Are the Seattle Sounders trending towards topping the Western Conference standings at season's end?
It sure seems that way, co-host Matt Doyle said on a bonus section of Extratime after the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs schedule dropped. He didn’t quite assert that Seattle are favorites to lift the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy if they make a fifth MLS Cup trip in six years, but there’s no denying the Rave Green have – yet again – amassed an impressive campaign.
And when looking at the Western Conference field, Doyle picked them for the all-important Round One bye that’ll go to each conference’s No. 1 seed after Decision Day on Nov. 7. That grants passage to the Conference Semifinal stage, which gets underway Nov. 25 with a special Thanksgiving game at 4:30 pm ET on FOX, FOX Deportes, TSN and TVA Sports.
As for the rest of the field, one where it looks like Sporting Kansas City, the Colorado Rapids and the LA Galaxy are fighting for top billing? That’s where things get less definitive in Doyle’s eyes.
“Just based on overall roster talent and know-how, I still think the Sounders are favorites – even though they haven’t really played like it over the last couple of months,” Doyle said. “They’re struggling a little bit in terms of generating goals from open play, aside from Raul Ruidiaz. He’s a match-winner in and of himself, but someone else has got to put the ball in the back of the net.
“I’m just not sure that Sporting KC or Colorado or the Galaxy are actually better than the Sounders. I love what Colorado have done, but it feels like this is their ceiling. It doesn’t feel like they can have that extra level. Sporting KC might have it, but they’re less proven than Seattle. So I think those are the teams – two, three, four – they’re going to end up in there somewhere. Sorry folks, it’s the Sounders again, probably as Western Conference favorites. It just feels inevitable, doesn’t it?”
Co-host David Gass said that SKC could seriously challenge for the West’s No. 1 seed, a team that’s led by possible MVP candidate Daniel Salloi at forward. Though surpassing the Sounders, especially as Brian Schemtzer’s team gets healthy, won’t be easy.
“They’re a team that’s always put it all out there in the regular season,” Gass said of SKC, “and I think Peter Vermes will value the chance to take that bye for his team rather than maybe rest at times throughout the regular season. But you are right that the Sounders are the favorites.”
Going beyond the top four seeds, and recognizing that seven Western Conference sides will make the playoffs, is where things get less ironclad. Just about the only sure thing is that Minnesota United FC will factor into the conversation, Doyle said.
“I know there are some questions about [Minnesota], but they have been scraping together results without some of their best players in Robin Lod and [Franco] Fragapane, and Bebelo Reynoso has been playing on and off with a knock,” Doyle said. “So I think they’re fine. Portland, I do feel like they have too much talent to miss the playoffs. That said, you watch them play and they’re just so leaky defensively. Whereas RSL, it feels like they don’t have enough talent to make the playoffs. But those are the teams in sixth and seventh and they’re not there by accident – they fought hard to be there.
“That said, Vancouver’s the hottest team in the league right now. They’re home and in Ryan Gauld they have a guy who’s playing at an MVP level who has transformed this attack. I think over the past couple weeks with the coaching change, they’ve been a little more cohesive. You can’t ignore 10 games unbeaten.”
The biggest wild-card could be LAFC. Bob Bradley’s team just loaned Diego Rossi to Turkish side Fenerbache and Carlos Vela has battled injuries seemingly all season. They’re yet to meet expectations, a downturn for last year’s Concacaf Champions League runner-up.
“Just based on the eye test, LAFC should not be where are,” Doyle said. “But they lead the league in basically unforced errors. They’ve given games away repeatedly and then nobody’s brought their finishing boots this year. And so you think it’s over and then they go and smack Sporting KC 4-0. Is that just an aberration? Or is that the team that they were all along? I don’t know. I think if I was forced to put money on it, I would choose LAFC to find a way to climb above the playoff line. But I am not a betting man, I am not a brave man.”
As for how the single-elimination, straight-bracket format could conclude after the next two months? Nothing is yet written in pen, and that’s where Gass gets most excited.
“It’s going to be a phenomenal race,” he said.