The Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs are here! So grab a Heineken, kick off those adidas shoes and settle in for a month of fun.
Here's how I grade out the 12 teams left to fight it out for MLS Cup, counting down from underdogs to favorites:
They haven't really looked like a playoff team, have they? D.C. often get exposed in central midfield since they lose the numbers game, and lack that purely magic No. 10 who can make up for it with a single touch. Add in the up-and-down form of the backline, and you have a team that's nobody's favorite right now – even though they open at home against New England on Wednesday (7 pm ET; UniMas in US; TSN2 in Canada).
Changed up their shape into more of a 4-1-3-2, but Steven Gerrard's still not making plays and the defense still isn't inspiring much confidence. The pieces don't quite fit like they're supposed to for this LA team, which is probably the weakest of the Bruce Arena era. Going to Seattle on Wednesday (10 pm ET; UniMas in US; TSN2 & RDS2 in Canada) means this could be a short and painful trip to the postseason.
That was a nice 3-0 win over Houston, but I'm still not convinced about this team. They don't generate enough high-percentage looks, and when they do, their forwards don't convert them at a high enough rate. They'll remain hard to score against, but that's not enough in the brutal Western Conference.
Was it motivation, or did Benny really just need a break? Either way, Peter Vermes pulled the right strings in sitting Benny Feilhaber for the first 45 against LA on Sunday, and his star midfielder responded with the game-winning (and playoff-clinching) assist. They'll need that version of Feilhaber – the one who finds space, and hits holes on the run – if they're going to win at Portland on Thursday (10 pm ET; UniMas in US; TSN1/4/5 in Canada).
Still can't name their Best XI, can you? Obviously it includes Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Benoit Cheyrou, but beyond that group it's an open question. Same with the formation and tactical bent. Personally, I like them best when they play on the front foot, but I'm not sure that's a great idea against Montreal on Thursday (7 pm ET; UniMas in US; TSN1/4/5 & RDS1 in Canada).
They have the pedigree, having made it all the way to MLS Cup last season. They also have veterans at every level (forward, midfield, defense, goalkeeper) who won't be overawed. I remain concerned about their defense, though – they can be over-aggressive on the ground and dominated in the air. The Revs will absolutely give up chances, and while Bobby Shuttleworth has been good, it's worth remembering that he ended last season in full "God Mode." He's not at that level right now – though I still like the Revs to win at D.C. on Wednesday.
I'm not really sure what to make of this three-game winning streak, since it came against three teams in really, really bad form. It's a little bit like their four-game unbeaten run in August against a light schedule, which was followed by a 1-3-1 stretch against playoff teams. Nobody can really be 100 percent certain which Timbers team will show up on Thursday.
Does Gaston Sauro really make that much of a difference? Columbus have shut things down over the last 180 minutes, and the big Argentine looks a lot like the missing piece. It's also worth a nod in the direction of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani, who've strung together two pretty damn good games themselves. Crew SC will still be an "attack attack attack!" team in the playoffs, but at least they know now that if they need to sit back a bit and protect a result, they can manage it.
Unbeaten in eight, only one loss in their last 10, and Clint Dempsey playing like Clint Dempsey again. They're mostly healthy, and in Stefan Frei they have a 'keeper who's been a game-changer this season. All of that... and they're kind of flying under the radar. Perhaps that's what they need to finally get over the hump.
This team still has a ton of defensive holes – just go back and watch the first 45 minutes of that 2-1 win over Toronto from the weekend. Evan Bush played out of his mind and the post decided to offer a helping hand. But they remind me of last year's Revs in their ability to bend-but-not-break and always find an answer in attack. The mojo is good right now.
They faced an under-the-radar yet nonetheless huge test without the injured Kellyn Acosta. Reserve Ezequiel Cirigliano had struggled filling in earlier in the season, but he was damn good against San Jose, and now FCD officially have depth in a spot that had been questionable earlier in the season. I still worry about center forward, though. Almost all of David Texeira's production has come against non-playoff teams, and Blas Perez looks like he's hit his expiration date.
The Supporters' Shield winners are justifiably the favorites. I've spent a lot of the season raving about their midfield, but let's talk about their attack: Bradley Wright-Phillips (17g/7a), Lloyd Sam (10g/7a) and Mike Grella (9g/7a) combined for 36 goals and 21 assists, while reserves Anatole Abang and Shaun Wright-Phillips have also had some good moments. RBNY generate and finish chances better than anyone else in the league, and possess both the depth and flexibility to change up their looks and still do damage.