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Making a title case for each MLS playoff team

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Major League Soccer’s playoff format has made the route to the MLS Cup Final a bit easier for a Cinderella.

Yes, the home games have dried up for Team Nos. 5-7 in all likelihood.

[ WATCH: Zlatan statue unveiled ]

Yes, home games in MLS have provided a wild advantage, with only three teams posting sub-.500 records at home and only two teams above . 500 away from home.

And yes, having so many playoff teams should allow for the top seeds to waltz — Less than 42 percent of the league misses the playoffs.

But making the final means winning three games now, instead of outlasting a superior team over 180 minutes home and away. And that means it’ll be difficult to rule out anyone.

So here is at least one reason all 14 teams can lift the MLS Cup.

New England Revolution — Bruce Arena is on a revenge mission, and Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou have been let loose to worry about little besides scoring. Easily the longest of long shots.

FC Dallas — Young and hungry, FCD has the sixth-best possession numbers in MLS (52.6 percent) and passes better than anyone other than Toronto.

New York Red Bulls — Only four teams scored more goals from open play than the Red Bulls’ 39, and New York leads the league in tackles. They are a tough out, but their 68.6 percent passing percentage is shocking.

Portland Timbers — One of five teams to score double-digit goals from set pieces and the leader in goals off the counter (7), the Timbers have a sneaky good tactician and obviously strong motivator in Gio Savarese.

DC United — Only LAFC allowed fewer goals than Bill Hamid and his center back pairing of Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum. Also, Wayne Rooney is a difference maker and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him ride out of MLS on top of the league.

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Toronto FC — Haven’t lost since Aug. 3, and have made two Cup final runs under Greg Vanney. Experience is key, and TFC is the best passing team in MLS (85.3 percent).

LA Galaxy — Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the best attackers in the history of football, even without any defenders.

Minnesota United — Their path to the title demands overcoming both LA sides, but Ike Opara and the Loons have been solid at deploying Adrian Heath’s defensive game plan. Vito Mannone at the back is capable of stealing games, and Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso are about as tough a midfield duo as you’ll find in MLS.

Philadelphia Union — Take a walk around the advanced stats pages, and you’ll see Jim Curtin’s men at or near the top of the league is just about everything. A complete if unspectacular team who can catch opponents off guard.

Real Salt Lake — The lack of an out-and-out star scorer scares us, but RSL gets scoring from all over the team sheet and has motivation to send Nick Rimando out on top.

Seattle Sounders — Another team which has done this dance before, they have a pair of game-changers in Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris.

Atlanta United — They did it last year, Pity Martinez is finally firing on all cylinders, and you know they’d love to send Michael Parkhurst out on top. Don’t rule out the champs.

New York City FC — For at least two rounds, Dome Torrent’s men will host more weary opponents on their postage stamp pitch at Yankee Stadium. That’s a huge advantage, and they would be one LAFC misstep away from hosting the final.

LAFC — I mean, come on. This is the best regular season team of all-time with a top-end manager in Bob Bradley. As long as they respect their opposition and dodge heat in El Trafico should it happen, the title is theirs.

WATCH: Zlatan on scene as Malmo unveils 9-foot Ibrahimovic statue

Photo by Atila Altuntas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is so humble, it must’ve really bothered him to see a shirtless statue of himself in his hometown.

Of course, we kid; The mega striker, whose skills are only topped by his confidence, loves the darn thing.

[ MORE: USMNT players in focus ]

Fair Malmo is our scene, where the 38-year-old oversaw the unveiling of a nearly 9-foot statue of the well-traveled champion.

Ibrahimovic has 52 goals in 56 matches for the LA Galaxy, who open the MLS Cup Playoffs on Oct. 20 in Minnesota.

Sweden’s all-time leading scorer with 62 goals in 116 caps, Ibrahimovic has won league titles in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and  France. He’s also been named the Swedish Male Athlete of the Year on four occasions.

The impossible annual task of choosing an MLS Best XI

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Forget about a functional XI when you’re putting together an MLS Best XI.

That’s true in most leagues, to be fair, but the offensive firepower in MLS puts up gaudy numbers as silky attackers are given a bit more free reign than their used to in previous leagues.

Consider that two players eclipsed the 30-goal mark in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter doing it in under 30 matches. Josef Martinez also came close in 29 matches.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoff Power Rankings ]

Those players are enough to form a trident for your Best XI, and they come from loaded units.

Then there’s midfielder Maxi Moralez of NYCFC with his 20 assists in 2434 minutes.

Vela had double digit goals and assists, an achievement met by Carles Gil (New England), Alejandero Pozuelo (Toronto), and Nani (Orlando City).

They all can’t make it.

So we’ll build from the back, and likely punish the fullbacks thanks to a remarkable group of attackers.

Here is who is getting my vote.

Goalkeeper

The backstop is always a tricky choice. Bill Hamid and Brad Guzan led the league in clean sheets with 14, but only the former will warrant consideration here. The Galaxy’s David Bingham led the league in saves and saves inside the box, while also stopping a pair of penalties.

Both join Portland’s Steve Clark, Vancouver’s Maxime Crepeau, and New England’s Matt Turner as advanced stat darlings.

For me it comes down to Hamid and Bingham. The former had far superior defenders, but I can’t get past DC United’s 38 goals allowed to the Galaxy’s 59. Maybe it’s the hockey fan in me thinking of it like the Jennings Award, but that’s my tiebreaker.

Defender

I’m gonna start with DC again here, and the Black-and-Red have two players deserving of a place: Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum.

Here’s why I’m opting for the latter: On the SofaScore list of the Top 20 rated defenders in MLS, minimum 25 games, all but two were dribbled past 11 times or more: Orlando’s Lamine Sane and Birnbaum.

Birnbaum’s number? Two.

You read that right. In 3032 minutes this season, he was taken twice.

Other contenders include:

— Ike Opara, who had another remarkable season and didn’t miss a beat in switching from Sporting KC to Minnesota.

Bastian Schweinsteiger in Chicago dropped from the center of the park and was very strong.

— Miles Robinson of Atlanta was exceptional, especially given his age, while Ryan Hollingshead had the best advanced statistical season of any back on WhoScored. Jorge Moreira gets that nod on SofaScore. And spare a thought for Keegan Rosenberry, who intercepted 16 more passes than anyone else in MLS (82) but still can’t get a call from the USMNT.

Everybody else

We named the prime attackers in MLS at the top of this post. You’d like to add Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri.

Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC have been difference makers behind Vela. In-beom Hwang was marvelous more often than not but on a terrible Vancouver team.

But there’s one name I believe qualifies as the least-heralded star in MLS.

Minnesota United’s Jan Gregus needs to be on this team. I don’t think he will because his goal and eight assists don’t pop off the page and the Slovakian national team doesn’t get as much love as center midfield partner and well-established bulldog Osvaldo Alonso.

Gregus was fifth in MLS in interceptions with 1.9 per match, 2.2 key passes, and crafts an awfully nice looking long pass. You could argue that he was the key to Minnesota’s fourth seed.

The Best XI

So here’s my team. We’d be destroyed out wide, but would probably score 10 goals a game so man would we entertain?

Bill Hamid (DC)

Robinson (ATL) — Birnbaum (DC) — Opare (MIN)

Gregus (MIN) — Atuesta (LAFC)

Lodeiro (SEA) — Moralez (NYCFC)

Vela (LAFC) — Ibrahimovic (LAG) — Martinez (ATL)

Bench: Bingham (LAG), Brillant (DC), Gil (NE), Pozuelo (TOR), Przyzbylko (PHI), Valeri (POR), Schweinsteiger (CHI)

2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: LAFC v. the field

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The 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs field is set. With the league going to a single-elimination format for every round of the postseason, the working theory is that the better team will prevail more frequently, thus adding a bit more weight to pre-playoff Power Rankings.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic reacts to assist, being back in Chelsea team ]

With the higher seeds set to host the one-off matchups, don’t be surprised to see the below rankings read a lot like the final regular-season standings…

LAFC v. the field

1. Los Angeles FC

No matter how you wish to frame any discussion around this year’s playoffs, you have to first ask yourself, “Is it even worth talking about a team not named LAFC?” There’s a case to be made that, no, it’s not worth taking about any other team, but for the sake of this exercise we’ll say that there is. Very quickly, the case for LAFC:

  • Single-season MLS points record (72)
  • MVP-to-be Carlos Vela’s single-season goals record (34 – in a 34-game season; he played in 31) and 15 assists
  • Single-season goals scored record (85 – tied for most)
  • Fewest goals conceded (37)
  • +48 goal differential (2nd-best is +21, followed by +15 and +9)

Simply put, LAFC’s level of dominance rewrote the MLS history book from front to back. If they don’t win MLS Cup, it’ll mostly likely be because they found a (silly) way to beat themselves.


Strong upset contenders

2. Atlanta United
3. New York City FC
4. Seattle Sounders

Atlanta spent all season lying in the weeds, perhaps realizing the Supporters’ Shield was an unrealistic target given LAFC’s pace, before hitting their stride in the final two months of the regular season (eight wins from their final 12 games). What’s more frightening, Josef Martinez is on fire after bagging an astounding 22 goals during his 15-game goalscoring streak from mid-May to mid-September. Assuming he’s healthy (he missed games no. 32 and 33 before returning on Sunday), there’s no one in the Eastern Conference who can take over a game — or an entire postseason — like he can.

There’s not a more tactically flexible team in MLS than NYCFC, who’ll spent most of the season morphing from a three-man backline to a four-man unit and vice versa. After jostling with Philadelphia and Atlanta most of the summer, Domenec Torrent’s side finished nine and six points clear, respectively. With just one loss in their last 11 games, NYCFC, though devoid of the global superstars they’ve been known to recruit, might just be the most in-form team at the right time of year.

[ MORE: Carlos Vela sets single season MLS goalscoring record ]


The wild, wild cards

5. Philadelphia Union
6. LA Galaxy
7. Toronto FC
8. Real Salt Lake
9. Portland Timbers

No team in MLS history has ever entered the playoffs with a greater range of outcomes than the 2019 Galaxy. Given the fact they’re yet to lose to LAFC in two seasons of meetings, they might be the most likely (if undeserving) side to slay the giant. If they can get by Minnesota in the first round (a big if, away from home), they’ll get their chance in the next round. Oh, the things Zlatan Ibrahimovic would do to be at the center of that conflict. Sure, the Galaxy concede the most goals of any playoff team this year, but between Ibrahimovic and Cristian Pavon they might actually have the best 1-2 punch in all of MLS right now. In a knockout scenario, they only need one moment each to make their mark.

10 games unbeaten to finish the regular, but only four of them wins — are Toronto FC in great form or just a so-so run? There’s something to be said of securing results down the stretch, but drawing Orlando, Columbus and Chicago in that same period is hardly a ringing endorsement. Then there’s the quad injury to Jozy Altidore, suffered on the final day of the season. He’ll have an MRI and almost certainly skip USMNT camp in hopes of being ready in two weeks, but given his injury history it seems a long shot. Like most of the East’s non-Atlanta teams, TFC’s best path forward might just be to play for clean sheets and take very few risks, and hope.


Long odds worth a look

10. Minnesota United
11. D.C. United
12. New England Revolution

How did Minnesota, the West’s fourth-place team, end up down here? Their 3W-3D-3L record down the stretch of the regular season was hardly impressive and left more questions than answers. Osvaldo Alonso’s influence has been plain as day in recent weeks; same goes for Ike Opara, who’s been excellent and thoroughly deserving of Defender of the Year should he win it again. They’re great, but who else has shown they’re cut from the same cloth when the games get tense and tight? As stated above, the Galaxy could no-show or score six at Allianz Field, and neither outcome would have a whole lot to do with Minnesota’s performance on the night. Adrian Heath’s team got the worst draw of all the home sides in the first round, and their reward for a potential win is to go play the other team from LA. Woof.

[ MORE: Orlando City fire James O’Connor after 1.5 dreadful seasons ]


Long odds for a reason

13. FC Dallas
14. New York Red Bulls

One of these teams will reach the conference finals, because this is MLS at the end of the day.

2019 MLS Cup playoffs bracket in full

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With Decision Day in the rear view mirror, the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs bracket is all set.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Round 1 action starts on October 19-20, following the international break. Just days later, first seeds NYCFC and LAFC join the playoffs as the Conference Semifinals take place.

On October 29-30, the Conference Finals will be played, which will decide what two teams will feature in the 2019 MLS Cup final on November 10.

Below is the MLS playoff bracket in full. Who will go the farthest?