We did this last year, and it was fun. So let's do it again today, as we head into the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Rather, this is my own personal account of who’s got the best chance of entering the playoffs this week and then coming out six weeks later with a shiny new trophy.
Quite literally unbeatable since July, RBNY have ripped off a 16-game unbeaten run in the league and 20 games overall. They have the Golden Boot winner, the best No. 10 in the league, a pair of wingers who are scoring again, arguably the best defensive midfielder in the league, and enough depth along the backline to have sustained season-ending injuries to two starters. I haven't even mentioned Luis Robles, who's got a legit argument that he should repeat as Goalkeeper of the Year.
New York are flawed – they will give up late goals, even at home, and they will get exposed on the counter. But they've been the best team for the last four months and seem to be playing better as the postseason has arrived.
Why they'll win: They're going to press the hell out of all comers and run up the score from open play, while taking the time to pick you apart on set pieces.
Why they'll lose: Because they're Icarus. RBNY go hard on the risk/reward line, and when they come up snake eyes, they pay the price. Smart teams will wait them out, then punish them in transition.
They tied the league record for one-goal wins (13), which says quite a bit about this bunch's resilience and commitment. That they managed it without their most talented player for the vast majority of the season, and with a mid-year goalkeeper switch thrown in, and a backline that was constantly evolving, and with production from their DP forwards that ranged from "sporadic" to "streaky" … OK, I'm rambling a little bit.
The point is this: I kept expecting Colorado to go away, and they didn't. Whoever's going to face them has a real job to do.
Why they'll lose: Their lack of firepower is just impossible to ignore, as their 39 goals scored tied for 18th in the league.
The other team that I doubted for much of the year (loudly and proudly) served me crow again and again. NYCFC are, just like the team on the other side of the Hudson, an attacking juggernaut with a defined style of play that infuses them with an identity they cling to even when things are going bad. 7-0 derby loss? No big deal — just head out and win the next one. [Ed: They tied OCSC, 2-2, in the game directly following that blowout.]
It needs to be stressed: This team is an absolute outlier in terms of style. Nobody attempts or completes more passes in their own defensive third, and the point of doing that is to draw opponents forward in order to create space in behind for searching balls from Andrea Pirlo and Andoni Iraola while opening gaps between the lines for Frank Lampard and Tommy McNamara to hit.
Why they'll win: Because in addition to the guys mentioned above, they've got David Villa, and Jack Harrison, and Khiry Shelton, and Steven Mendoza, and Ronald Matarrita, and RJ Allen, and all of them love to attack.
Why they'll lose: They're the worst team in the league defending set pieces, they just had to make a switch in goal, and like the Red Bulls, their risk/reward wagers can tend towards catastrophic errors.
Here is a good formula for a title-winning team: Resolute D + Quality GK + MF Warlock + Set-Piece GS. That's what the Seattle Sounders can put on their LinkedIn profile these days.
Seattle aren't the attacking juggernaut that they were in August, and the biggest issue is that they've had to move Nicolas Lodeiro off the right wing and into a pure No. 10 role, which has made his starting points a little more predictable. And without Clint Dempsey as a secondary creative platform there's just that much more attention on both Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, while the rest of the Sounders attackers have picked up the slack only occasionally.
But guess what? They went 5-2-2 even after Deuce was sidelined. If they were going to really disappear, it would have happened by now.
Why they'll win: That formula I drew up above is tough to beat, and Lodeiro has probably been the best player in the league since his arrival.
Why they'll lose: Morris had a remarkable rookie year, but he'll be entering these playoffs as the only legitimate frontline scoring threat on the team. That's a lot of pressure, and not a lot of help.
On paper and in August this was the team to beat. Then Sebastian Giovinco got hurt, and the midfield got out of sync a little bit, and the defense went into a rut, and a winless streak popped up out of the fog, and now it feels at least a little bit like everybody's forgotten about the Reds.
Let's make this point, though: By the numbers they're tied for the second-best defense in the league, and in the Giovinco/Jozy Altidore pairing they have what's probably the best forward pairing. They also have a host of difference-makers at other spots, including left back Justin Morrow — who should have a spot on this year's Best XI.
Think back to how they were playing in August. That's what this team really is, and now that everybody's fit and available, I suspect they'll show it.
Why they'll win: They have a good goalkeeper, a good defense and the best player in the league.
Why they'll lose: They gave up 29 goals in their first 28 games, and then coughed up 10 in the final six. The defense isn't terrible, but it certainly hasn't looked championship-caliber.
It hurts to rate the Supporters' Shield winners this low, but what happens when you lose your two best attacking players over the course of a single season. But Mauro Diaz isn't walking through that door, and Fabian Castillo isn't walking through that door, and FC Dallas are what they are at this point.
And what is that, exactly? Well, two things: When they go into a 4-4-2 with no real playmaker, they'll sit really deep, concede a ton of possession, and then try to hit one of their forwards over the top or or a winger out wide. When they play a 4-2-3-1 with Mauro Rosales in Diaz's spot, they'll be a lesser (but still pretty damn good) version of what they were for most of the year.
Dallas still absolutely have enough to win the league's first treble. But a lot of things would have to go right for them to get there
Why they'll win: On top of all of the above, they are dominant on set pieces (both defending and attacking) and have what I think is the best central defensive combo in the league.
Why they'll lose: Often times in the biggest, most important games you need that one special player who can create a moment of magic from open play. Dallas now lack that.
LA have played a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-5-1 and even a 4-3-3 this year. Do you know what their best look is? It's the end of October, the beginning of the playoffs, and you can't honestly answer "yes" to that question.
This Galaxy season was bound to be a little unorthodox because of all the offseason changes, a theme that continued into the season itself (goodbye Nigel, welcome back Landon), as well as the natural aging process that's taken a toll on Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard. In general, they have enough talent to ameliorate some of that – and obviously enough experience – but Bruce Arena hasn't quite found the right mix just yet
What's that really mean? Well, LA have exactly one win over a playoff team since April, and that came against the pre-Lodeiro Sounders, so I'm not sure it counts for much.
Why they'll win: Bruce Arena + Landon Donovan + Robbie Keane in the playoffs, with a dash of Gio Dos Santos sprinkled in
Why they'll lose: They give up a ton of shots, and even if they limit the quality of those shots they still lead to rebounds and scrambles and set pieces (which they don't defend well) and the exact kind of effort that wears any team out.
Considering they were the hottest team in the league until their back-ups got thumped on Decision Day, this feels low. We can double down on that and point to match-ups working in their favor as well, since they seem to have the exact ingredients that their Knockout Round opponents, the Montreal Impact, struggle with, and since they've performed well against New York, Toronto FC and — most recently — NYCFC
United have been wildly entertaining over the last three months as they've transformed into the league's most prolific attacking team. Their 4-1-4-1 spreads the field out, gives their wingers space to make runs and midfield creator Luciano Acosta more time and bigger lanes into which he can slip them through. Add in center forward Patrick Mullins doing his best David Villa impression (he never stops moving), and you have a very, very potent formula
Why they'll win: All of that stuff in the previous paragraph, plus Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp's thunderbolt of a left foot on set pieces.
Why they'll lose: Because in becoming the league's most fun attacking team, they've opened themselves up defensively. Bill Hamid can (and often does) put out some big fires, but going to that well is a huge risk against the likes of Ignacio Piatti, Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Toronto's duo.
Sporting are still a 4-3-3 team, and still a high-pressure team, and still a team with multiple international-caliber players on every line. That's the starting point.
And it's got to be noted that their best players are playing their best soccer of the season. Benny Feilhaber mostly glided through the first 2/3 of the season, but he has two goals and nine assists in his last 11 games – coming up big just as Sporting seemed to be fading out of the playoff picture. Dom Dwyer had his second-best season as a pro, bagging 16 goals and reveling in his whole Cobra Kai persona every time he steps on the pitch
But this team has been mistake-prone at the back, and less dangerous than they needed to be on the wings. They don't extend the game, which has limited Feilhaber's chances to play runners through and often left Dwyer on an island. Only one playoff team scored fewer goals than Sporting's 42.
Why they'll win: Because most of these guys have come through in big games before. And even with "Sporting aren't as good defensively as they've been in the past" an undeniable fact, that still makes them a top-five defensive team in the league.
Why they'll lose: That attack is too easy to isolate and disrupt. Add in Tim Melia's up-and-down year in goal, and you have an SKC team with more questions than answers at this point in the season
In one way it's almost impossible to know what to predict with this team, largely because of the drama with Drogba. If Didier demands to play from the start, we know that won't happen, and we also know that this team can win/has a better chance of winning if he's on the bench when the whistle blows. But we don't know what a repeated – let's assume in this hypothetical Drogba makes a second or third demand – request could/would do to the locker room's emotional balance. Come together once? Job done. Come together two or three times? That's a harder ask
The flip side is this: Montreal are much, much MUCH more dangerous if Drogba is available to them as a super-sub. He'd be an off-the-bench weapon no team in MLS could match (unless Arena sucks it up and uses Keane as a sub), and a game-changer who can win a series by himself. If he recovers from his current back injury, he'll make a difference.
That I just spent two graphs talking about a guy who probably isn't going to play makes me an idiot. Montreal will almost certainly use a compact, deep-lying 4-3-3 with Ignacio Piatti on one wing, Dom Oduro on the other and Matteo Mancosu up the middle. They'll try to approximate the style of last year's Timbers, if not necessarily their form.
Why they'll win: Have you seen how good that frontline is when they're working together?
Why they'll lose: Above I listed why it's almost impossible to know what to predict with this team in one way. Here's the other shoe dropping: it's very possible to know what to predict from this team's defense, which continues to get abused in the air. Kei Kamara knocked them out of last year's playoffs – and scored against them on Decision Day, and Jozy Altidore killed them the week before that, and the guy they play on Thursday (Patrick Mullins) is that exact kind of forward.
No wins and two goals in seven games. Things aren't so great for RSL these days.
There exist myriad culprits: Injuries have robbed them of starting center back Aaron Maund for one, and Father Time is finally winning his battle against Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales for another. Add in the subpar second half of the season submitted by both Burrito Martinez and Yura Movsisyan, and that's your recipe for unhappiness.
All of that has culminated in this current run of poor form, and it's even gotten to the usually effervescent Joao Plata, who fumed as he was subbed off in Sunday's 2-1 loss at Seattle. There are no smiles anywhere in Utah and it's fair, at this point, to question whether shifting from the 4-4-2 diamond into a more spread out 4-3-3 really was the right call.
Why they'll win: Because in Plata, Morales, Movsisyan and Martinez, they have four guys who can create some remarkable individual magic.
Why they'll lose: They allow so much space in midfield that everyone they face ends up dictating tempo, for one. And for two, there's just a lack of connection between the midfield and front three in attack, and subsequently a lack of any combination play
The Union are 5-11-4 since June 18. While there's been a lot of deserved talk about their current seven-game winless streak and all the attendant failings baked into it, the simple truth is that this was mostly a rebuilding year for a young-ish team that's spent the entire season without one of the DPs who was supposed to be a building block going forward.
In actuality, Philly probably overachieved for the first few months of the season, and that streak – particularly from mid-April to early June – gave them enough padding to ride out this months-long swoon and still make the postseason. It's a positive step for a team that's ahead of schedule in the Earnie Stewart era, and will be making significant additions this offseason.
As it is, just qualifying for the playoffs with three impressive rookies and a bunch of other young players filling such huge roles has to count as a success.
Why they'll win: Chris Pontius goes berserk 1-v-1, and Andre Blake does his best "Tony Meola 2000" impression
Why they'll lose: The defense is too young and error-prone, the midfield doesn't shut down passing lanes as well as it did earlier in the year, C.J. Sapong can't buy a goal, and neither can Tranquillo Barnetta.