled by Cobi Jones leading the attack and Kevin Hartman between the sticks, that team finished +41 in a very different looking, quality-deprived league.
LAFC at +35 will likely blow the best goal differential record out of the water.
While goal differential is a much stronger indicator of a team’s quality than wins and losses, LAFC also have the single-season points record in their sights. That currently belongs to last year’s New York Red Bulls at 71. However, that team “only” was +29 for the season.
So it’s reasonable to say that after 21 games, LAFC are on track to record the greatest team season in MLS history.
How much talent is on LAFC’s roster?
LAFC have legitimate top-shelf talent…for MLS.
While Zlatan thinks (and for one night showed) otherwise, Carlos Vela has consistently been the best player in MLS all year. LAFC are dominant, but the real strength is their attack. Looking at WhoScored data, LAFC have four of the best 11 players (statistically) so far this season. All are midfielders / forwards:
How far ahead is Vela compared to the rest of the league?
For comparison’s sake, last year’s best player in MLS, Miguel Almiron, rated 7.7 on WhoScored. As we say, WhoScored isn’t the end all be all, but provides a solid measuring stick. Almiron was sold to Newcastle for $26M USD. Vela would never fetch the same price as Miggy (age being the biggest reason). However, Almiron stepped right in and was a top-half-of-the-roster contributor on a mid-table Premier League team. That would be a reasonable expectations for Vela (he’d even slot in well with a team like Wolverhampton).
After Vela, nobody on LAFC’s roster would likely earn starter minutes on any Prem squad other than recently promoted clubs or an off-team with a glaring positional hole. Domestic talent is there. Top European quality talent is sparse.
To further that point, LAFC’s total roster value is just over $43M. The below graphic is Transfermarkt’s top XI in the MLS in terms of value. These are the ballpark values clubs would expect to receive in transfer offers. It’s worth noting that Aaron Long is not among the four most valued defenders.
Anyway, market value has a startling direct correlation to team performance. Just look at Premier League team market values and where they finished in the table. Top 6 is almost in exact order of finish. Teams 7-10 are too, it’s just missing Wolves.
LAFC would have the 19th most expensive roster in the Premier League, and the lion’s share of that value is tied to one player.
MLS’ total league-wide market value is $652.53M USD. There are six teams in the Premier League alone with higher market values than the MLS as a league. MLS’ total value is comparable with Arsenal ($662M), who may not even crack the top 6 this year.
How does MLS compare to other leagues?
This is no besmirchment on MLS. It improves in quality every year. Other global domestic leagues have anywhere from a 40 to 100+ year head start on them.
We’re working on a larger post on this topic for early August. However, looking at Global Soccer Rankings on FiveThirtyEight and transfermarkt values, MLS would rank behind the following domestic leagues without question:
- English Premier League
- La Liga
- Serie A
- Ligue 1
- Primiera Liga
- Premier League (Russia)
- Süper Lig (Turkey)
- Liga MX
Other leagues like Super League (Switzerland) or Superliga (Argentina) have better top end teams and weaker bottom end clubs.
The point, LAFC is dominating a deep league… that lacks depth in the upper ranks.
So how would LAFC as a team do in Europe’s top leagues?
- LAFC has a Global Club Rank of 114.
- Their transfermarkt total would put them 19th out of 20 Premier League teams and somewhere among the bottom 3 for La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A.
- Their ClubElo rank then would approximate around 1575, which would be a top tier Championship level team.
So how would LAFC do in Europe?
- Premier League: They’d be a relegation candidate / would not qualify. They’d do well in the Championship.
- La Liga: Their roster value would put them in the relegation zone. However, their Global Soccer Ranking and ClubElo would have them as a top La Liga 2 squad.
- Bundesliga: Just copy+paste La Liga here. They likely wouldn’t qualify or would be a relegation candidate if they did. They’d be a top level Bundesliga 2 team.
- Serie A: Financially, Serie A is a bit stronger on the bottom end than the Bundesliga and La Liga. However, their Global Club Rankings and ClubElo indicate that LAFC would be right around the relegation zone.
- Ligue 1: I don’t really consider Ligue 1 in the same class as the other four leagues. It’s a big 4, not a big 5. To that point, LAFC would likely be a mid-table Ligue 1 squad. This is the first of the major European domestic leagues where they’d not only qualify, but hang.
After that, you could drop LAFC in the Netherlands or Portugal and while they wouldn’t compete for titles, they’d comfortably survive each year in the top half of the table.
So yes, LAFC is perhaps the greatest MLS squad of all time. But no, they wouldn’t compete with even the bottom teams of the top 4 European leagues just yet.
MLS is a good product that’s come a long ways. There’s still some distance from it’s top end and the rest of the world.
At this stage of the MLS season, we can confidently place a group of five teams at the top of the Eastern Conference hierarchy:
Other playoff contenders — notably the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, Orlando City SC and the New England Revolution — will hang around, but the existing group of five will be tough to challenge.
To handicap the race, let’s take a look at each of the East elites, including what they do well and poorly and how they’ve played in recent weeks.
DCU sit second in the Eastern Conference, barely a nick ahead of a threatening group of three — Atlanta, NYRB, and NYCFC. D.C. are in danger are falling further behind.
Even as they stick around in the upper tier in the conference, it grows harder and harder to proclaim them as legitimate contenders. They’ve won just twice in their last 10 games.
Luciano Acosta is suspended currently for a red card, and has generally taken a step back from last season’s ascent to stardom. They haven’t scored at the rate most expected despite Wayne Rooney’s continued excellence.
By the time Acosta is transferred elsewhere (which seems like an inevitability, whether this window or next), D.C. will be severely missing attacking creativity. In fact, they’ve been missing attacking creativity even with Acosta in the lineup. D.C. rank in the lower tiers of shots per game and xG per game. They lack difference-makers — players who can find the ball and pick out passes that others don’t see.
Acosta has been a difference-maker in the past, but this season his productivity has waned. DCU don’t have other players who can both fill in when Acosta’s production dips and, most importantly, help boost the Argentine. They need a secondary creator.
Lucas Rodriguez is a dribbler, but he’s not a passer or an adept connector. Paul Arriola is a workhorse. The deeper midfielders have yet to find ways to impact further up the field the way players like Cristian Roldan in Seattle have.
D.C. have to surround Rodriguez and Arriola with players who can move the ball and keep D.C.’s attack from faltering. Rodriguez, while electric on the ball, has an xGChain/96 figure of 0.96, lower than that of Gyasi Zardes. Arriola is a high-caliber player, but similarly lacks the ability to find difference-making passes.
Above all else, D.C. need a shake-up. They’ve clearly stagnated. We’ll see what this transfer window brings.
NYC lost twice in MLS in the last couple of weeks, to the Portland Timbers and the Red Bulls. In between those, they sandwiched a penalty-kick defeat in the US Open Cup quarterfinals against Orlando City.
Pigeons fans need not worry too much about these recent setbacks. The Red Bulls loss had a fluky feel to it — NYRB scored their goals on a penalty-kick and a bizarre, controversial referee mismanagement situation. NYC had dominated much of the New York Derby. They had their chances against Portland, losing 1-0 despite dominating the xG battle. Penalty shootouts are basically coin tosses.
In general, City look like one of the league’s better teams, and hold games in hand on most of their Eastern Conference rivals. Their attack is deep. Younger options have emerged in midfield alongside Alex Ring; most notably, Keaton Parks has become an important starter, and James Sands will continue to have a role. Maxi Moralez is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Dome Torrent has his team spreading opponents out, sending the fullbacks forward, and thriving off of diagonal switches in the attacking third. It is an effective formula, but they have to be careful to prevent the well running dry.
Have Atlanta adjusted to Frank de Boer’s system? I’m inclined to say that they have, to a certain extent. They’ve worked their way back up to third in the Eastern Conference, and they have started to improve in midfield. Justin Meram has shown flashes of pre-Orlando City Justin Meram.
But when they win, defending and Josef Martinez make the difference.
Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba are still injured. With Brek Shea out for the year and Mikey Amrbose battling thigh problems, they don’t have a left back. Pity Martinez has not yet transformed into a world-beating superstar, and it’s hard to see that happening any time soon. They have a ceiling now that they didn’t have in the past.
The five-game win streak they ripped off at the beginning of May appears to have been a product of a weak schedule; they took four of a possible 15 points in the five games prior to Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition of 10-man Houston.
De Boer should roll with the 3-5-2-ish formation he tested against the Dynamo. Julian Gressel is best used as a wingback, and a three-at-the-back is the only way De Boer can fit the center back trio of Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst together. Pity’s defensive apathy would be most effectively sheltered in a second striker role.
Atlanta will keep trying to find the best version of themselves.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls, contrary to previous NYRB seasons, look set up to succeed in the playoffs instead of the regular season. They took some time to coalesce this year — a process that makes sense, considering the departure of Tyler Adams, injuries on the backline, Champions League congestion, and Kaku’s going off the rails at various times — and now they are motoring along at a reasonable pace.
It’s hard to see them going on a run and challenging for first in the conference, barring some big signing of a winger. Reigning Defender of the Year Aaron Long has been the subject of transfer rumors this summer. If they sell, they make things very difficult for themselves this season.
But aside from Adams’s departure and Bradley Wright-Phillips’s decline to super-sub status, not too much is different about this Red Bulls team from previous iterations. They play a similar style and press the ball well. In the waning BWP years (and first Brian White year!), they’ll want to make a serious run in October.
The current top team, Philly have been better and more consistent than every team in the East except for (arguably) NYCFC. They have the look of a bona fide elite, though the recent injury of Jamiro Monteiro has stunted their recent form.
They may be a bit overrated in some areas. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie haven’t had seasons to write home about, though Jack Elliott has been very good at center back. Andre Blake is perpetually the most overrated keeper in the league. The signing of journeyman American Andrew Wooten at striker is unlikely to be a serious difference-maker.
In general, though, the Union are legit. Ilsinho is a weapon off the bench that other teams don’t have. Kai Wagner has been one of the league’s best left backs this season. The diamond formation has worked wonders, and continues to produce quality possession. They will face a battle to finish at the top of the conference.
It’s time for another HPS MLS Pod!
Joining Harrison Hamm this week is Evan Weston, the television voice of Orlando City SC. Topics discussed include:
- Orlando’s wild win over NYCFC in the US Open Cup quarterfinals (0:30)
- Orlando’s improvement this season and future direction (10:00)
- The attack, and Chris Mueller’s potential USMNT contention (30:00)
With the MLS season just past its halfway point, now is as good a time as ever to do some awards. We’ll do the real awards and mix in plenty of other player and team prizes.
MVP: Carlos Vela, LAFC
This one is as consensus a selection as you’re going to get. Carlos Vela has a ridiculous 19 goals and 12 assists in 19 games, on pace for the best season in MLS history. He is the best player on the best team. He does so much beyond scoring that he has left little debate as to who the best player in the league is.
Finalists: Maxi Moralez (NYCFC), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
Moralez has 6g, 11a as NYCFC’s fulcrum. The Light Blues have two losses all season and are tied for the Eastern Conference lead on points-per-game.
Zlatan is second in the league in goals and dictates everything that makes the Galaxy successful. He also dictates everything that holds them back — he does little defensive work and has an outwardly poor attitude.
Defender of the Year: Walker Zimmerman, LAFC
It’s hard not to give this award to Walker Zimmerman, who has clearly been the best defender in the league. His performance earned him a regular starting job in the USMNT’s Gold Cup backline.
Finalists: Miles Robinson (Atlanta), Larrys Mabiala (Portland)
Coach of the Year: Jim Curtain, Philadelphia
Philly has risen to first-place in the Eastern Conference with a defined style of play, emphasizing the strengths of its players and playing quality possession soccer. Jim Curtain’s trust of guys like Brenden Aaronson has spurred the Union’s surge.
Finalists: Bob Bradley (LAFC), Matias Almeyda (San Jose)
Goalkeeper of the Year: Stefan Ffrei, Seattle Sounders
I had a hard time coming up with a clear top contender for this one. Stefan Frei has continued to be solid in Seattle, so I’ll give it to him.
Finalists: Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Maxime Crepeau (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Newcomer of the Year: Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC
Alejandro Pozuelo has easily been TFC’s best player, with seven goals and eight assists so far in his debut season.
It would be a very good bet, though, that Portland forward Brian Fernandez will have this award on lock by the end of the year. The Timbers promise to win a good portion of their home game slate in the second half of the season, and Fernandez has been scoring at a goal-per-game pace.
Finalists: Fernandez, Kacper Przybylko (Philadelphia)
Most Improved Player: Latif Blessing, LAFC
Latif Blessing has been a Best XI-level performer in midfield for LA. He has gone from a super-utility player to one of the league’s best ball-moving and ground-covering midfielders in the league. Fellow LA midfielder Eduard Atuesta would’ve been a reasonable pick here as well.
Honorable mentions: Jackson Yueill (San Jose), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Atuesta, Lamine Sane (Orlando), Memo Rodriguez (Houston)
Best team: LAFC
Honorable mention: Philadelphia Union
Worst team: FC Cincinnati
Cincy have lost 13 of their 19 games and are the running favorite for the Wooden Spoon. They went to Minnesota and got annihilated 7-1 on June 29. As they continue to search for a coach, their roster is in a “tear it all down” stage.
Honorable mention: Columbus Crew
With Colorado and New England starting to figure themselves out, it’s been an especially bad year for Ohio teams.
Biggest surprise: The rise of the Union
Watching Philly transition from an interesting young team to a clear MLS elite has been a joy. They’ve done so through a well-crafted style of play, the growth of several players, and smart signings (Kai Wagner, Kacper Przybylko, Jamiro Monteiro, Sergio Santos). We await the rise of Marco Fabian.
Honorable mentions: LAFC’s complete dominance, San Jose’s turnaround, Orlando’s new foundation
Biggest disappointment: Columbus’s plummet
The Crew started the season competently and then tumbled harshly to the surface, pushed off the ledge by a rash of injuries (Milton Valenzuela, Federico Higuain, Harrison Afful) and static coaching. As much as Caleb Porter wanted to run it all back, it just wouldn’t work. Big changes are on the horizon in Columbus.
Honorable mentions: Houston’s road stagnation, Toronto’s slow first half
Team that should improve: Portland Timbers
This is the easiest answer: Portland have a few games in hand on most Western Conference teams and will play the vast majority of their remaining matches at home. Sitting ninth in the west now, the Timbers should rise at least a few spots by the end of the year.
Honorable mentions: New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC
Team that might regress: Montreal Impact
Montreal are fourth in the east now, but feel the heat of NYCFC on their back. NYCFC have four games in hand and are just one point behind the Impact. The Red Bulls and possibly Toronto FC (with Omar Gonzalez and one or two TAM attackers arriving) could overtake the Impact as well and toss them out of the playoff race.