East to Eden: The Eastern Conference & Its MLS Cup Dark Horses

James Grossi covers MLS with a focus on the Eastern Conference for TSG

The Preamble

MVP candidate Dominic Oduro has le....wait Dominic Oduro! Yes, MVP candidate Dominic Oduro has led the Fire to the cusp of the playoffs....

A cursory glance at the MLS standings could give the impression that there is an imbalance of power between the Western and Eastern Conferences.

Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake, Dallas, and reigning champions Colorado are indeed the class of the league. Toronto, New England, DC, New York, Columbus, Kansas City and even current table toppers Philadelphia have all struggled at various times this season.

Whether this holds true would require an in-depth analysis of each club’s schedule, their stability, and the current state of their roster evolution, but based purely on points, the West is the superior conference, by an average ~0.16 points-per-game.

This season’s playoff structure sees three guaranteed spots for each conference, and a further four wildcard places for the highest-ranking remaining sides from either conference. Those final four candidates will play a one-match play-in tie, winner moving on to complete the four team groups that will combat the quarterfinals (conference semifinals).

With the final two weeks of the regular season in progress – matches kickoff Wednesday night – the current standings see seven clubs battling for those four wildcard spots, with two applicants from each conference holding down the positions.

Three clubs from the West and four from the East remain in the running for those playoff berths. The guaranteed Western spots are all locked up, while those in the East have not yet been clinched.

Two of those three Western wildcard applicants – Dallas and Colorado – are alive in the CONCACAF Champions League as well, which will take some of their attention away from league play. Portland – the remaining Western candidate – play their three remaining games spread over nine days, with two of them on the road, a place they have not fared very well.

The East – with more clubs alive and fighting – sees only a ten-point spread between first and seventh; plenty to play for in the remaining matches.

Though the apparent strength of the Western Conference makes it appear inevitable that the MLS Cup champion will come from their ranks, playoffs are a beast different to league play. The ability to perform night in and night out is very different from showing up when the pressure is on.

With that in mind, it is better to come in battling for progression than to coast in; to be tempered in the fire of do-or-die prepares a team for the winner-takes-all nature of the playoffs.

Extra rest will help heal aching bodies so late in the marathon that is the season but could also cause a touch of rust to form. A rest can dull the senses, cause a misstep or slow the reaction time. A single mistake can be critical, especially in the one-off wildcard matches; even in the two-legged affairs a bad night can prove disasterous.

It must also be remembered that the added difficulty of the Western bracket could be debilitating to any prospective champions on their path to the final.

The Rundown

There are four possible match windows (two each of midweeks and weekends); ‘Off’ means there is no match scheduled for a particular club. Warnings as per the MLS Disciplinary Summary for individuals’ one yellow card away from a caution accumulation suspension; which may result in becoming unavailable for one of the remaining matches. For teams with more than two matches remaining there will be additional players at risk; data collection proved difficult due to the good behaviour incentive being undocumented.

Chicago (7th) Three matches remaining: vs. Dallas, @ DC, Off, vs. Columbus

Points Form: winners of five of their last seven; two losses in last ten

Key Injuries: Grazzini, Nazarit (Nearing fitness)

Warnings: Chaves, Gargan, Gibbs, Oduro

DC (6th) Four matches remaining: @ Vancouver, vs. Chicago, vs. Portland, vs. Kansas City

Form: losers of two straight, but of only four of their last ten

Key Injuries: Bošković, Pontius, Zayner (Out) Jakovic & White (Nearing)

The left boot of Brad Davis, deadly accurate and just pain deadly to opponents this year...

Houston (5th) Two matches remaining: Off, @ Portland, Off, vs. Los Angeles

Form: undefeated in their last four; two losses in last ten

Key Injuries: Weaver (Out)

Warnings: Davis, Moffat

New York (4th) Two matches remaining: Off, @ Kansas City, vs. Philadelphia, Off

Form: winners of three of their last five, only one loss in their last eight

Key Injuries: Albright (Out)

Suspensions: Lindpere (Next match);

Warnings: Rodgers, Richards, Miller, Ballouchy.

Columbus (3rd) Two matches remaining: Off, @ New England, Off, @ Chicago

Form: losers of five of their last seven, but only six of their last ten

Key Injuries: Tchani (Out) Heinemann, Marshall, O’Rourke, Rogers, Balchan

Warnings: Rusmir

Kansas City (2nd) Two matches remaining: Off, vs. New York, Off, @ DC

45 Form: undefeated in three; only three losses in their last eleven

7 Key Injuries: Besler (Nearing)

Warnings: Bravo, Collin

Philadelphia (1st) Two matches remaining: Off, vs. Toronto, @ New York, Off

47 Form: undefeated in their last seven; only three wins in their last ten

9 Key Injuries: Mondragón, Califf, MacMath, Miglioranzi (Nearing)

Warnings: Valdés

The Predictions

Normally I’m not the sort for prognostication, preferring to wait until after the fact, and then weigh in with my two cents; more the ‘I told you so’ as opposed to the ‘I’ll tell you what’.

But seeing as I have your attention…

At the outset of this project, I saw Chicago as the threat. Their recent good form brought about by having made the best midseason acquisitions – aside from Toronto – in Pável Pardo and Sebastián Grazzini to strengthen the middle of the park. That lockdown in the centre frees up Logan Pause and Marco Pappa to close down the flanks and provides Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko the necessary service to utilize their exploitive speed to get behind defenders.

Those quick goals against New England were exemplary of their new threat, and the confidence with which they’ve been playing. Also it would be great for a club that has struggled of late on and off the field to find some success.

The US Open Cup Final loss has thrown a spanner in the works however, predicting how a team will respond to such disappointment is difficult – was their form a building crescendo that has now been snuffed out; or will they seek redemption in the playoffs?

They lay the furthest from the promise land and the first match – Wednesday night against a struggling Dallas side without captain Daniel Hernández – will be the decider. They catch DC on a short turnaround from a trip to Vancouver, then end the season at home against a Columbus side that has slumped.

All those drawn matches – a new MLS single-season record of sixteen; also accumulated by New York this season – denotes the ability to keep the result close; that skill can be crucial in a playoff tie. With their offensive prowess and that durability in tight fixtures they could surprise if they make it in.

New York too has that ability to stay in the game, of course theirs was a more disappointing record considering the firepower contained within the squad. But despite all the knuckle-wringing and confusion to overlook such an experienced, determined side would be foolish. Though they could hardly be considered a dark horse in any pairing

They are an old team, not a particularly deep one either, but if injuries can be avoided and Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers can find some of their early season offense it would be folly to overlook them as class is permanent, while form is temporary.

Sometimes the airing of locker room grievances can have a revitalizing effect on performance. Those negative words by Rafa Márquez could have ignited a fire in an underperforming squad. A firing New York could easily run to the Cup.

Both Chicago and New York’s potential is obfuscated by question marks; the surest bet for an Eastern team to cause some trouble to the West in the postseason is undoubtedly Kansas City.

Sporting is a dangerous side, formidable defensively, offensively efficient, and with just enough depth to withstand the bumps and bruises of the post season.

That long hellacious road trip to begin the season may have been a blessing in disguise as the numerous home matches in the latter half of the season has spared them some travel-related fatigue.

Interchangeable pieces in all three bands of the field, their sturdy defense, energetic midfield, and speedy, powerful forward trio will make them a difficult opponent. Their home form – largely unbeatable – and never say die attitude will serve them well.

Less likely, but still with the potential to cause a stir in the postseason is Philadelphia. A midseason slump brought about by the sale of Carlos Ruiz and the constant tinkering of Piotr Nowak – especially with his attacking pieces – has been left behind in recent weeks, due mainly to the form of Sébastian Le Toux.

A strong defensive unit that has remained unchanged for virtually the entire season – aside from the trade of Jordan Harvey and his replacement with Gabriel Farfan – combined with the energy of youth and a very deep squad should make Philly a contender.

The loss of Faryd Mondragón to a finger injury – though his return does appear imminent – and the reliance on the yet unproven Zac MacMath is not the way to grind out a playoff run. Too many of their attackers lack big match experience, and should Le Toux be unable to find the goals they may be without a true goal-scoring threat.

For the Union this postseason will be about gaining experience, they’ve built a squad for the long term rather than for now, and remember ‘you’ll win naught with kids’.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to never count a Dominic Kinnear team out. The difficulty with completing the signings of players has left them with very little time to gel as a unit.

Carlo Costly, Luiz Camargo, a fit again Calen Carr, and Adam Moffat are all great additions, but the fitness of Brian Ching is unpredictable at best and Brad Davis is too essential to everything they accomplish.

Without enough variability in attack there is a risk that Davis will be shutdown and the Dynamo would be rendered toothless.

Expect next season to be a big one for Houston; a new stadium to be ready in 2012, Will Bruin with that rookie year under his belt, and a touch more cohesiveness will free Davis from the burden of providing everything and make them a more well-rounded and dangerous side.

DC go as does De Rosario; the loss of Chris Pontius and Branko Bošković has left them short-handed, and their strike force of Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff has not be reliable enough this season.

If De Ro can he keep up his form they have the potential to sneak in, but they face a tough schedule with four matches in the next two weeks; it’s always better to have the points in the bank than games in hand.

Normally having matches at home would be a good portent, but DC has had a hard time at RFK collecting less than fifty percent of available points in their own ground.

I see them failing; it’s too soon for a rebuilt side – recall they were abysmal last season – but make Dwayne happy and the next year could be a good one. Pontius, Andy Najar, and Bill Hamid will be seasoned professionals on the verge of becoming internationals; Ethan White, Perry Kitchen and Daniel Woolard – three-quarters of that young backline – will have that pesky first season out of the way and Ben Olsen will have a strong, successful year to build upon under his belt.

This season is a journey too far, but the next holds much promise.

That leaves Columbus; an unexpected strong run saw them shoot to the top of the East only to gradually drop back down in recent weeks. They are simply too battered and too thin to really leave an impression on this season.

They have enough points to possibly sneak into the playoffs, should teams such as Chicago, DC, and Portland fail to mount a challenge, but their remaining two matches are both on the road – they have only collected six results on the road all season. The saving grace could be that New England – already eliminated – could be experimenting with youth and that Chicago could be out before their meetings.

Marshalling Columbus to relevancy....

A paper-thin squad with limited experience; they lean on the form of Chad Marshall and Will Hesmer, as well as the unreliable striking due of Andrés Mendoza and Emilio Rentería, both at times prolific, but hardly consistent.

They too are in the process of rebuilding a contender out of the ashes of the champions they blew up on Black Monday last November.

The star-studded Supporter’s Shield Champion Los Angeles Galaxy is the class of the league; the Final will be played at the Home Depot Center in November and with this being the final year of David Beckham’s contract it appears as if the cosmos have aligned to grant the fairy-telling ending to the DP experiment so desired.

Despite their class, they have not been so dominant as to overlook the possibility of an upset. There are several teams – both in the West and East – that should pose them difficulty as they march to the Cup.

Regardless of who ends as champions, it will be an entertaining postseason, with plenty of storylines to follow. Who makes the final cut? How will the wildcard play-in affect the quarterfinals (conference semis)? Who will be crowned conference champions? And who will take the Cup come the end of November at the HDC?

An enthralling climax to a great season of MLS action, stay tuned, things have only just begun to get interesting.

24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John on 2011/10/12 at 9:39 AM

    Great column here, good work.

    Very excited to see the Houston/Portland game this Friday.

    Reply

    • Thanks; every match look to be tense – currently catching the end of Chicago vs Dallas – well, most matches – the Toronto-New England match could be as dire as their first meeting was, 0-0 in front of 500 people as the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

      Even the first dead rubber of the season – New England vs San Jose – was a decent match considering the plights of the two teams.

      Reply

      • Posted by John on 2011/10/13 at 7:43 AM

        Vancouver v DC was tense last night. It really felt like DC was going to get something, but they just lacked Pontius and DeRossario.

        Reply

        • Hope they’re all tense from here on in… giving up such early goals in both halves is such a killer, always playing catch up saps the energy.

          De Ro, Pontius, even Boskovic who was just finding his feet when he got injured; losing so much talent from a rebuilding team is so difficult to compensate for.

          Reply

  2. Still not a fan of the MLS playoff set-up this year, but the extra teams being including has made this playoff run fun for just about every team. Maybe Garber was right.

    Reply

    • The run-in has been great, even Vancouver was only recently officially eliminated.

      The test of the system will come with those wildcard matches, and how the first round proper is affected by the play-in game.

      Garber does good, Garber does bad, either way we’ll have something to complain about, it’s fun.

      Reply

  3. I Believe That We Will Win………!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Crow on 2011/10/12 at 4:54 PM

    An interesting look at some goalkeeper stats:

    Sean Johnson- 7-6-12 1.28 GAA 68% SV percentage 7 clean sheets
    Bill Hamid- 7-6-9 1.37 GAA 66% SV percentage 7 clean sheets
    Faryd Mondragon 8-7-10 1.07 GAA 61% SV percentage 7 clean sheets
    Zac MacMath 3-0-4 1.07 GAA 64% SV percentage 3 clean sheets

    MacMath’s numbers are including that 4 goals allowed game vs. New England. I have high hopes for Johnson and Hamid for the National Team but I think MacMath could be part of the equation. He still has more to learn with his positioning (see the Najar goal), and needs to command his box better (see the Seattle game), but this kid has some serious talent and not many people talk about him. I still hope Mondragon is back for the playoffs, but I’m even comfortable with an inexperienced MacMath. The kid can make some saves. What a step up from Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton!

    Reply

    • I wasn’t trying to knock MacMath, he does have a lot of promise and is definitely a step-up from Seitz and Knighton. Those are impressive stats, but he is so young and the pressure of the playoffs can be so different from a handful of regular season matches.

      The Union are such a young team, that I couldn’t rank them up with New York and KC.

      Youth of course can be a benefit as well, they don’t know enough to be afraid; the “You’ll win naught with kids” was a nod to the Manchester United team that won the premiership in 1995-95 after Alan Hansen dismissed United following a 3-1 opening day loss to Aston Villa with a roster full of kids such as Beckham, Scholes, Neville, etc.

      Even with Mondragon nearing fitness, they attack is still very young and has not come together as well as they could have. I saw them as more of a threat come next season.

      Reply

      • Posted by Crow on 2011/10/12 at 7:49 PM

        Yes, I am happy the Union are built for the future, and I’m just hoping they can make some sort of run in the playoffs this year. Nowak frustrates me at times as it seemed for the longest time Torres, Mike Farfan, and Mwanga were not getting enough playing time. Hopefully, it works out in the long run.

        By the way, I just wanted to say thanks for the comprehensive article. I realize the West is stronger than the East in MLS, but I think the East has its merits as well. It was nice to read some solid coverage on the East, and not just for New York.

        Reply

        • I remember the first time I saw Torres up close… it was at BMO early last season, he looked so tiny – remember Plata hadn’t come around yet, now Torres looks huge – but regardless of his diminutive size, even in just a half of play his touch, vision; the way he found holes and made quick decisions; the brain-game he played was stunning.

          Nowak I think is playing it cautious while building something special. He’s bringing in these veterans like Paunovic & Mondragon; some steel like Califf – I trust his style is well-received in Philly – and assembling what could be the best collection of young American talent in MLS.

          In a few years you guys could be fantastic to watch… that Pfeffer kid didn’t look out of place at all, even nabbing Adu at such a cut-rate price is a brilliant move. Give these boys a couple of years and watch out.

          Oh, side note, from now on the Farfans shall be known as Marfan and Garfan, I am tired of typing first names all the time.

          Every midweek and weekend I do a review of the action over at my blog, picking the storylines that best sum up the weekend’s action regardless of who played.

          I’ll be contributing more here as well; it’s an exciting time for MLS, sometimes the stories you don’t hear in the MS Media are the best ones.

          Reply

          • Posted by Crow on 2011/10/13 at 6:32 PM

            Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing Pfeffer more. And i can’t believe I forgot to mention Okugo. I think he could be a more talented Maurice Edu eventually.

            I’ll have to check out your blog. Thanks.

            Reply

            • I saw a fair bit of Edu in his rookie year of MLS; I was never overly impressed with him. Good engine and all that, but I felt he left too soon, another year or two of really solid playing time, growing up a bit would have suited him well before his move to Scotland.

              Don’t begrudge the move – without him Toronto wouldn’t have the Mo & Mo Memorial Grass Pitch (not its actual name) – but you have to wonder if his progression has stalled by moving early.

              The SPL is such a fast and physical league, it pretty much ruined Beasley, and Mo does not get as much playing time as he needs there.

              On Okugo – I was amazed at how young he is for someone who plays such a calm game.

  5. Posted by Kevin on 2011/10/12 at 6:24 PM

    You lost me at “MVP candidate Dominic Oduro”.

    This has been a riveting season as far as the playoff race goes, but Oduro for MVP. Unacceptable and disgraceful by the rest if the league for him to be considered. When did he learn to finish?

    Reply

    • Oduro – 12 goals. 2 assists = 35% of his teams offense
      Donovan – 12 goals, 3 assists = 33% of his

      I would concede it depends on how you define valuable? Is it value to one’s team? Or the best in the league?

      Golden Boot is a concrete term – most goals wins; value is something different.

      How good would this Oduro have been running onto Ching’s flick-on’s from Davis’ deliveries?

      Reply

      • I understand he’s done well, and he’s even only 3 shy from his goal of 15 this season, but it’s still a mystery what happened between him in Houston with one chance and skies an open net to in Chicago scoring 12 goals. Houston fans were fed up with his poor finishing while here.

        And to answer your question:
        “How good would this Oduro have been running onto Ching’s flick-on’s from Davis’ deliveries?”
        If history is any indicator, he’d probably just miss.

        Part of me wants to compliment him for his good play, but the other part of me is just thoroughly puzzled. My question for Oduro is how did he suddenly learn to finish this year?

        Reply

        • That “He’d probably just miss” makes me laugh every time I read it.

          You never know with strikers, maybe he doesn’t like Texas, maybe he just never quite fit in…

          Starting regularly is always a benefit to a striker, Chicago invested some solid playing time in Oduro, perhaps that’s what he needed.

          So many of his goals have come on quick breaks this season, Houston doesn’t really play that game, Chicago are definitely playing to his strength.

          Plus you can’t overlook the psychological kick in the teeth Kinnear gave him when he shipped him out after that miss. He could be more focused on finishing as a result of that lesson.

          As a Toronto fan I’ve seen numerous players – Buddle, Cunningham, Casey (though slightly different), even LaBrocca this season – leave town and turn into a different, more productive player. I guess it’s the humanity of the player that we as fans can often overlook. Comfort, living situation, personal lives all play a factor on the pitch.

          Reply

          • Posted by John on 2011/10/14 at 8:09 AM

            The Moffat for Chabala/Palmer trade is the perfect example of three players who needed a change of scenery to help their game.

            Reply

            • I agree John. What Oduro needed more than anything was a change in scenery. He got that and I am genuinely happy that he is doing well, but its still frustrating to see his stats and wonder what went wrong while he was in Houston?

              James
              With the “He’d probably just miss” I said I was just trying to point out the fact that he did have plenty of scoring chances in Houston. It wasn’t that he wasn’t playing well in general, it was that he would put away his chances.
              Oduro got plenty of playing time while here. He was the starting striker next to Ching or Weaver (depending on Ching’s health).I understand why you would think that he wasn’t playing and the fans got fed up with him, but he was a regular starter for Houston while here.
              Quick breaks is what Kinnear tried to enforce while Oduro was here. The strategy quickly became to try to spring Oduro, whether it be over the top or a splitting pass. We became a very ugly counter attacking team.
              As far as getting rid of him right after the miss, Oduro just about set himself up for that. Kinnear was rapidly losing respect for even just resigning Oduro. Oduro didn’t help himself the when he angered the fans by saying he thought he would score 15 goals this season. In the eyes of lots of Houston fans, Kinnear stubbornly stuck by Oduro, and when Oduro missed that sitter it wasn’t just a negative reflection on Oduro but on Kinnear as well.

              To be fair James, Oduro is definitely a valid MVP candidate I was trying to make a little joke at his polarizing numbers between his career before and after Chicago. Forget about just while in Houston. He scored a whopping 15 goals in 117 MLS appearances before scoring 12 in 31.

            • I meant laugh in a good way, as in that’s an awesome statement, probably very true and spoken by somebody burned by Oduro before. I felt the same way about Cunningham when he was filling his boots for Dallas.

              TSG and I were having a Twitter conversation the other day and I threw Oduro out there as a potential MVP; part trying to think outside the box and part because in a season with no clear winner, the discussion of best vs. most valuable becomes more relevant.

              I was under the impression Oduro didn’t start that much in Houston, only half the matches or so, I know he got a lot of chances, and he is the sort of player you have to change your game plan for. Houston strikes me as a team that likes to get wide and capitalize off set pieces, not really Oduro’s game. They do have some outside pace, Cruz – did you see his goal last night, where did that come from? – and Ashe are quick, but Davis is slightly faster than molasses and he controls everything.

              Thanks for the insight regarding Kinnear getting heat for sticking by Oduro, I had no idea it was like that.

              Appreciate the conversation, always good to get some insight from different markets; even if Houston doesn’t make the playoff – though they sit quite well now – enjoy the rest of the season and that new stadium is looking good. Glad things got worked out Robertson was looking tired.

            • Agreed.

              On Cruz, he is, in my biased opinion, one of the better most promising right side midfielders in the league. I think he’s 21 now and he didn’t start playing soccer until high school so, considering he has only played the sport for around 7 years, his rate of progression is something to be very excited about. I wonder what happens when he calms down and realizes how much talent he has. Another thought is how much Holden could have helped him, considering that Holden’s strengths are the exact same as Cruz’s weaknesses.

  6. Posted by Paddy Megroyn on 2011/10/14 at 5:36 AM

    Good article. However, you overlooked a couple of things when assessing the East. While SKC has been great to watch this year, their inability to close games out should warrant a mention. No doubt, they are formidable at home, but they still have lapses of concentration which could prove fatal in the playoffs.

    Also, while most of Philly’s team is very young, the spine of their team (Carroll, Califf, Valdes and Mondragon) are all experienced and in the case fo the first two, have won a few MLS Cups.

    Thanks for the MLS coverage and hope to see more as we could have one of the best postseasons in the history of the league.

    Reply

    • I don’t know if I would say KC can’t close out matches, they’re just as likely – if not more – to score one late to save the result as they are to concede. That Dallas game awhile ago was a terrible second half collapse, but it was over a month ago. Since then they’ve been better but I do agree they are prone to lapses of concentration.

      Any game with SKC involved will not be over until the final whistle is blown.

      On Philly – they do have a great spine and some experience, I was having a chat with Crow here in the comments and said that Nowak’s building a strong base to let his youth flourish while keeping it tight at the back.

      Mondragon hasn’t quite returned yet, and I don’t know if there’s any depth in the defense should one of Califf, Valdes, or Williams get injured. I don’t know if Miglioranzi is as efficient as Carroll, I like Okugo as well, but losing any of that spine could be a real obstacle.

      Regardless of the details, It’s shaping up to be a great run to the cup.

      Reply

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