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Why your favorite team won’t win MLS Cup

As we near the last third of the MLS regular season, we’re asking the important questions, like why your favorite team won’t win MLS Cup.

11 min read
© Vincent Carchietta, Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

Backheeled dot com has given me exclusive rights to be a hater. Like, I even double-checked. I thought, “maybe I’m supposed to do why your team *will* win MLS Cup?”. Nope. Pure and righteous judgment of your team’s biggest flaws only. I love my job.

Here are a whole bunch of reasons why your team in particular is going to disappoint you again.


Why you will be sad: The midfield doesn’t have it

Things aren’t quite as bad as they seem in Atlanta. The underlying numbers suggest this is a team that has one of the better attacks in the league and a mediocre defense held together relatively well by zip ties and duct tape after all their injuries. They aren’t great, but they aren’t as rough as their record suggests. They could still make a playoff run.

If they get to the playoffs, though, there’s no reason to be confident that Atlanta can control a game against the league’s best teams. Why? Because every team they play will be better in midfield. Whether due to inconsistency or lack of fitness or injuries or talent, the central midfield in Atlanta only has sporadic moments of success. And it makes everything, in attack and defense, more difficult. Especially against teams with similar talent levels elsewhere. There’s a reason their record against playoff teams the last couple of years is shockingly bad.


Why you will be sad: Math

A few things can be true.

The first is that Austin FC is a talented, well-coached team who deserves to be where they are in the standings thanks to outstanding attacking play and well-executed tactical principles.

The second is that we’re learning that xG as a predictor of future success in MLS is perhaps not quite as strong an indicator compared to leagues where team-wide salaries can range from the hundreds of millions to less than the Rapids. With so little separating nearly every MLS team, the returns on xG stay relatively small too. Because every single game is a kaleidoscope of randomness.

The third is that Austin are outperforming their xG by such a high level that even with the first two points being true, they’re still extremely likely to regress at some point. Per ASA, they’re outperforming their expected goal differential by *17.73 goals.* The next closest team is LAFC at 9.93. The full-season record for overperforming xG is 2017 Atlanta by 25.35 goals, and Austin still has 12 games to go. They’re good, but they probably aren’t as good as their record suggests.

That’s totally okay! Enjoy the fact that your team has plot armor right now! But those things usually fade in the playoffs.


Why you will be sad: The attack still isn’t there

As good as Andre Shinyashiki has been, if he’s the only person on your team finding the net, then you don’t have the firepower to make a run to MLS Cup. I’m not even sure you have the firepower to make a playoff run, but Charlotte probably plays good enough ball overall to get there.

Getting there and winning the whole thing are very different tasks.


Why you will be sad: You’re the Chicago Fire

I get it. I do it too. About every seventh game, Chicago will put together a performance that makes me think they may have a playoff run in them. Then the next week they go out and get blasted by D.C. United or something. We’re currently in an “IDK, Chicago might just do it” stretch. That will come crashing down quickly. That’s just how it works. And if you can’t make the playoffs, you can’t win MLS Cup.


Why you will be sad: Set pieces are hard

I think FC Cincinnati is a playoff team. I think their attack is good enough to carry them there and their defense has been better than most would think. But set pieces are going to be the end of them. Cincy is second-worst in the league by goals allowed and xG allowed on set pieces. And that’s the kind of flaw that ends up dooming teams. Even good ones.

Oh, and the transition defense is pretty bad too. Actually, the defense kind of just doesn’t seem all that good. Could have just said “defense” here, I guess.


Why you will be sad: Your team keeps giving away good players

I, for one, would try and keep the good players on my team so my team could be good. We’ll see if not having the good players stay and not replacing them once they leave will pay off, but I have my doubts.


Why you will be sad: Even with Cucho, there’s not enough there

Obviously, Cucho Hernandez has been a smash hit signing who’s on pace for so, so, so many goals. I don’t think that’s necessarily sustainable. That means when he comes back down to earth, the Crew will have gone from a totally average team to a perfectly good, above-average team. That’s just not the kind of team that wins MLS Cup. Unless…well, unless you’re the Crew in 2020. Actually, wait, they might be the only team here that’s going to win MLS Cup.


Why you will be sad: You won’t be, you don’t feel anything

Give it another half a season before you start caring again.


Why you will be sad: An inconsistent defense in the worst moments

It’s not quite as bad as another team we’ll talk about in a little bit, but Dallas are second-to-last in the league in points surrendered from winning positions. There’s just too much inconsistency on the back line to trust this team in critical situations, which is a bummer, because Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola are a blast to watch. The rest of the group just isn’t quite at that level.


Why you will be sad: Someone will force them to sit in and defend

Fun fact: The Dynamo have one of the best transition defenses in the league this season by xG allowed. And Hector Herrera just got there. The problem for Houston hasn’t been in the transition moments that normally doom other teams. The problem has been when they’re chasing the game and the ball, other teams are peppering them with shots over and over.

The Dynamo have the worst defense in the league by xGA and shots allowed while in an organized state. Part of that is the style they play, but the other part of that is that the average length of opponents’ possessions is the third-longest in the league…and the other other part is they just aren’t all that good defensively. HH can help improve that but he’s not going to fix it entirely.


Why you will be sad: There’s still not enough firepower

Alejandro Pozuelo and Leo Campana is an excellent one-two punch. But there’s still not enough there to win MLS Cup. The fact they’re even in the playoff race is astounding, though.


Why you will be sad: People are just going to run behind you and score

As of this moment, the Galaxy are allowing the seventh-highest xG on passes that break the backline. The only teams ahead of them are RBNY (extreme pressing), San Jose (general disorganization and chaos), SKC, Colorado, D.C and Toronto (bad at defense). For comparison’s sake, the top five teams in the league in xG allowed on passes that break the back line are LAFC, Philly, Nashville, NYCFC and Montreal.

The best teams generally don’t get beat the way the Galaxy tend to get beat. Put them up against playoff teams with quality movement in behind and they’re going to have a miserable time. Even if Dejan Joveljic is scoring twice a game.


Why you will be sad: Pressure is not a privilege

Congrats to LAFC on setting themselves up for total disappointment if they don’t win both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. That’s exactly how you end up losing to RSL in the playoffs. Great work y’all, you played yourselves.

Besides that, I spent some time trying to find anything they weren’t really good at and all I could find was that they’re only 14th in the league in xG created per 90 minutes against defenses in an organized state. So. Maybe someone will sit deep and find a way to keep them off the board and squeak by with a smash and grab goal? Hey that kind of sounds like RSL’s MO doesn’t it?


Why you will be sad: Has anything really been fixed?

Okay, so, it kind of seems like Minnesota have been the best team in the world over the last few weeks and I’m only kind of kidding about that. But the only thing that’s really changed for them is the fact that Bebelo Reynoso has realized he’s allowed to score goals. Eventually, they’ll run into someone that realizes they probably shouldn’t let that Reynoso guy score a brace each game and someone else on Minnesota United will have to step up.

I know Robin Lod has been good, but are you really counting on the rest of the non-Reynosos to do that?


Why you will be sad: Something is up with the defense

I can’t quite figure out what. But something weird is happening to make Montreal the third-best team in the league by xG allowed and 24th in the league in actual goals allowed.  If I had to guess though, it probably has something to do with the average quality of chances they’re giving up. Despite the fact they allow the fewest shots in the league from open play per game, they allow the ninth-highest shot quality in the league.

Allowing minimal chances but still allowing high-percentage chances is no way to live.


Why you will be sad: I guess depth, but probably penalties, right?

I mean we could talk about the lack of attacking depth but it’s probably going to be from losing in a penalty shootout.


Why you will be sad: You have to hold onto leads to win

The Revs are last in the league by a notable margin in points dropped from winning positions. Seems like that’s the kind of thing that makes winning difficult.


Why you will be sad: Your happiness is going to Girona

NYCFC will still be *very* good, even without Taty Castellanos. But he helped push them over the edge last year.

I’m not sure if Talles Magno and Heber and the rest of their attacking core will be able to make up for some of their defensive flaws without Taty scoring twice a game and doing outstanding defensive work.


Why you will be sad: Your stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs

I mean, do you really need me to lay out all the examples?


Why you will be sad: You’re going to get exposed

This team is not good. And I’m finally okay with putting it out there. I had been thinking they weren’t good for a while and the numbers really don’t think they’re good and now I think we finally have enough data to say they aren’t good. They’re still going to make the playoffs because they seem to have magic powers this year, but they’ve been *destroyed* by some of the league’s best teams this year. Like some of the worst beatdowns of the season. RBNY and CF Montreal in particular come to mind. That doesn’t bode well for their playoff chances.


Why you will be sad: Probably something to do with your attack?

The Union are going to be a great bet to make it to MLS Cup at the very least. They have the best defense in the league and they’re brutal to play against. But we know the fatal flaw. As good as Daniel Gazdag and Julian Carranza have been, you still have to wonder about the Union’s ability to find goals when they need them. It kind of feels like this team is going to outplay a team for 120 minutes but lose on penalties after a 0-0 draw just because they didn’t finish their chances.


Why you will be sad: I mean I could give reasons but none of them matter

I could talk about how this team simply hasn’t been good enough all year and about how they still haven’t truly figured out their striker situation or how the defense has been generally sloppy and how they’re finally starting to look as old as their ages suggest etc. etc. But it’s Portland. So. They’ll probably just end up winning the whole thing anyway.


Why you will be sad: You’ll just be happy to have made it this far

This team isn’t good enough to win the whole thing. It’s shocking they’ve stayed so high above the line this deep into the season. If you’re an RSL fan, you should just be pleased with the general effort and quality this team has shown relative to expectations. But hey, that playoff win over LAFC is going to be really, really funny even without an MLS Cup win, amiright?


Why you will be sad: They got too much Quakes in ‘em

This defense is still very not good and their penchant for letting teams back into games just for the sake of it hasn’t gone away with Alex Covelo. At least not yet. It’s not a good recipe to make the playoffs, let alone win the league.


Why you will be sad: MLS Cups are boring

You’ve already got two of those and it’s not nearly as cool as a CCL trophy. Why worry about it?

Oh, and Joao Paulo is still out for the season.


Why you will be sad: No.



Why you will be sad: It’s a lot but it’s still too late

They’ve remade this team in a remarkably short amount of time over the last few weeks. But they still have a hill to climb to make it to the playoffs and they haven’t really done all that much to address a league-worst defense. Well, they haven’t done much outside of jettisoning the DP who they brought in to fix it in the first place and who just ended up making it worse.

They can make it to the playoffs with just marginal improvement in the defense considering how oppressive they might be offensively, but just ask last year’s Revs how far that gets you.


Why you will be sad: Goalkeeping

I actually think the Caps have a decent shot at the playoffs after adding Andres Cubas and Julian Gressel over the last couple of months. But man, they get absolutely no help from their goalkeeping. They’ve trotted out at least four different keepers and none of their shot-stopping stats are good. Especially the two that have gotten the most playing time. I’m thinking they probably miss Maxime Crepeau right about now.