There are multiple key variables come Audi MLS Cup Playoffs time. The most important might be the quality of a team’s spine, the players up the middle of the field. If you don’t have a blend of talent, experience, and leadership from goalkeeper, to center back, to defensive midfielder, to central attacker, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
Go back in time and you can see the consistent theme:
2018 Atlanta United: Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst, Eric Remedi/Darlington Nagbe, Miguel Almiron/Josef Martinez.
2017 Toronto FC: Drew Moor/Chris Mavinga, Michael Bradley, Giovinco/Jozy Altidore
2016 Seattle Sounders: Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Ozzie Alonso, Nicolas Lodeiro
2015 Portland Timbers: Liam Ridgewell/Nat Borchers, Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi
2014 LA Galaxy: Omar Gonzalez, Juninho, Robbie Keane
The more likely you are to win the middle of the field, the more likely you are to win MLS Cup. It's possible to look at playoff contention through isolating a single variable.
With that said, let’s look at the 2019 playoff field and rank the spines:
1. Minnesota United
This might be too traditional of me, but I don’t need need to know anything beyond Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso. It helps that they also have Darwin Quintero, Jan Gregus, and Vito Mannone… but, honestly, when you have the best center back in the league and one of the five best defensive midfielders in league history, I’ll put you No.1.
On pure talent, LAFC might have a higher aggregate score than Minnesota: Walker Zimmerman led the Defender of the Year race through the first 20 games of the season; Eduard Atuesta has been the fourth-best player in MLS this year; Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing will both get Best XI votes; Carlos Vela has been playing central and you know about Carlos Vela. The only question here is their mojo in big games — Atuesta and Kaye have both been bullied by the likes of Alonso and Jonathan dos Santos.
All of their spine players have been among the best at their respective positions this year. My only hesitation about NYCFC: domestic championship experience matters. A through line between the last five MLS Cup winners is that they all had a domestic veteran among the outfield players, something not possessed by Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Alex Ring, Maxi Moralez and Heber. Why that matters is hard to articulate, but it’s enough of a trend that it’s something to think about.
4. Atlanta United
Brad Guzan, Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martinez. (Do Ezequiel Barco or Pity Martinez deserve to be on this list? Maybe. I’d say no, they haven’t been in the same tier as the players on the other teams.)
It’s good. It’s probably very good. It’s not quite as excellent as the teams above them. If it wants to be as good as the teams above them, it needs Barco or Pity to step up, and we don’t have a big enough sample size of that.
5. Toronto FC
On talent alone, Omar Gonzalez,Chris Mavinga, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore could put Toronto in the top two. Unfortunately, they haven’t been consistent enough to move higher on this list. If Altidore is out (he left the Decision Day presented by AT&T game early and missed the USMNT's October games) then they would drop a few spots.
6. Portland Timbers
This ranking might be a slight because… Diego Chara.
7. Seattle Sounders
The last few years, the Sounders were No. 1 on this list. Chad Marshall and Alonso will do that for you. This year, they have some question marks. Nico Lodeiro is still a stud. I’m fairly confident that Raul Ruidiaz is still a stud. Are Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson in the same category as Alonso, Chara, Ring, and Atuesta? Maybe, but maybe not. (It’s worth adding that Matt Doyle wrote recently: “I straight-up don't believe in their defense against playoff teams.”)
8. LA Galaxy
Jonathan dos Santos + Sebastian Lletget + Zlatan Ibrahimovic should, by itself, be enough to get into the top five. But they have given up more goals — 10 more! - than any other playoff team in the conference. Any combination of Diego Polenta, Daniel Steres, and Giancarlo Gonzalezshould be good enough at center back, but it hasn’t been.
9. DC United
This is where we get into good but not quite great territory. Bill Hamid, Steven Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Junior Moreno, Paul Arriola and Wayne Rooney have all had solid years. There isn’t a weak link among them. They just don’t quite have the top-end difference-makers of the teams in front of them (although you could make the case that Hamid and Rooney both fit into that group).
10. Real Salt Lake
RSL doesn't quite have the elite talent that they used to boast — though Justen Glad and Albert Rusnak might be close — but they have a ton of experience. The average age of the seven players up the middle (depending on lineup) will be around 31 years old, with only two of the seven under the age of 30.
There are real reasons to be worried about this team right now. One reason to think they could beat anyone, though: Aaron Long and Tim Parker. If you have dominant center backs (potentially dominant, at least), you have a chance in every game.
No. 12 for the fifth-best team in the league? Haris Medujanin, Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro are one of the best midfields in MLS. But in front of them, it’s still hard to judge where Kacper Pryzbylko ranks. And behind them, the center backs are in the doubt-remains-until-proven-otherwise-in-big games category. Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie could each turn into elite MLS players. For now, though, neither has won a big professional game in his career.
13. FC Dallas
If you want to buy stock in any of these teams, put in the claim for Dallas now. They have four teenagers in center midfield who have combined for 73 starts this year.