The Golden State Warriors lost single-digit games in 2015-16, but lost to the Cavs in the finals. The 2007 New England Patriots went an absurd 16-0 in the NFL, but didn’t win the Super Bowl.
Yet here we are, three days from silverware heading to either Atlanta United or New York Red Bulls based on superlative regular seasons, and I can’t help but feel the Supporters’ Shield isn’t getting short shrift.
In a league which punishes away teams more than any other, where quality depth remains a problem and over-stresses the main players on a given team, this should be a much bigger deal.
Atlanta has a one-point lead on the New York Red Bulls, and a one-goal lead in differential. The clubs went head-to-head twice and RBNY won twice: First, a 3-1 win in Atlanta. Then, on Sept. 30, the Red Bulls beat visiting Atlanta despite a suspension to 20-goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips.
So Atlanta heads up to Ontario to face last season’s struggling Shield winners, Toronto FC, while at the same time, the Red Bulls host former captain Sacha Kljestan and mostly miserable Orlando City.
If both teams wins, they will boast the Nos. 1 and 2 point totals in MLS history. And one won’t win the shield.
Atlanta is seeking its first shield in a season its dealt with coach drama and plenty of transfer gossip regarding its star. It also boasts the best single-season finisher in MLS history in Josef Martinez.
RBNY is the shining example of development in MLS, whether midfielders or coaches. The club changed managers midseason, and overcame a disappointing start to put together an amazing campaign.
So while we relish the idea of these teams meeting in the Eastern Conference finals, there’s something about this weekend which is equal parts tantalizing.
With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk called its writers together to lay out their thoughts on this playoffs and the MLS postseason in general.
The four best regular season teams in Major League Soccer will have had a week to stare at the zeroes next to their names after conference semifinal first legs. Who has the best chance to flip their fate on its ear?
Andy Edwards: “The Red Bulls managed to do what neither Dallas nor NYCFC could in the first leg: damage limitation. To only give up one goal — on two shots on target — in a game where Montreal would have been desperate for two or three, was mission accomplished. No one scored more goals at home than the Red Bulls this season, which means they’ve got L’Impact right where they want them.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I have a feeling that the New York Red Bulls are the most likely to overcome the deficit. Aside from a wonder strike from Matteo Mancuso at Stade Saputo, there wasn’t much in the game. Jesse Marsch’s side had an off day. Don’t expect them to have another one. Elsewhere I expect Seattle to get through against Dallas and LA to get past Colorado, but I have a sneaky feeling New York City FC will make it very interesting against Toronto. Because, Toronto.”
Matt Reed: “Outside of the Sounders-FC Dallas fixture it’s hard to say that any of the other matchups are over and done with. That said, I think the New York Red Bulls have the best chance to overcome their deficit. The Impact weren’t dominant in the opening leg and the Red Bulls are a significantly better home side than they are on the road (13-2-2 at Red Bull Arena). With Jesse Marsch’s side potentially only needing a goal to send things to extra time I believe Bradley Wright-Phillips and co. are more than capable of handling their business.”
Kyle Bonn: “Has to be RBNY. Not only is their deficit just a one-goal differential from a first leg on the road (they were a questionable road team at best during the year), but they have been stellar at home. They were 13-2-2 at home this regular season, and they beat Montreal twice at home in the recent past by a combined score of 4-1. I don’t see any other result but the Red Bulls advancing.”
Nick Mendola: “I’ll take a differing angle, solely to be different. The Colorado Rapids have shown a keen ability to keep a clean sheet, and Tim Howard nearly blanked the Galaxy last week. The Rapids went unbeaten at home this season, with 11 wins in 17 matches, and Jermaine Jones is finally back. It may take extra time and kicks, but I’ll take Howard over Brian Rowe every day.”
What’s the best active storyline in these MLS Cup Playoffs?
Andy Edwards: “While the Sounders with Brian Schmetzer and Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are the obvious answer, I’m giddy about the current form of one Josmer Volmy Altidore in Toronto. When was the last time the U.S. national team had a single striker scoring the way Altidore, Morris and Bobby Wood are doing, let alone three at the same time? Sebastian Giovinco gets most of the plaudits (rightly so) in Toronto, but the difference with and without Altidore on the field is clear as day. The link-up play between the two is strangely perfect, and might be enough to take the Reds all the way to the Cup.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I don’t want to single out a player but I think the way the Seattle Sounders have turned things around is remarkable. Sigi Schmid will always be a legend in Seattle and in MLS but he will always be remembered in the Emerald City for not being able to deliver the elusive MLS Cup. If Seattle somehow go on to win MLS Cup this year under Brian Schmetzer, who was interim boss up until this week when the Sounders made it permanent, it would be bizarre. I think with the streak they’re on to finish the season, Seattle can go all the way to MLS Cup.”
Kyle Bonn: “I agree with Joe that a big storyline is Seattle’s turnaround, but to me the biggest is Toronto’s rise. Having made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year but suffering a disappointing early exit, this year they’re primed to eliminate NYCFC. On an individual level, Sebastian Giovinco will feel slighted after being left off both the Italian squad recently, as well as the MVP list released a few days ago. Can he prove everyone wrong with a big playoff push?”
Matt Reed: “As much as Brian Schmetzer’s miraculous run with the Sounders will gain plenty of headlines (and deservingly so), I think what Patrick Vieira has done with New York City FC is quite impressive. Yes, it’s a star-driven squad, but the former Arsenal midfielder has done well implementing a system and sticking to it even though his personnel doesn’t necessarily always allow them to succeed. It’ll be a tough task overcoming Toronto down two goals, but David Villa has had plenty of magic in his two-plus seasons with NYCFC. It’s hard to count him and this side out.”
Nick Mendola: “It was treble-chasing FC Dallas, but their 3-0 deficit to Seattle makes that a lot less sexy. As mentioned above, Toronto and Seattle are great selections. But it comes down to two teams now, in terms of storylines: The Red Bulls still haven’t won an MLS Cup and are running the risk of falling behind NYCFC in the latter’s second season downstate (or in New Jersey). Yet as much as I hate to say it, as long as Landon Donovan is playing close to 90 minutes per game for the LA Galaxy after coming out of retirement, he would be the No. 1 draw of any storyline for fans in the U.S.
Speaking of the playoffs here in Year Ten, what are you feeling about the way the MLS structures its postseason? Do you have significant qualms?
Joe Prince-Wright: “Bit in between to be honest. I’d actually like to see the playoffs eradicated, just for one season, and see how it was received. With the increased number of teams in the league over the next two seasons, you could just have an extra four or so regular season games. I know the playoffs always create buzz and excitement but to me there still seems something far too hollow about the Supporters’ Shield. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Kyle Bonn: “I like it a lot. Sure, the regular season is somewhat diminished by the playoffs, but it’s like that in any sport. There is a sacrifice of sporting fairness in exchange for excitement and big moments. It works the same in Major League baseball, where a 162-game season can come crumbling down in 7 games.”
Nick Mendola: “I enjoy the playoffs while they are going, but I’d like to see one-off home games if we’re going full-blown American structure. Yes, teams get a break if home-field advantage comes their way, but playing one more match in a 10-day span is hardly an advantage after 34 matches worth of grinding for position.”
Andy Edwards: “Of all the gripes I have about the MLS Cup Playoffs, that they play home and away in the conference semifinals and finals is the biggest (that they don’t even give the higher-seeded side their choice of which leg to host is even worse). When they put the higher-seeded team on the road in the first leg, where you choose between playing for a 0-0 draw, or opening yourself up to an onslaught by coming out and attacking, I find myself wondering, ‘Why did we even play eight months of the regular season?’ In a perfect world, every round is single elimination. If after 90 minutes the game is tied, put the team that performed better over 34 games into the next round. There’s money to be made in these here playoffs, though, which is why it’ll never happen.”
Matt Reed: “I’m not a huge fan of a playoff system in general but given the way things are set up with two separate conferences it seems pretty good the way things are. Just like I’m not a huge proponent of away goals being a tiebreaker in Europe, I feel the same way about its use in MLS, so I suppose that would be the biggest change I’d make to the current system.”
Would you rather your team won the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup?
Matt Reed: “Just like any other league, you want to be considered the best team at the end of the season. The Supporters’ Shield is certainly nothing to cast aspersions on but at the end of the day MLS Cup is the ultimate prize for any team.”
Andy Edwards: “Until the regular-season schedule is balanced (i.e., not playing some intra-conference teams twice, while playing others three times), the Supporters’ Shield, by definition, is a tilted competition at best, and rigged at worst. For that reason, even though I would like to see more value placed upon the regular season, it’s always going to be about MLS Cup.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “You want your team to win the highest possible honor possible which right now is MLS Cup, but if you win the Supporters’ Shield then you’re a damn good team (looking at you, FC Dallas). In the current format the regular season champ doesn’t get enough respect. So, MLS Cup is better.”
Kyle Bonn: “Absolutely the MLS Cup. The Supporter’s Shield probably recognizes the best overall team, which says a lot, but it’s not the league championship. I want the title.”
Nick Mendola: “You can’t manufacture hype and passion, and it’s clear the MLS world respects the Cup more than the Shield. So while I love the Shield accomplishment far more, I have to tip my hat to the majority… for now.”
As of right now, only three teams know their next match after Sunday; The Red Bulls, Colorado, and FC Dallas will get a full week to plan for whoever wins the knockout round matches.
The West remarkably still has three playoff spots on the line amongst four combatants. The remaining Western playoff team, LA, only knows that it will be home for one of the those four.
Over in the East, Philadelphia is likely to claim the final playoff spot barring a wild loss and a wild win for New England. But both Toronto and NYC are still up for first round byes, with the loser hosting a knockout game. DC and Montreal could still host knockout games as well.
It’s going to be a fun Sunday for the league, as every game has at least one opponent who needs a result. The marquee matches see a Cascadia Cup deciding match between Portland and Vancouver, a potential playoff decider between Seattle and RSL, and a tone-setter between LA and still Supporters’ Shield seeking FC Dallas.
Schedule Toronto FC vs. Chicago Fire
Vancouver vs. Portland
LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas
Orlando City vs. DC United
Sporting KC vs. San Jose
New York City vs. Columbus
Seattle vs. Real Salt Lake
Colorado vs. Houston
Philadelphia vs. New York Red Bulls
New England vs. Montreal
The game in 100 words (or less): By now, we know Colorado is for real, though it doesn’t feel any less surreal to see the Rapids controlling their own destiny in the race for the Supporters’ Shield. The Rapids remain unbeaten at home this season, and San Jose could only find a way past Tim Howard via penalty kick. Kevin Doyle scored twice in the win and could’ve had four on the night, and now Colorado needs only to equal or beat FC Dallas’ point total to win its first Supporters’ Shield. San Jose needs to win out and get massive help to have any hope of the playoffs.
Three moments that mattered
38′ — Look everyone, it’s a flying Irishman! — Look at the hold up play by second-year man Dominique Badji. The former Boston Terriers star sets the table for Colorado’s opener, and Kevin Doyle flies through the air to score before making a hilarious mess and comically-good recovery of a sliding celebration.