By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 25, 2013) US Soccer Players - As the 2013 Major League Soccer regular season winds down and the standings resolve into something approaching the lineup of teams that will take part in the postseason playoff tournament, pinning down a championship favorite is nearly as difficult as it was the day the season began.
Simply put, each one of the teams that could legitimately be called leading candidates to lift the trophy this December have significant flaws that might keep them from doing so. Despite threatening for the Supporters’ Shield, first place in their Conference, or both, none of the teams at the top of the East or the West separate themselves from the other contenders. Call it parity among the upper echelon or lack of a truly complete team. Either way, it makes handicapping the eventual MLS Cup champion particularly difficult.
Let’s take a look at the challengers and their weaknesses, specifically the top three teams in each Conference as we enter Week 31. We start in the East.
New York Red Bulls
The New York Red Bulls currently lead the Supporters Shield standings, though there’s ephemeral feel to it with the second place Sounders having played one less game while only a point back. Still, it’s striking that New York’s up-and-down season brought them to the top of the league standings at all. At various points in 2013, the Red Bulls appeared like a team that would once again crumble. A number of dropped points and no-show appearances, especially on the road, gave New York’s credentials as a challenger for postseason glory a chintzy patina.
A recent run of good results built on the back of Mike Petke’s benching of Thierry Henry after a training ground argument has the Red Bulls headed in the right direction. Henry remains an enigma, as likely to coast through an appearance as make a marked impact. New York’s injury situation late in the season threatens the continuity they built over the last four matches. All of that combines to make the Red Bulls unconvincing as an MLS Cup contender, even if their own history wasn’t working against them.
Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City doesn’t look nearly like the same team that finished first in the Eastern Conference in back-to-back seasons. The loss of Roger Espinoza wasn’t enough to turn Sporting into an also ran--they still have a shot at first place in the East--but it did change the way Peter Vermes’s team plays. Sporting throttled down the high-intensity physical style that they made their calling card over the past few years and the result is a much less convincing team.
It doesn’t help that Sporting sold Kei Kamara to Middlesbrough this summer, increasing the burden on less-proven players like Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad, and C.J. Sapong. Sporting appears to have enough talent to get the job done, but they won’t be anyone’s odds-on favorite. Playoff results from the last few years and a weak home record this season lends doubt to their ability to win when it counts.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Impact clings to a spot near the top of the standings despite a downturn over the summer. Predicting that the Impact would swoon through the most grueling part of the schedule wasn’t difficult considering the age of the roster, but head coach Marco Schallibaum deserves credit for bringing Montreal to the other side relatively unscathed. A playoff spot appears secure.
Those same frailties that brought Montreal back to earth after a torrid start remain their biggest impediment to winning a championship. Marco Di Vaio’s remarkable season is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the Impact possesses a top goal scoring threat that makes them dangerous no matter their competition in the playoffs; on the other, Montreal’s reliance on Di Vaio make them susceptible to an off day - or worse - an untimely injury. Also bearing down on the Impact’s playoff chances is the difficulty Schallibaum has in juggling an experienced lineup whose age could yet be debilitating. That Alessandro Nesta is a legend of the game is beyond doubt. That Alessandro Nesta is good enough to hold down the back line for an MLS Cup contender is not.
The Sounders are leading the Western Conference and have a chance to grab the top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race against New York this weekend. First place overall is the appropriate place for a team that won eight of their last ten matches, and a team that has the fewest obvious weaknesses as the playoffs approach. If anything, the Sounders have too many options. Sigi Schmid’s headache is choosing which arrangement of talented players to put out. Clint Dempsey’s lack of goals since making a big money move from Tottenham make the job more difficult, if only because the Sounders don’t necessarily need him to win. Dempsey has to start, if for no other reason than because of his star power, but it’s possible the most effective Sounders lineup doesn’t include him.
The reason to doubt the Sounders’ MLS Cup credentials isn’t really about their lineup, though. Seattle has failed to prove through its MLS existence that it can navigate the postseason and turn regular season success into playoff success. After three years of first round failure, the Sounders finally broke through with a series win last season. Then they ran into the LA Galaxy, who ousted them in the Western Conference finals. Seattle’s ability to beat LA - they’re 1-0-1 this year, with one more regular season meeting left - remains in question. As weaknesses go, it’s a little thing. Since the Sounders will likely have to go through LA to win an MLS Cup, it’s a little thing that could become a big thing.
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake has the coach, the leadership, and the talent to win the MLS Cup. The question facing Jason Kreis is whether or not they’ll have the goals when the time comes. RSL’s bonafides are beyond reproach, and yet there are creeping doubts surrounding a club that wasn’t really supposed to be a favorite when the season started. A quick rebuild engineered with young players and the stellar play of names like Grabavoy and Beltran allowed RSL to remain a player in the powerful West, but a shift in the way the club is getting it done makes divining their championship chances especially difficult.
Previous iterations of RSL relied on solid defense and timely scoring to succeed. In 2012, RSL is the league’s highest-scoring team but has also allowed a surprisingly high number of goals. Alvaro Saborio’s health is a continued concern. If RSL can’t get their first choice striker back to full health, and the youngsters in the team can’t handle the pressure, Real Salt Lake’s rebuilt squad will need at least another year to bring home a title.
Caleb Porter is a first-year professional head coach. His Timbers team has exceeded expectations. At home, Portland is nearly unassailable, carrying over the most positive trait of their play under previous coach John Spencer. Now that the Timbers know how to get results on the road as well, there’s no reason to think it won’t be them who win the first MLS Cup for a Cascadia side. Yet, despite occupying first place at various points this year and having a League-low five losses all season, the Timbers remain somewhat unconvincing. Maybe that’s a function of the strength of the Western Conference, or maybe it’s the lack of consistent defense Porter’s team has played this season. Saddled with injuries issues most of the year, Porter has juggled his back line in a bid to find just the right mix to make the Timbers’ pressure attack playoff-level effective. A shutout win over Colorado last weekend provides hope that he’s found it, but when the big boys of the conference come calling will the Timbers make the plays when they count?
Between Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Ryan Johnson, Rodney Wallace, and new addition Maximiliano Urruti, the Timbers have the firepower to score. That said, if their midfield, led by Will Johnson, can’t help the Timbers keep the ball, the question of their defensive cohesiveness will be a pressing one. The Timbers will get a chance to prove their MLS Cup credentials on both ends of the field when the Galaxy visit Jeld-Wen Field.
Speaking of the Galaxy, Bruce Arena’s team is currently in fourth place in the West. The two-time defending champions and a team certain to play a role in who lifts the trophy in December doesn’t make this list. Such is life in MLS. Things can, and probably will, change.
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