Cardiff City v Manchester City - Premier League

Cardiff vs. Swansea: Rivalry and passion define soccer’s heyday in South Wales – Part I


Mae’r gem ar ddydd sul rhwng Abertawe a Chaerdydd yn enfawr. Y Tro cyntaf I’r uwch gynghrair gael 2 clwb Cymraeg.

(Translated from Welsh: The game on Sunday between Swansea and Cardiff is huge. It’s the first time we have had two Welsh clubs in the Premier League.)

In a country where the national emblem and animal is a fiery red dragon, a game between their two biggest sports teams will be a rambunctious affair. At the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday in Wales’ capital — for the first time ever in the Premier League — two soccer teams from the proud Celtic nation will play for bragging rights.

Swansea City and Cardiff City are fierce rivals on and off the pitch. This is the story of the region, the people are their beloved soccer teams.


The two cities, teams and sets of fans don’t like each other. I know this after spending time with both before perhaps the most eagerly anticipated derby in South Wales history. The sport is booming in the foothills of the mining mountains that have defined the tiny nation. This weekend Premier League fans will be taken into the heat of the battle when the Bluebirds and Swans clash in the Premier League’s newest, and most volatile, rivalry.

Never been to South Wales? (Or even heard of it?) You’ve been missing out on the passion, pride and tradition that emanates from the cobbled streets of Llaneli in the West across to the hills and mines of Newport in the East. Cardiff and Swansea, just 42 miles apart, defines rivalry.


When Swansea City were promoted to the the PL in 2011, neighbors Cardiff desperately wanted the same. After reaching the Championship playoffs for three-straight years and never earning promotion, it seemed as though Cardiff’s time would never arrive.

Until last season, when it stormed its way to the Championship title and booked its place in the top-flight of English soccer, the first time both sides have been in the top league together. It was a long time coming.

source: Getty Images
Last season Swansea won the League Cup in just their second season in the PL. That success brought European soccer to South Wales.

Throughout the height of soccer hooliganism in the 1980s and 90s in the UK, Welsh teams went through an extremely dark spell, and Cardiff and Swansea were at the forefront of the hooligan movement.

The hate spread beyond stadium terraces and into the cities before, during and after the games. Fans would fight, and rip up each others stadiums and cities. Things escalated so quickly in the 90s that a ban was put in place to stop fans of the opposition traveling to away games for over four years.

There has never been a similar ban across English and Welsh soccer.

Chairman of the Cardiff City Supporters Trust Tim Hartley recalls the dark days.

“It started getting unpleasant,” Hartley says. “I remember a very ugly evening at Ninian Park, on the Bob Bank, that was about 1993. The Swansea fans arrived late for some reason, they ripped up seats and threw them at the Cardiff fans and it was very, very ugly. The game was stopped, I think people tried to run across the pitch towards us and that was awful.”

The brutal hooliganism that riddled British and Welsh soccer and tore apart the game for decades still lingers in South Wales. The rivalry between Swansea and Cardiff will be unlike any other in the Premier League this season, no small feat given the historic and regional rivalries already in place.

This is the first time they will face each other in the 2013-14 season with both teams desperate to secure bragging rights for a few months. Obviously, there’s a lot riding on Sunday’s game.

WATCH LIVE: Cardiff City vs. Swansea City at 11am on Sunday, on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra

Vince Alm, who has been a Cardiff fan his entire life and helps run the Cardiff City Supporters Club, says the infrastructure perceptions — real and perceived — play a massive role.

“There’s a rivalry between two cities anyway, without the football,” Alm said. “We’re perceived as getting everything, and honestly we do… but we are the capital city and most countries do like after their capital. There’s a lot more money invested in Cardiff than there is in Swansea, and that is visible. There’s some resentment from their point of view.”

A program from the first-ever Cardiff vs. Swansea match in 1912, a 1-1 draw at Vetch Field.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

In 1927 when Cardiff City won the FA Cup by beating Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley, Swansea City supporters cheered on their Welsh neighbors to victory as South Wales was united in success. And for many years Cardiff’s biggest rivals were English side Bristol City, who are located just over the River Severn and provided a strong opposition for the Bluebirds. Between 1965 and 1980, Cardiff and Swansea didn’t play a single game. In 1980 the rivalry was renewed, and that’s when this current hatred blossomed according to Alm.

“The rivalry for me really started on New Years Day in 1980,” Alm said. “We played them at the Vetch, they won 2-1 and that was the first league game in a long time. From that point on, the rivalry got bigger.”

On that day David Giles, who was born and breed in Cardiff, scored the winner for Swansea in the final minute. Once he’d done that he realized the atmosphere inside the stadium had turned incredibly sour very quickly. This period of time coincided with huge unemployment and the miner strikes of the 1980s, which had a huge impact on South Wales and created plenty of social and political unrest in the region. That animosity and disdain surfaced in soccer, as the working class people of South Wales took out their frustration… on each other.

“As society had been de-industrialized there was disillusionment and alienation,” says Welsh historian Peter Stead. “An enormous element of the Welsh identity had been stripped away from us. We were known across the world for creating the best steel and coal, all that identity had gone and all we were left with was football.”

Tony Rivers, a self-confessed former Cardiff City hooligan, recalls games between the two in the 80s when he saw one fan on crutches hobbling around fighting with an opposition fan, using his crutches as a weapon.

Things were spiraling out of control.

There was an infamous story in 1988 about both sets of supporters clashing on the beach in Swansea. Cardiff’s supporters were pushed into the sea and retreated into the water. Today, that action is mocked by Swans fans who perform a fake breast stroke motion in unison to taunt their Cardiff rivals about the day they “swam away” from a fight. Current Swansea City player Angel Rangel and many others have joined Swansea folklore by using the “swim away” gesture to celebrate a goal being scored. Expect that to surface on Sunday if Swansea hit the back of the net, as new players will aim to etch their name into the rich history of the derby.

In 1991, Cardiff’s supporters almost demolished Swansea City center and in 1993, Swansea’s traveling band of fans followed suit by rampaging around Cardiff’s Ninian Park Stadium during a night game, tearing up seats and starting fights everywhere. The rivalry between the two sets of fans was now toxic, the environment was full of 18-40 year-old men who were hull bent on causing trouble.

Police had lost all control. And on Sunday, trouble could erupt. The last time a major incident occurred at this fixture, a Cardiff fan was handed a ban for throwing a coin at referee Mike Dean in 2009 when the two sides squared off in the Championship. Dean is once again the ref on Sunday… both sets of supporters have particular bones to pick with him about controversial decisions over the years. The intensity builds further.

“The Bubble,’ which you’re about to find out about, was the only option for the rivalry to return and for both sets of fans to watch the game in the same stadium. Swansea City vice-chairman Leigh Dineen hopes this Sunday’s game plays out without a flash point between both sets of fans.

“It’s still intense… the thought of losing is just incomprehensible,” Dineen says, with a grimace on his face. “I think it’s changed than what it was… I hope it has anyway. I’m hoping that Sunday is going to show over 500 million people watching around the world what South Wales is all about, that people somewhere will say ‘wow, I’d like to go and have a look at them, I didn’t really know much about Swansea or Cardiff, but what a great football match, loud and passionate.’ I’m just hoping that’s what we will see.”

With 42.4 miles separating the Welsh capital Cardiff with second city Swansea, the rivalry between both cities escalate the hatred.

The distance between the two cities also has a huge part to play in the dichotomy of the rivalry, and how both sets of fans are so easily separated. One road, the M4 motorway, links Cardiff and Swansea along the South Wales coast.

“There’s a gap of 40 miles, which is not a massive distance but it’s big enough gap to create an us and them situation,” Alm said. “The rivalry from a city point of view has always been there, and it’s always very intense when it comes to sport, especially football. It is very passionate, it will be carried out in the most watched league in the world on Sunday, hopefully the rest of the world will be able to see what the South Wales derby is all about. It will be a bloody good advert for South Wales.”


The ‘Bubble’ is an extreme and revolutionary tactic implemented by South Wales police to stop the violence between fans of Swansea and Cardiff. It goes like this:

On the day of a game between Swansea and Cardiff, fans of the visiting team are not allowed to use public transport to get into the segregated section in which they’re sitting or have tickets. For instance this Sunday, Swansea’s fans will have to board specially policed buses in Swansea. No matter if you’re a Swansea fan living in Cardiff, you will have to drive 40 miles to Swansea to get on the bus. When you’re on that bus, the doors are locked, your ticket is handed to you and the 2,000 or so Swansea fans are given a police escort along the M4 several hours before kick off, with police helicopters, vans and motorcycles guiding them along the short stretch of road to Cardiff. Then they’re ushered inside the stadium, locked in, and the same process will occur to get out of Cardiff an hour or so after the final whistle and Cardiff’s fans have been ushered away.

It’s a long, drawn-out process that prevents violence. I spoke with Swansea City’s travel club and Ugo Vallario told me the bubble is necessary and vital. Without it, all hell would break loose. Cardiff fans feel the same.

On Sunday fans will be segregated and the ‘Bubble’ system will be used to keep them apart. But will violence still break out?

“Since we played them in the Championship and now the Premier League, there are still bubble matches. It’s sad that it has to happen, but I’d prefer the inconvenience at being bussed to Swansea at 9 a.m. in the morning, rather than running the gauntlet of angry fans,” Hartley says. “Cardiff has had a particularly bad reputation, and justifiably, because in the 80s and 90s, there was football violence. The club has worked very hard to try and stamp that out.”

Cardiff’s supporters have traditionally been known across the UK as having one of the worst hooligan factions. Meaning ‘Bubble matches’ weren’t limited to just the South Wales derby.

“We have been bubbled to Wolverhampton, Leeds, Bristol. It’s awkward, miserable and spoils a good day out,” Hartley says. “Thankfully, those restrictions have now got less and less. Last year we went to Bristol without any trouble whatsoever. But Swansea for the foreseeable future will be a bubble match. Once we’re inside the ground, let’s have the rivalry there. And let’s hope to god that on Sunday there’s no incidents of violence.”


Perhaps the violence and toughness of this particular region of Wales is epitomized by the industry which announced the tiny nation to the world centuries ago.

For generations the primary industry in South Wales has been coal mining, evident by the large pits that hang over the hills on the outskirts of both Cardiff and Swansea.

Both cities have a working-class past, and with those industries in recent decline, the area has been hit hard by unemployment and the copper industry in Swansea and the coal and steel works around Cardiff have resided into small scale operations in the mountains.

MORE: Cardiff vs. Swansea, a tale a two cites, Part II

“There are no deep mines in South Wales anymore. The last one closed about two years ago,” Hartley says. “Even though coal and steel have declined, the legacy is still here. And a lot of Cardiff City support comes from Port Talbot which is a steel town nearer to Swansea than to Cardiff, and from the South Wales valleys. One of the song’s we sing is; ‘When the coal comes from the Rhonda I’ll be there, with my little pick and shovel I’ll be there, I’ll be there, with my little pick and shovel I’ll be there.’ That’s an old mining song, we remember our roots.”

Both clubs in South Wales pay homage to their mining and industrial pasts. I walked past this statue in Central Cardiff.

And this isn’t the only song that Cardiff sing in gusto as they pay tribute to their forefathers who fought to keep their region Welsh. The song ‘Men of Harelch,’ made famous in the 1964 film Zulu, is belted out by fans of the Bluebirds and is sure to be sung with great pride and passion as both teams emerge from the tunnel and into the fiery Welsh cauldron on Sunday.

This song is said to depict events during the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468. It was led by commander Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, as the garrison stood their ground in what is believed to be the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. A rousing rendition from over 25,000 Welsh tenors with their famous pairs of lungs is sure to spark patriotism and fire into the affair right from the word go. It’s something I’m looking forward to hearing already. It should go like this, but louder and prouder.

Spine tingling moments will be broadcast to the rest of the world on Sunday, as South Wales’ success in soccer will help new people understand the pride and passion this region radiates.

Supporter Director of the Swansea City Supporters Trust Huw Cooze believes the rivalry between the two cities also emanates from the local investment, or lack of it, in Swansea. Since the mining industry collapsed, tourism and the public sector are the main sources of income for Wales. The capital is thriving, while soccer has bought Swansea plenty more income to the local economy, but not much else has.

“There’s a lot of politics involved,” Cooze said. “Wales is a small country, we believe in Swansea that Cardiff grabs 90 percent of inward investment coming in to Wales. They grab it. We’ve been left behind… we know that. It’s politics. There’s a lot more to it than that but they can be arrogant! They probably say the same about us.”


Cardiff fans did… and whether or not the two sets of fans like it, both teams are aligned much closer than many would think.

Both moved from homely, yet outdated venues to brand spanking new stadiums, Swansea from Vetch Field to the Liberty Stadium in 2005, and Cardiff from Ninian Park to the Cardiff City Stadium in 2009. Everything is in place for both teams to thrive and prosper in the Premier League, the passionate fans will always be around and now the financial goldmine that has been lacking for so long can catapult South Wales further than it ever dreamed it could go as a soccer region.

Today the headlines are about success, on the field. Flicking through the TV in my hotel room, several adverts are splashing up on every news channel about the derby at the weekend. In fact Cath Dyer, who was my adopted Welsh teacher for my brief time in Swansea, appeared at the end of one of the commercials speaking in the native tongue. When we met in the pub for the first time later that night, (more on that in part II) I recognized her from the TV. That small town feel in Swansea is evident even to a newbie like me. The community vibe is strong.

Now there are not only two Welsh teams in the Premier League, or ten percent of it as people like to keep reminding me, but they also have Newport County in England’s fourth tier of league football and Wrexham who are in the fifth tier and may well be on the cusp of joining Newport soon in League Two. There is also the Welsh Premier League for smaller Welsh teams to compete against each other, and even those sides draw decent crowds given the population of the nation. Soccer is booming.

source: Getty Images
The world’s most expensive soccer player hails from Cardiff. Gareth Bale’s success has helped put South Wales on the map.

The World’s most expensive soccer player is from Wales, as Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale grew up in Cardiff and honed his talents in the valleys of South Wales and the surrounding area. Soccer is on the map, and with Cardiff and Swansea City leading the way, it seems like the sport is here to stay for good.

“For many years following Cardiff City I was the butt of the jokes,” Hartley says. “People pitied me. At work they used to laugh at me coming in bleary eyed from a Tuesday night in the rain at Southend, but now the laugh’s on them. I’m the guy with the season ticket, the team in the PL, I’m the guy who can start a conversation all over the world because of my interest in Cardiff City.”

As for Swansea, their fans are in no two minds that they’re currently living through the best period in the history of soccer in South Wales. And they’re going to lap up every single minute of it.

“Club football is the best it’s ever been,” Alm says of soccer in South Wales. “It’s such a big thing in modern football to get into the Premier League, years ago in the old first division (before the PL was formed in 1992-93) all kinds of teams would come up and down. With the money about and the way the game has gone, today it’s global. It’s a fantastic achievement for cities of our size, and for Swansea they’re much smaller than us and the football that they play over the last few years has been very good to watch. It’s been great footballing wise.”

Vice-chairman of Swansea Dineen smiles and agrees that soccer is enjoying a period of glory in South Wales.

“The Premier League now has got 10 percent Welsh clubs,” Dineen says. “If you look at last year Newport came up, we won the Carling Cup, Wrexham won the FA Trophy, Cardiff won the Championship… so how could it get any better?”

How long will this soccer region continue to flourish? Who knows. But Sunday’s showdown will show the world what soccer in South Wales has to offer, as Wales’ top two teams and fiercest rivals battle it out in the English Premier League for the first time in history.

Hir y parhaed. Long may that continue.

MORE: Cardiff vs. Swansea, a tale a two cites, Part II

Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season

SEVILLE, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Griezmann of Club Atletico de Madrid looks on during the match between Sevilla FC vs Club Atletico de Madrid as part of La Liga at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuanon October 23, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann has won the best player award in the Spanish league for last season.

The Atletico Madrid forward was announced as the winner in a ceremony organized by La Liga in Valencia on Monday. The Frenchman was not at the ceremony.

[ MORE: Ballon d’Or omissions ]

Atletico also had Diego Simeone win the best coach award, Diego Godin earn the best defender award, and Jan Oblak clinch best goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was selected as the best forward, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as the best midfielder.

Team captains voted for the top players in each position, while a data-analysis system generated the best player award.

Barcelona won the Spanish league last season, ahead of Real Madrid and Atletico.

Biggest omissions from the Ballon d’Or shortlist

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (R) is chased by N'Golo Kante of Chelsea (L)  during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

France Football released the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award given to the world’s best player.

As expected in a EURO year, there are several Portuguese standouts to go with the usual suspects.

There are also some odd omissions.

[ MLS: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.

N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?

Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11: Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid is surrounded by (L-R) Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Club Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 11, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Mascherano (far left) and Rakitic (second from right) are among several Barcelona players who didn’t make the cut (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images).

Harry Kane may’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.

With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.

Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Finally, let’s see how I fared in projecting the 30 men back in mid-September:

— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.

— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.

— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.

Whose historic hiccup was worse: Portland or Columbus?

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 6: Kei Kamara #23 of Columbus Crew and Liam Ridgewell #24 of Portland Timbers go after a ball during the second half of the game at Providence Park on March 6, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the match 2-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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It’s been less than a year since we discussed who was best suited to return to the MLS Cup Final following Portland’s 2-1 win over Columbus in the 2015 title match.

Now we’re wondering who’s fall was more shameful, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew each missed the playoffs, just over 11 months after contesting the final. That’s never happened before.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

We asked our staff to take a stand on the matter of who flubbed worse: Gregg Berhalter’s Crew or Caleb Porter’s Timbers.

Andy Edwards

Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.

They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.

Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.

Nick Mendola

Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.

Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).

The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.

The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.

So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).

SANDY, UT - APRIL 19: Head coach Caleb Porter of the Portland Timbers encourages his team during their game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium April 19, 2014 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).

But, oh, this was ugly.

Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.

You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.

Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.

Alright, so Andy tabbed Columbus and Nick took Portland. Let’s get a tiebreaker in here.

Matt Reed

Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason. 

The case for (and against) every Eastern Conference playoff team

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Benoit Cheyrou #8 of Toronto FC defends Andrea Pirlo #21 of New York City FC free kick at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Of the six teams remaining in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, you could argue there are three distinct pairings.

You have red-hot traditional sides in DC United and the New York Red Bulls; There are the big-name driven, deep squads from Toronto FC and New York City FC, and finally the two relative unknowns truly deserving of “wildcard” status in the Philadelphia Union Montreal Impact.

[ MORE: Yedlin on Newcastle, EFL Cup ]

Sure the table tends to tell us who’s who in the pecking order. It’s hard to bet against the Red Bulls seeing they haven’t lost since July 3, and Frank Lampard has somehow quietly been a wrecking ball thanks to dynamite performances from captain David Villa and world-class maestro Andrea Pirlo.

But there are reasons those teams may not be the true favorite to advance to the MLS Cup final, just as there are ways to imagine Philly can punch their way through the East. We’re here to give you both.

Philadelphia Union (6)

Why they’ll win: The young unit might be too green to know it isn’t expected to knock off Toronto in Toronto, or a New York team in New York or New Jersey. Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta add veteran skill and savvy, while Andre Blake is capable of stealing some of the league’s more terrific strikes.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Why they won’t: Their last win was Aug. 27, and we’re supposed to expect the Union to win on the road at Toronto, RBNY, and then either NYCFC or DC. Nah, dog (though it’d be quite a story and we’d be happy to watch it).

Montreal Impact (5)

Why they’ll win: Didier Drogba may not be mentally in it, but he’s still a fierce competitor who can score with the best of them. By the way, the “best of them” definitely includes Ignacio Piatti. The Argentine has been one of the top players in the league this season, and can take over any game (Yes, even three on the bounce).

Why they won’t: The dysfunction and fall-out from Drogba’s benching permeates the room before match against red-hot DC United, and an average road team fails to meet expectations.

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba heads the ball in front of D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas during the second half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

DC United (4)

Why they’ll win: A four-match win streak earned most of DC’s starters a well-deserved rest on Decision Day, and there will be a “Why not us?” cry coming from the DC dressing room. Patrick Nyarko has been a lot of fun to watch. Luciano Acosta is legit as well. Bill Hamid is an excellent shot stopper, and the four-time champion Black-and-Red is overdue for a final, having been absent since beating KC in 2004.

[ MORE: Pre-playoff power rankings ]

Why they won’t: Let’s be honest, most arguments against DC sound quite political. “Well, they can’t win because of the other guys being so good.” DC doesn’t have the firepower of TFC, NYCFC, and RBNY; Would you bet on them beating two of the above, which they likely would have to? (Actually, kinda).

Toronto FC (3)

Why they’ll win: Frankly, this is the best defensive team in the East, with a minimum of three game attacking breakers in Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. Imports Drew Moor and Clint Irwin aren’t scared of the spotlight, and Will Johnson will be putting on for his city. And they’re good away from BMO Field. This could be TFC’s season, y’all.

Why they won’t: This is Toronto’s 10th season, and happens to be the first one in which it won more matches than it lost. TFC’s debut home match comes on Wednesday evening, and there’s something to be said for experience. While some of its players have plenty, the club does not possess much at all.

New York City FC (2)

Why they’ll win: One of only two teams (Toronto) to finish their road schedule with a .500 record, Patrick Vieira has been able to get the best out of the superstars and the lesser-known members of NYC’s squad. Tactically, we’re not sure there’s another coach in the East with his acumen.

Why they won’t: It’s also Vieira’s first playoffs as a manager, and the whole franchise hasn’t done that dance, either. They have one win in five combined matches against RBNY and TFC.

New York Red Bulls

Why they’ll win: Frankly, as stated above, because they don’t lose. Jesse Marsch hasn’t overseen a loss in three-and-a-half months, has two legit claimants to MVP honors in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, and have been reinforced by one of the deepest Academy production lines in MLS.

Why they won’t: New York won just three road matches all year, even if it managed 7 draws away from Red Bull Arena. On top of that, this is year No. 20 of MLS, and founding members RBNY have zero titles and one final appearance. Those ghosts could come creeping up to the door.