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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.

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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.

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)

Robinson called into USMNT camp after Zimmerman injury

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Walker Zimmerman has withdrawn from USMNT camp after suffering an injury in LAFC’s final match of the regular season.

Atlanta United youngster Miles Robinson will take his place.

The move has implications on the USMNT and could affect the MLS Cup Playoffs, though LAFC won’t play for 17 days.

[ MORE: Pulisic excited for Cuba, Canada ]

We’ll begin with the latter, where Zimmerman is a fine passer who can help outweigh mauler Aaron Long’s weaknesses in that department.

Robinson is also a very good passer, but won’t be expected to leap into the starting lineup against Cuba and Canada for the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League matches.

Fortunately, the Cuba game is first. That allows Gregg Berhalter to test run a center back pairing that already cannot include the injured John Brooks. It seems likely Berhalter will stick with Long — who’s been quite good for the Red Bulls since his recent misadventures with the USMN —  and unite him with either Tim Ream or Matt Miazga.

As for LAFC, Bob Bradley‘s men are strong and deep but could face an El Trafico with the Galaxy in the second round. Zlatan and Co. are a much bigger handful than Minnesota United’s attackers, as the Loons midfield is what makes them tick.

Zimmerman left Sunday’s 3-1 win over Colorado in the 66th minute with a scary-looking apparent head injury, and is an integral part of the Supporters’ Shield winners. Hopefully he won’t miss any time.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoff Power Rankings ]

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?

Carlos Vela sets single season MLS goalscoring record

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Carlos Vela is MLS’ new single season goalscoring king.

Vela, with his trademark left-footed curling strike from distance, broke Josef Martinez’s record (31 goals) in the 28th minute against the Colorado Rapids.

The goal itself, catching Tim Howard and the Rapids by surprise, embodies the dominance the Mexican has showcased all season long. If Vela was going to break the record, one could sense it was going to be done in world-class fashion. Well, that’s exactly what happened.

And just two minutes later – fresh from breaking the record- Vela scored his second of the day in emphatic fashion, pushing the record to 33 goals with a bicycle-kick goal.

The 30-year-old, who recently lifted the Supporter’s Shield with LAFC, is putting together a historic season that may stand for years to come, scoring 34 goals and assisting 15 times in 31 games. In 2018, it took 34 games for Atlanta United’s Martinez to score 34 goals and record six assists.

There is no question that this is a season Vela will never forget. Will he take it above and beyond and lead LAFC to MLS Cup glory next, though?