How MLS Cup will be lost
Say what you like about the MLS Cup Playoffs, but they have a way of bringing the fatal flaws of teams into sharp relief. In many ways, the winners, and whatever propelled them that year, can often remain oddly indistinct by comparison to our understanding of the losers. And for those losers along the way, there’s a moment in each decisive defeat where it becomes clear to observers that nagging concerns or questions that have hung around all season are now clearly undermining a team when it matters most.
It can be quite dizzying to process those realizations. The aura or history of certain teams can sometimes obscure a reading of the here and now until events rapidly overtake optimism. And at that moment your view on a team shifts from “They’re always dangerous” to “How could we ever think they could win, when this is so clearly wrong with them?”
So, rather than predict which team is going to win MLS Cup, and why, here are 12 reasons why 12 teams won’t. At least 11 of them will be right…
Colorado Rapids: Can’t win from behind
There’s a moment in every successful playoff sequence where the trajectory of the eventual winners may be in doubt — perhaps the away goal balance shifts suddenly, or a costly few minutes requires a team to dig deep. And for all the impressiveness of their defense and their own ability to defend within their shell, the Rapids have not come from behind to win a game this season, and that may cost them in the playoffs. Their defense will make them hard to break down, but the swings of fortune and sudden moments of urgency in knockout soccer might not be kind to them.
FC Dallas: Lapses in concentration
It’s fantastic to see the run FC Dallas has made this season. After indulging young talent over the past couple of years, and building up the base of a fearless and, by MLS standards, prematurely experienced team, FC Dallas has so far met all the expectations placed on it to come good with trophies this year. The U.S. Open Cup and now the Shield are in Frisco, and now the Hoops are seeded number one for a historic treble. On their day, Mauro Diaz or not, they’re likely to dominate large sections of play, and threaten to sweep opponents away, but for those who hang in with them, and have the guile to ride out the storm (and bear in mind they could well meet the experience of LA in the conference final), there are always sequences in an FC Dallas performance where the team’s concentration dips, or where its commitment to attack undoes its defense. Just ask Portland.
D.C. United: Losing midfield battles
D.C., like Seattle, retooled its attack in the summer and has surged into the playoffs as one of their Conference’s form teams. Having Bill Hamid, Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum as the heart of your defense is a great reassurance, while the latest incarnation of the team now also features a potent attack spearheaded by Patrick Mullins finally finding his cultural fit, and assisted by Lloyd Sam, Lamar Neagle and the playmaking of Luciano Acosta. The team has been scoring goals for fun in recent weeks. D.C. will be dangerous.
Unless it won’t be. Teams that overrun D.C. in midfield can make some of that offensive threat moot, or at the very least drastically reduce the number of chances Mullins & Co. have to make a difference. The loss of Perry Kitchen has been addressed more in the aggregate of other players’ contributions rather than a true like-for-like swap, and when the margins between teams are tight, that fact may be decisive.
LA Galaxy: Not a vintage year for team chemistry
That said, there’s plenty of vintage about LA…
The veteran experience on the LA team is astounding by MLS standards, and led to a lot of preseason talk of the strongest-ever MLS team, on paper. Fitting that team onto the same sheet of paper has been another matter. Giovanni dos Santos settled in, but has proved an awkward fit with a Robbie Keane who has more than earned the benefit of the doubt, but has been indisputably more peripheral for the team this year, by his usually high standards. Injuries frayed the edge of the paper further, to the point where Landon Donovan was hauled out of retirement to show he still had it. And in fairness, plenty of LA’s veterans “still have it” — but whether enough of them continue to have it on the same pitch at the same time is a rather more vexed question. They won’t be fazed by anything that occurs in the playoffs, but there may come a moment they’re looking for a gear that isn’t there.