- As the playoffs near, it’s time to ask some big questions about Major League Soccer
- Can anyone stop LAFC? How much better will Toronto FC be with their Italian stars? What’s going on with Seattle and NYCFC? We’ll discuss all of that and more
It’s only two months until the end of the MLS regular season. MLS has been utter chaos the last couple of weeks, and don’t expect that to change as the playoff races begin to heat up. In the midst of all this chaos, I’ve been pondering some major questions about the league as we head into the final stretch of the season.
Let’s talk about some of those questions, shall we?
1. CAN ANYONE STOP LAFC?
It sure seems like the answer to this one is “probably not”. LAFC are marching towards a Supporters’ Shield and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight gives the Black & Gold a whopping 83% chance of winning the Shield, which is ridiculous considering they still have 11 games left in the season.
After LAFC added Giorgio Chiellini and Garth Bale, there were questions about whether the new additions and other various transfer rumors would disrupt their chemistry. It doesn’t seem like that has happened at all. Chiellini still got that dawg in him, and even more concerning for the rest of the West is that Bale looks legitimately happy to be in Los Angeles after a decade of character assassination in the English and Spanish press.
It’s hard to see anyone in the West making a strong push to dislodge LAFC from the top playoff spot.
Not only is the majority of the West significantly weaker than the East this year, but the sheer depth that LAFC have built is pretty incredible. Right now the attacking bench of Gareth Bale, Brian Rodriguez, and new DP Denis Bouanga is better than every other MLS team’s starting front three, with the potential exception of Toronto FC.
Home field advantage is going to be a significant boon for LAFC this year because, as of now, Austin is the only Western Conference team with a positive goal differential on the road.
However, there’s a whole separate set of questions around Austin right now. Josh Wolff’s team has certainly been getting the results, but is Austin FC an elite team in MLS? I’m getting strong 2021 New England Revolution vibes from Los Verdes. Their strength of schedule ranks 24th out of 28th in MLS, which makes you wonder how they’ll fare against better competition in the postseason.
Anything can happen in a single-elimination playoff format, but it’s going to be really hard to bet against LAFC from here on out.
2. HOW MUCH WILL THE ITALIANS IMPROVE TORONTO FC?
As of today, FiveThirtyEight is giving Toronto a 9% shot of making the playoffs, but that number is factoring in a lot of data before Toronto went full Italian and added Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. The good news for Bob Bradley and Co. is that they’re unbeaten in MLS play since Insigne and Bernardeschi were both inserted into the starting lineup on July 23.
That attacking pair has also instantly transformed the Reds into appointment viewing. According to American Soccer Analysis, they only rank behind LAFC in the league in terms of both goal differential and expected goal differential over the last few weeks. The bad news for Toronto is that three games is way too small of a sample size to draw any type of conclusions about this glow-up.
The big problems for TFC this year were (and are) on the defensive end. We’ll need to see more to know how additions Mark-Anthony Kaye and Richie Laryea impact that side of the ball.
But since this is MLS, despite having the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC are only four points away from the seventh spot out East. If Toronto keep their form going through the rest of August and September, no one is going to want to play them in the playoffs.
3. WILL PRESEASON MLS CUP FAVORITES NYCFC AND SEATTLE SOUNDERS REBOUND?
Things aren’t looking good for everyone’s preseason MLS Cup favorites New York City FC and the Seattle Sounders. The Sounders are below the playoff line after losing five of their last seven games, and NYCFC have looked completely debilitated in the attack since Taty Castellanos made his move to La Liga.
Since Seattle became the first MLS club to win the Concacaf Champions League, the continental champs have struggled with injuries to both defensive midfielder Joao Paulo and striker Raul Ruidiaz. The injury to Paulo, arguably the league’s best No. 6, has been particularly problematic.
After promising rookie Obed Vargas went down in June with a stress fracture, Brain Schmetzer has tried nearly everyone on the roster at holding midfielder next to DP Albert Rusnak. No one has truly impressed in that role, though. The most promising option might be for Schmetzer to move Cristian Roldan permanently to the holding midfield spot. However, that comes at the steep cost of losing the offensive production that he gives Seattle out on the right wing.
The good news for Seattle is that it looks like Ruidiaz is getting closer to rejoining his team’s starting lineup. If Ruidiaz stays healthy and the Roldan defensive midfielder experiment works out, it’s hard to imagine Seattle not making it across the playoff line. Let’s not forget that late-season playoff pushes are a core part of the Sounders’ DNA.
NYCFC, on the other hand, look like a team that can’t remember their DNA at all. After losing manager Ronny Deila to Standard Liege in Belgium, the Pigeons looked like they had finally adjusted to interim manager Nick Cushing. They recorded four straight wins back in July, including a statement performance against the New York Red Bulls on the road in the Hudson River Derby.
Now that Castellanos is gone, though, NYCFC’s offense is hurting.
Maxi Moralez has been productive this season, ranking third among attacking midfielders in ASA’s goals added metric, but his physical decline has had a huge impact on NYCFC. Backheeled contributor Nate Gillman wrote a great article for American Soccer Analysis showing that NYCFC has significantly dialed back pressure under Cushing.
Some of the decrease in pressure could stem from Cushing’s tactical preferences, but Maxi’s legs have been a big factor as well.
At 35, Moralez has slowed down. He’s not a 90-minute player anymore. According to Second Spectrum, the only outfield player with over 500 minutes in MLS this year who recorded a slower top sustained speed than Moralez in 2022 is Jozy Altidore. With Keaton Parks out after a second blood clot surgery, NYCFC are forced to play Maxi as much as possible because they don’t have anyone else on the roster who glues the midfield together.
All of that said, NYCFC had a really rough summer in 2021 and still won MLS Cup. They had Taty back then, though. Without him and with some of their other issues, it’s difficult to see them in the first tier of contenders at this point.
4. WHICH TEAMS ABOVE THE PLAYOFF LINE WILL FADE?
It’s really hard to imagine some of the top teams in the Eastern Conference missing the playoffs. The top-four teams in the standings aren’t going anywhere anytime soon (that applies to NYCFC, too, even with their problems). Columbus also seems to be trending upward as chemistry develops between Cucho Hernández and Lucas Zelarayan. Cincinnati got some much needed defensive help courtesy of Matt Miazga and the Brandon Vazquez hype train has fully left the station.
That means the Chicago Fire, currently sitting in the last playoff spot, are in trouble if one of the teams below them gets hot.
In the West, there are more opportunities for drastic changes in the standings. I have some concerns about FC Dallas: even though they’re in third place, Dallas only have two wins in their last 11 games. Both Nashville and Real Salt Lake are also trending downwards with one win in their last eight games. It’s a realistic possibility to see one or all of these teams miss the playoffs.
5. WHICH TEAMS BELOW THE PLAYOFF LINE WILL MAKE A PUSH?
Besides Toronto, I think that Atlanta United is a team in the East that could potentially make a run for the playoffs. There is just too much attacking talent on the roster to dismiss them at this point in the season. If Gonzalo Pineda can figure out how to stabilize the midfield and defensive lines that have been decimated with injuries, Atlanta could have a puncher’s chance.
New England is in a similar spot. If the playoffs started today, they would be out on a tiebreaker. But the Revs should be at least a little optimistic, given that it looks like they struck gold with Djordje Petrovic as Matt Turner’s replacement in goal. They should also expect some production from new DP Giacomo Vrioni, who has slowly been integrating into the squad.
In addition to Seattle, the Colorado Rapids and the Vancouver Whitecaps could be wildcards out West. Colorado is currently on a big hot-streak and it looks like Gyasi Zardes is finally getting into form after being named MLS Player of the Week with a hat trick against Minnesota. Vancouver, for their part, made some nice moves during the summer transfer window. Alessandro Schopf could be the jolt their midfield needs and Julian Gressel, the consensus best right wingback in MLS, should do wonders in the Whitecaps’ three-back system.
The LA Galaxy also made some major moves in the most recent transfer window by signing Riqui Puig and Gaston Brugman.
Puig is an incredible talent, but he presents Greg Vanney with some major tactical questions. Is he going to be a No. 8 in a 4-3-3 like he was for Barcelona? Or a No. 8 or No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1? With any of those options, you still have to play underperforming DPs Douglas Costa and Kevin Cabral out on the wing at the expense of LA’s second striker and leading scorer Dejan Joveljic. Regardless of what formation Vanney chooses, the Galaxy are more talented now than they were before the transfer window. They’ll need all of that talent for a playoff push.