MLS Predictions

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MLS preview: Red Bulls-Toronto FC, Timbers-Crew SC headline First Kick

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It’s here. It’s finally here. Major League Soccer’s First Kick 2016 is here.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Just like last year, in this space we’ll discuss the biggest MLS games each weekend and I’ll hazard a prediction for each and every one of them — last year’s picks were so-so — thus opening myself up to loads of ridicule over the next eight months, beginning on Sunday. C’est la vie.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live

Without a doubt in my mind, this is the game of the weekend, and a worthy curtain raiser for the 2016 season. It’s hard to see past these two teams battling it out for top spot in the Eastern Conference this season — the Red Bulls finished top and won the 2015 Supporters’ Shield; TFC finally made the playoffs, kept the core pieces (Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore) intact for a second season and addressed actual needs in the offseason. As far as ceilings go, there’s nothing higher in the East.

As for Sunday’s matchup, it’ll be a battle of strength versus strength — RBNY’s midfield trio (Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins) vs. TFC’s midfield trio (Bradley, Will Johnson and Benoit Cheyrou). Woo, tasty. A slight advantage has to go to RBNY for the fact that all three players are holdovers from last year, while Johnson only arrived this winter. That said, TFC have the ultimate MLS difference maker (Atomic Ant), and that almost always counted for something in 2015.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-2 TFC

Portland Timbers vs. Columbus Crew SC — Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Rematch of MLS Cup 2015 on opening day 2016, you say? Blah, I say. Sure, MLS needs to improve its television ratings in a big way, and leading off with a rematch of last year’s title game is one way to do that, I suppose, but doing so gives the game little chance of exuding the kind of quality you’d hope to see on display between two title-contending teams. The first month of the MLS season is very rarely anything close to resembling good soccer, but that’s just my two cents.

Didn’t we just finish discussing the tactical battle between these teams? Oh yeah, so just about everything from MLS Cup remains relevant on Sunday: Darlington Nagbe as a central midfielder is the new engine of the Timbers buzzsaw; Fanendo Adi and Kei Kamara are nightmares both physically and in terms of their off-ball movement, so good luck, center backs; Crew SC’s full backs (Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful) are going to be insanely dangerous up and down the flanks, and even more fun to watch this year; they’re both lethal on set pieces and dreadful at defending them, which shouldn’t have changed much in the offseason.

Prediction: Timbers 1-1 Crew SC

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City — Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, FS1

Sounders versus Sporting KC is quickly becoming one of the better under-the-radar rivalries in MLS, for two distinct reasons: 1) the games almost always arrive with massive consequences with regard to the standings — they’re both really good every year, and figure to be so again in 2016 — 2) the games are almost always heated and full of tempers flaring up and plenty of controversy. This makes for an entertaining spectacle.

It’ll be tough sledding in early days for the Sounders, who’ll have to adjust to life without Obafemi Martins, but fortunately for them, Clint Dempsey is still around and Jordan Morris is ready to become the greatest American soccer player ever chip in 10 or so goals this season to pick up the slack. Forewarning to the rest of the league: Joevin Jones is going to slay at left back for the Sounders. As for Sporting, they’ll attempt to run it back once more with a squad that’s won two U.S. Open Cups and an MLS Cup over the last four seasons, with the notable loss of would-have-been-superstar Krisztian Nemeth, which is offset by the arrivals of Brad Davis and Justin Mapp. These teams will be very good again in 2016, but it’s going to take a bit of time.

Prediction: Sounders 0-1 Sporting KC

Fearful MLS predictions: PST picks the 2016 Major League Soccer standings

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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Ah, the business of guessing the postseason finishes of unpredictable MLS teams.

We mean: Totally forecasting Major League Soccer’s season with alarming accuracy. Yeah. That’s it.

It’s tricky, you know? Forget the massive changes that can come with massive midseason additions — *cough, Didier Drogba* — or new coaches. Just the status of whether young players will kick on or old players lose a step can change the entire dynamic of a player race.

[ MORE: 2016 MLS Eastern Conference preview ]

Take the Eastern Conference. For me — given team health — there are four playoffs locks, and how they finish in the standings is highly arbitrary considering the difference between Supporters’ Shield and duking it out for the final playoff spots is 3-4 wins.

In Toronto, you have a team I’d select to win 75 percent of its games but has to play its first nine on the road. So, I’ll go with Columbus? Who could lose Ethan Finlay for the Copa America and Wil Trapp to the Olympics? Will a full year of rested Didier Drogba work, or was the half-year part of what kept his legs brilliant in Quebec? How will RBNY cope without Matt Miazga, and handle CONCACAF Champions League schedule congestion? Which ones will try to win the Open Cup?

[ EXCLUSIVES: Villa wants wins at NYC | Pontius starts fresh in Philly ]

Then, with apologies to Chicago — and Philadelphia given my colleagues’ predictions — there’s a batch of five teams that can make the playoffs if their ships come in.

We saw what can happen when a single, revolutionary force joins an attack (Giovinco, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Drogba). What if that’s Shkëlzen Gashi in Colorado? What if Ilsinho opens up defenses for the Union? How about the chances of Jack Harrison, Fabian Herbers, Jordan Morris, Omar Holness or Julian Buescher pulling a Cyle Larin and exploding as a rookie?

[ MORE: PST’s MLS writer roundtable |Will NYC, Orlando kick on? ]

So, please, please, please, let us be close to correct MLS. The difference in 2nd place and 7th in the East last year was nine points. In the West, it was six! Whether you’re playing on a postage stamp (NYC) or a small city (Seattle), anyone can make a run (Yes, even you Chicago, with a new coach and GM).

JPW Nick Mendola Andy Edwards Kyle Bonn Kyle Lynch
EASTERN CONFERENCE
EASTERN CONFERENCE
EASTERN CONFERENCE
EASTERN CONFERENCE
EASTERN CONFERENCE
1. Toronto 1. Columbus 1. Toronto 1. Red Bulls 1. Columbus
2. NYC 2. Toronto 2. Red Bulls 2. Montreal 2. Toronto
3. Red Bulls 3. Montreal 3. Montreal 3. Toronto 3. Red Bulls
4. Columbus 4. Red Bulls 4. Columbus 4. Columbus 4. New England
5. Montreal 5. Orlando 5. Orlando 5. New England 5. Orlando
6. Orlando 6. NYC 6. NYC 6. Orlando 6. Montreal
7. New England 7. New England 7. New England 7. DC 7. NYC
8. DC 8. Philadelphia 8. DC 8. NYC 8. DC
9. Philadelphia 9. DC 9. Philadelphia 9. Chicago 9. Chicago
10. Chicago 10. Chicago 10. Chicago 10. Philadelphia 10. Philadelphia
WESTERN CONFERENCE WESTERN CONFERENCE WESTERN CONFERENCE WESTERN CONFERENCE WESTERN CONFERENCE
1. Seattle
1. LA
1. LA
1. Vancouver
1. Vancouver
2. LA
2. Vancouver 2. Dallas
2. Seattle
2. Dallas
3. KC
3. KC
3. KC
3. KC
3. Seattle
4. Vancouver
4. Dallas
4. Portland
4. Dallas
4. LA
5. Portland
5. Seattle
5. Vancouver
5. Portland
5. Portland
6. Dallas 6. Portland 6. Seattle 6. San Jose 6. Houston
7. San Jose 7. San Jose 7. RSL 7. Houston 7. KC
8. RSL 8. Colorado 8. Houston 8. LA 8. San Jose
9. Houston 9. RSL 9. San Jose 9. RSL 9. RSL
10. Colorado 10. Houston 10. Colorado 10. Colorado 10. Colorado

MLS Cup Playoffs: Field to be cut from 8 to 4 in leg 2 of conf. semis

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Sunday afternoon is drawing closer and closer, which can mean only one thing: another quadrupleheader of 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs action, this time to send four teams through to the conference finals and four more teams home for another winter of wondering “what if?”

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The conference semifinals, which will see four second legs played from Sunday afternoon to late in the evening, set up as follows…

New York Red Bulls 1-0 D.C. United — Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Red Bulls are the only remaining side to hold an advantage before kicking off the second leg at home. As such, they’ve got to be considered massive favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, though it won’t as straightforward as that without center back Damien Perrinelle, who was lost for the rest of the playoffs after he suffered a left knee injury in the first leg.

That is, of course, dependent upon United venturing into the Red Bulls’ final third every now and then to put a shot on target — something they have thus far failed to do even once through 90 minutes. A mass exodus and complete reshuffling of the United roster presumably looms this winter, so it’s last chance saloon time for Ben Olsen’s current edition of the Black and Red.

Prediction: Red Bulls 2-1 (3-1 agg.) United

[ MORE: An MLS postseason awards ballot — MVP, Coach, Rookie & more! ]

Columbus Crew SC 1-2 Montreal Impact —Sunday,  5 p.m. ET, ESPN

No second leg presents itself with the excitement and vast array of possibilities of Columbus versus Montreal. An early Crew SC goal makes this one all the better, considering Montreal will have to chase an away goal, thus opening themselves up tot he devastating counter-attacking ways of the Black and Gold. Crew SC were largely reined in during the first leg, unable to counter into the open field so regularly as the regular season.

For the Impact, their season almost entirely comes down to their midfield three — Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Patrice — taking care of the ball in the middle third of the field, not allowing Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara to start counters inside their attacking half, and quickly snuffing out those chances in the (hopefully, for their sake) rare event. Oh yeah, then there’s Didier Drogba, who has 12 goals in 13 games (playoffs included) since signing for the Impact, biding his time for a chance to play hero.

Prediction: Crew SC 1-1 (2-3 agg.) Impact

[ MORE: Which MLS teams should be in the Cubo Torres sweepstakes? ]

FC Dallas 1-2 Seattle Sounders — Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

To put it simply, FC Dallas blew a golden opportunity to put their semifinal tie with the Sounders away in leg no. 1 last Sunday. After 18 minutes, Oscar Pareja’s side held a 1-0 lead at CenturyLink Field and had the Sounders on the ropes, shaking at the knees and ready to be knocked down. Instead, FCD took their foot of the gas, dropped deeper defensively, conceded more than 56 percent of possession the rest of the way and watch the Sounders scored two deserved late goals to undo a brilliant opening half-hour from FCD.

That said, FCD are still in a great position to go through, especially if midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and/or defender Brad Evans (injuries) are unable to go in Sunday’s second leg. In Alonso, the Sounders lose one of MLS’s strongest engines and ball-winners, without whom the red carpet is rolled out for Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo to stroll through the middle of the park. In Evans, they lose a mobile center back partner to Chad Marshall’s aerial dominance and cement-block feet, without whom Marshall, 31, and Zach Scott, 35, will be playing catch-up to Castillo, Tesho Akindele and David Texeira all game long. Spoiler alert: the Sounders will lose that battle.

Prediction: FCD 3-1 AET (4-3 agg.) Sounders

[ MORE: Gerrard won’t be returning to Liverpool (to play) ]

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Portland Timbers — Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, FS1

If you think you have any idea which way the second leg of Vancouver versus Portland is going to go, you’re flat out lying. 0-0 in the first leg had a lot to do with the Timbers playing 120 minutes and needing 11 rounds of penalty kicks 72 hours earlier in the knockout round. If not for goalkeeper David Ousted coming up big on two occasions, the Timbers still would have taken an advantage into leg no. 2. Darlington Nagbe has put together the best month of his professional career after moving to the center of midfield, so he’ll (as always) be the X-factor on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps continue to fly under the radar as the side who concedes very few goals and takes very few chances going forward — a far cry from the wide open, run-and-gun side of March and April. Pedro Morales is still working his way back into fitness after a hamstring injury robbed him of the final month of the regular season, which means it’s entirely possible we see the workman trio of Gershon Koffie, Matias Laba and Russell Teibert in the center of midfield once again. If Diego Chara (foot) is unable to go for the Timbers once again, that’s a battle the ‘Caps will win — and exploit — all night long, right into the Western Conference finals.

Prediction: Whitecaps 2-2 (2-2* agg. – away goals) Timbers

MLS preview: It all comes down to ‘Decision Day’

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It’s here. It’s finally here. #DecisionDay is upon us. On Sunday, the 2015 Major League Soccer season comes to a dramatic close with 10 games played over the course of four hours. Up for grabs still are four playoff spots, two knockout round byes and one shiny piece of hardware.

Predictions record through Week 33: 41-57

(Playoff scenarios, news and notes for both the Eastern and Western Conferences can be found HERE and HERE.)

So, if you’re to watch just four MLS games on Sunday — who am I to tell you to watch only four? — might I suggest the following four:

Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls (7 p.m. ET, MLS Live/ESPN3)

What’s on the line: For the Fire, avoiding injury so as to best enjoy a beach vacation beginning Monday morning; for the Red Bulls, the Supporters’ Shield.

The Red Bulls have never won at Toyota Park (0W-9L-4D), which makes the fact they need three points to win the Shield a bit daunting. That said, they’ve been the most consistent team all season long — Jesse Marsch’s side was the last to lose a game in 2015, and no team has fewer losses than the Red Bulls’ 10 (two others have lost 10).

Prediction: Fire 1-1 Red Bulls

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

FC Dallas vs. San Jose Earthquakes (7 p.m. ET, MLS Live/ESPN3)

What’s on the line: For FCD, a chance pounce on the Supporters’ Shield; for the ‘Quakes, a chance to pounce on a playoff place in the Western Conference.

Speaking of uber-consistent teams with just 10 losses in 2015, may I present to you FC Dallas, who are very legitimate contenders to win MLS Cup. If the Red Bulls falter and drop points, Oscar Pareja’s bunch will be ready to pounce. With home-field advantage already secured throughout the West playoffs, first dibs on hosting MLS Cup comes along with the Shield. The ‘Quakes, however, need the three points and a loss by any one of Seattle, Portland or Kansas City to keep their season alive.

Prediction: FCD 2-1 Quakes

[ MORE: Week 33 Team of the Week | Player of the Week ]

Sporting Kansas City vs. LA Galaxy (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

What’s on the line: For Sporting KC, a playoff berth first and foremost; for the Galaxy, the second seed and a bye in the knockout round.

Here’s the thing about the West: it’s crazy. While Sporting are still fighting for their playoff lives, they’re also still in with a tiny shout to finish second in the West. In their first meeting of the season, all the way back in April, LA topped Sporting on a 93rd-minute winner scored by Omar Gonzalez. Sporting turned in perhaps their worst performance of the season Wednesday night with a chance to clinch a playoff berth before facing the defending Cup winners on Sunday. The Galaxy, meanwhile, have won just once in their last six league games, meaning momentum is with neither side and truly anything could happen at Sporting Park.

Prediction: Sporting KC 1-1 Galaxy

[ MORE: Update on Jason Kreis’s future at NYCFC ]

Columbus Crew SC vs. D.C. United (5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

What’s on the line: For Crew SC, the second seed and a bye in the knockout round; for United, the second seed and a bye in the knockout round.

The winner at MAPFRE Stadium finishes second in the East and avoids having to play in the knockout round next week. That’s huge, especially for a veteran-laden United side that faltered down the stretch and went six games without a win (five losses) before their current two-game return to form. With Kei Kamara suspended (yellow card accumulation), goals could be hard to come by for Crew SC. This one feels like a scoreless stalemate for 60 or 70 minutes, followed by a late hijacking of all three points by United. Crew SC could fall as far as fifth in the East, while United could drop to fourth.

Prediction: Crew SC 0-1 United

MLS preview: Galaxy vs. FC Dallas, Crew vs. Timbers

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Week 30 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is upon us, and believe it or not, we’re finally starting to figure this whole playoff picture out. By the end of the weekend, any of four teams could have their respective conference’s top seed all but sewn up, while it’s time to kick one of these Western Conference wannabes to the curb. Who’s with me?

Predictions record through Week 29: 41-54

So, if you’re to watch just three MLS games this weekend — who am I to tell you to watch only three games? — might I suggest the following three:

LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas (Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Something pretty interesting has been going on with the Galaxy, and it’s pretty much exactly what we predicted would happen months before the arrival of Steven Gerrard: they’ve got worse — much worse — and it’s all to do with the midfield balance. See, Gerrard isn’t 25 anymore. He’s not even 28, or 30, or 32. He’s 35, and an old 35 at that. To preserve his $6-million-per-year investment, Bruce Arena can’t play Gerrard in a role at all resembling a box-to-box midfielder, which is precisely what the Galaxy need.

Juninho is an elite defensive midfielder who sits in front of the back line, cleans up messes before they’re ever made, and sprays brilliant long balls into both channels and out to the wings. Problem is, that’s now Gerrard’s position, because, legs. So Juninho’s wandering further up the field, turning the ball over because he’s under a lot more pressure in the attacking half, and the Galaxy midfield and defense are suddenly under lots of pressure… with a 35-year-old attacking-midfielder-turned-d-mid charged with protecting an already frail defensive unit. Guess what. They’ve given up four goals in three games and haven’t scored a league goal since their five-goal dismantling of New York City more than a month ago. Oh, and maybe nobody in MLS attacks space and makes you pay on the counter like FCD and Fabian Castillo.

Prediction: Galaxy 2-2 FCD

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Columbus Crew SC vs. Portland Timbers (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live)

Can someone confirm for me that Crew SC and the Timbers aren’t, in fact, the same team? Let’s run down the list really quickly: Great on set pieces — check; terrible at defending set pieces — check; midfield three that holds its own with any unit in the league — check; overlapping full backs like whoa — check; exciting, dynamic wingers — check; enigmatic center forwards who see plenty of chances each game — check.

OK, that settles it, Crew SC and the Timbers are the same group of guys who just fly across the country and place twice every weekend. A win could push Crew SC all the way into the Eastern Conference’s top spot, while the Timbers need to win and overcome nine goals’ worth of goal differential to leave behind the sixth spot in the West.

Prediction: Crew SC 4-2 Timbers

[ MORE: Week 29 Team of the Week | Player of the Week ]

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Real Salt Lake (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Can we agree to one thing, for the sake of my sanity? Whichever of these teams walks out of Avaya Stadium with zero points Sunday night, we make them go away until March. Can we agree to that? Because, man, I am so done with these two teams and their yoyo-ing “we’re alive,” “we’re dead,” “we’re alive,” “we’re dead” schtick of the last two months.

How’s anybody supposed to have a correct take on a team if every time you buy into them, they fall flat on their face; and every time you say they’re finally dead, they hammer one of the league’s best teams? Naturally, they’ll play to the most exciting draw of the season, leaving us once again scratching our heads, still unsure what to make of either side’s postseason chances. They’ve currently both out of the playoff places, and pretty likely to still be there come Oct. 25.

Prediction: Earthquakes 1-1 RSL