Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field

The MLS regular season isn’t pass or fail, but it's darn close.

The way I see it, if you’re one of the eight teams who won’t qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs – the bottom 40 percent of a league that strives for competitive parity – that constitutes a failing grade. Best-case scenario for those who exceed expectations, but fall just short of the postseason, is an incomplete.

And while the 12 who emerge from an eight-month, 34-game grind naturally get a passing regular-season grade, their final marks vary. Expectations are not universal, and success as it’s measured in 2016 terms looks far different in LA or Seattle than it is in Philly or Colorado.

Since the Eastern Conference six are locked in barring a Decision Day miracle, I’m passing out regular-season grades for the Red Bulls, New York City FC, Toronto FC, D.C. United, the Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union a week early. Come back next Tuesday for regular-season grades out West.

Let’s dive into the 2016 playoff field out East and see who’s at the top of the class.

New York Red Bulls

Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

For the Red Bulls, a playoff berth is the bare minimum. As always, MLS Cup is the ultimate prize, and back-to-back Shields would be welcome.

The Good

Sasha Kljestan emerged as a legitimate Landon Donovan MVP candidate, and could become the only MLS player outside of Carlos Valderrama to hit the 20-assist mark in the league's history. Bradley Wright-Phillips is now the only player in the MLS record books to register two 20-plus goal seasons.

Jesse Marsch got what he expected from his vets – the likes of Luis Robles, Mike Grella, Felipe Martins and captain Dax McCarty – and Alex Muyl and Sean Davis both emerged as solid contributors with room to grow into more. The defense was a question mark but the arrival of Aurelien Collin via trade and the steady contributions from a rotating cast got the job done.

Add in qualification for a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal next year and that 7-0 victory over New York City FC at Yankee Stadium – a game that will go down in #NYderby lore – and it’s been a positive, if not quite perfect, second season with Marsch and Ali Curtis at the helm.    

The Bad

If New York could close out games, or hadn’t started the season with six losses in seven, they would be running away with their third Supporters’ Shield in four years. Finishing atop the Eastern Conference isn’t a bad consolation prize, but what if the Red Bulls make a run to MLS Cup … but don’t host because of a couple late-summer, early-fall choke jobs then fall short of their ultimate goal because of it? It would be another head-shaking chapter in a rich “That’s so Metro” tradition.

Also among the demerits: Designated Player Gonzalo Veron’s failure to make an impact.

Regular Season Grade: B+

Good, but a bit inconsistent. Before you get bent out of shape, these are the defending Supporters’ Shield champs and they’ve qualified for the playoffs in 16 of 20 seasons. The Red Bulls met expectations in 2016 and they have arguably the best one-two punch in the league, but their slow start and habit of dropping points from winning positions – 19 so far in 2016 – squandered an opportunity to raise another trophy in the process.

Oh well. They’ve got the top seed, and for this franchise it’s all about MLS Cup anyway.

New York City FC

Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

A playoff berth and a fresh start under a new, first-time coach following a disappointing expansion season. Required: a win vs. the Red Bulls.

The Good

Patrick Vieira, in his first season managing professionals, managed to give NYCFC an identity – unwavering commitment to building out of the back in order to fuel a potent, versatile attack – and led them to a top-three finish and, potentially, a Knockout Round bye. Oh, and he beat the Red Bulls to break the club’s derby duck.

It certainly helped that the club’s big-name Designated Players came good. David Villa continued doing David Villa things and is in the running for both MVP and the Golden Boot. A 37-year-old Andrea Pirlo started more than 30 games and chipped in 11 assists. Once the subject of boos from his own fans, Frank Lampard resurrected his reputation in MLS and the Big Apple with a 12-goal season.

It wasn’t just the stars making a mark on MLS, either. Tommy McNamara became a household name, Jack Harrison is the latest No. 1-overall SuperDraft pick to excel, Khiry Shelton embraced the super-sub role and Ronald Matarrita established himself as one of the top attacking fullbacks in the league. 

The Bad

Red Bulls fans are never going to let the blue side of New York forget that 7-0 thrashing at Yankee Stadium. EVER. Frankly, considering the buildup and the one-sided history between the teams, it was one of the most embarrassing MLS losses in memory.

Only the red side of New York has scored more goals than NYCFC (58) this season. Only Orlando City SC have allowed more than NYCFC (56). The backline must be addressed in the offseason. 

Also among the demerits: Where in the world is Mix Diskerud? A not insignificant chunk of the salary cap is being tied up in a player Vieira doesn’t seem to rate at all. 

Final Regular Season Grade: A –

Nothing to complain about here, but some room for improvement. NYCFC have had a bit of Jekyll and Hyde about them in their second season, but they’ll host their first-ever playoff game this fall, and Vieira’s imparted an identity that the club can build around going forward. The only things dragging their grade down is that porous defense and Red Bulls beatdown.

Toronto FC

Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

With reigning MVP, USMNT captain and healthy Jozy enjoying life in an upgraded BMO Field, a Shield and MLS Cup are not out of the question.

The Good

Tim Bezbatchenko made savvy offseason moves to shore up the defense – second fewest goals (37) allowed in MLS this year – and added veteran leaders in Will Johnson and Drew Moor. Sebastian Giovinco is still the best and most productive player in MLS. Michael Bradley found a home as a deep-lying defensive midfielder. Jozy Altidore’s hamstring acted up again – TFC believe they’ve got that particular problem solved – but he still hit double-figure goals and is enjoying arguably the best form of his career. Many young players have taken steps forward, too.

After a long road trip to start the season, Toronto are also now firmly ensconced in the beautiful, expanded BMO Field and have reason to hope, should results on Decision Day go their way, that they’ll get to skip the Knockout Round a year after it was the source of such misery.

Either way, they’ll host a playoff game for the first time and are chasing a double after capturing the Amway Canadian Championship in dramatic fashion. That’s pretty good, but…

The Bad

… like the Red Bulls, Toronto FC blew their opportunity to lift the Shield, in addition to a sure playoff bye. They had four straight home games to move into pole position, and didn’t win a single one. Yes, Giovinco was out injured, but that’s a huge miss for a team stocked with top-tier talent that should be able to survive and even thrive in his absence. For a club with precious little MLS success and oodles of ambition, that Shield would have been a shot across the bow of the rest of the league.

Also among the demerits: None, really, unless you count a number of injuries that forced head coach Greg Vanney to shuffle throughout the year. 

Final Regular Season Grade: B+ (with a caveat)

Sure, 2016 is a clear step forward – for now. But if Toronto finish third and flame out again in the Knockout Round – in school terms, bombing the final – their regular-season mark drops a full grade to a C+. With the level of investment and overall talent, this team should be in a conference semifinal, and if they fall short, they’ll have their poor home form late in the regular season to thank.

D.C. United

Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

Steady does it until the stadium comes online. More pragmatic soccer, more MLS reclamation projects and another playoff berth. Benny ball.

The Good

Just when you thought D.C. United was content with being MLS’s aesthetically normcore, just-wait-until-the-stadium-is-built sleeping giant, they go out and sign a diminutive creator with a Boca Juniors pedigree and Ben Olsen turns Patrick Mullins into the league’s single-most influential attacker.

D.C. spent all season rope-a-doping below the red line before catching fire at exactly the right time, and now they’re the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. That run was largely fueled by the arrival of Mullins and Lloyd Sam from the blue and red sides of New York as well as resurgent seasons from Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko and the combination of Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum in the back. Having Luciano Acosta, said creator with that Boca Juniors pedigree, pulling the strings from midfield, hasn't hurt, either.

They did all this after losing Perry Kitchen for nothing, trading Fabian Espindola in the middle of the season and losing Chris Rolfe for most of the year with a concussion. Long live Benny ball!

The Bad

United weren’t very good through July, and weren’t particularly enjoyable to watch either. They lost to Fort Lauderdale in the Open Cup. And yet, for a club in a holding pattern until the new stadium is online, there are few real negatives. The expectations (playoff berth) were clear, and any means necessary to accomplish that would do.

Also among the demerits: Injury issues for Bill Hamid, affecting his standing on the US national team depth chart, and Rolfe.

Final Regular Season Grade: B+

At the beginning of August, who would’ve thought this team would be in position to host a playoff game and be the side none of the top seeds want to see in the conference semifinals? Life – and soccer – is all about timing, and D.C.’s looks potentially historic.

Montreal Impact

Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

Drogba's swansong ends with a trophy (or two) as young, local manager leads soccer in Quebec to the forefront. Piatti for MVP? Ciman DotY repeat?

The Good

The Impact looked like the best team in the league through May. Ignacio 'Nacho' Piatti might be the league’s most terrifying player for opposing defenders and has a legitimate case to be an MVP candidate. Didier Drogba’s production, playing time and positive vibes dropped off, but he still went for 10 goals and six assists. Mauro Biello is the coach of a playoff team once again.

The Bad

Making the playoffs was the baseline for this team, not something to be celebrated after finishing third in the East in 2015. That fast start and front-runner status seems like a distant memory, and Drogba’s declining production followed by a Week 33 tantrum took the shine off what should have been a triumphant final march for the soccer legend.

Also among the demerits: They’re on the older side, especially in the midfield, and the likes of Callum Mallace, Harry Shipp and Lucas Ontivero failed to force their way in.

Final Regular Season Grade: C

They took a step back when it comes to the table, failed to make the Canadian Championship final and Drogba’s presence hasn’t had the same effervescent effect that it did in 2015. They’re in the playoffs with an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, but there’s no doubt this year has had its fair share of frustrations.

Philadelphia Union

Wiebe: Pass or fail? Grading the Eastern Conference playoff field -

2016 expectations in 140 characters

Usher in a new era under Earnie by punching above weight, hopefully ending with a rare playoff spot and maybe even a USOC triumph (finally).

The Good

The Earnie Stewart experiment couldn’t have started better. The Union got who they wanted in the SuperDraft, saw offseason acquisition Chris Pontius get off to a hot start and Andre Blake lay claim to the title of MLS’s best goalkeeper. Philly, a year after finishing second to last in the East, were in first place for a solid month between May and June.

Then, in the summer, Keegan Rosenberry was (deservingly) named an All-Star, Roland Alberg went goal crazy, the Union made another deep US Open Cup run and snagged the big-name Designated Player the organization had been lusting after for years in Alejandro Bedoya. With Tranquillo Barnetta leading the way in his MLS swansong, the Union are a mathematical inevitability away from earning their second-ever playoff spot.

The Bad

The Union made it, but just barely. Though they fell off the pace in the Eastern conference in late summer, it appeared Jim Curtin’s boys had a real shot at hosting a playoff match at Talen Energy Stadium. That was until their current six-game winless skid. So while they’re likely in the playoff field, they’ll have to knock off either NYCFC or Toronto FC in the Knockout Round to play a game on the banks of the Delaware.

On an individual level, C.J. Sapong’s second-half goal drought will likely force the club to reinforce the forward spot in the offseason, and Maurice Edu’s continued injury absence has robbed the Union of what could be their best and most versatile player.

Also among the demerits: Vincent Nogueira’s departure wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it was a huge loss nonetheless. That USOC loss in penalty kicks hurt, too.  

Final Regular Season Grade: B

Playoffs, baby! It hasn’t been perfect, but the Union didn’t need perfection. They needed a club reboot, and Stewart and Curtin have revamped the culture from top to bottom. The youth setup looks primed to churn out talent, the USL pipeline is established, the first team strikes a balance between young talent and players in their prime and the facilities are top notch. A playoff run would be icing on the cake before another big offseason.