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Who are the dark horse candidates for MLS Cup?

A couple of weeks ago we talked about the teams capable of winning MLS Cup. There are only a handful of teams each year that actually have the overall ability and top-end talent to make it happen. The rest are hoping for a miracle. Some have a better chance of a miracle than others. This year, they all exist in the Western Conference.

Honestly, there’s only one surefire playoff team in the East that would truly surprise me at this point. New England have too much going on and too little Djordje Petrovic and a number of key injuries. It’s tough to see it happening. The rest of the conference is either fighting to lose to Inter Miami in the Wild Card game, solid from top to bottom (Orlando City, Columbus, Philadelphia), has the top-end talent to go nuclear at a moment’s notice (Atlanta United), extremely solid and boosted by the likely Landon Donovan MLS MVP (FC Cincinnati), or have Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC). 

The West has… less of that. But someone has to make MLS Cup. And lately it hasn’t seemed as easy as pointing to LAFC and calling it a day. It’s never seemed as easy as pointing to St. Louis and calling it a day. Even if they are your two best bets in the West. 

So, what about everyone else in the conference? Only 11 points separate second place and 13th place. Nearly everyone is in play. Except Colorado. Let’s make a brief case for the few Western Conference teams that have an outside chance at making it through the West and to the final. At that point, it’s just one game, right? Anything can happen.

There’s a strong chance they don’t even make the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. But they’re just four points from a play-in spot with eight games to go and they have Riqui Puig. That’s it. That’s the whole sell. You can count on one hand the number of 10s who can impact a game like Puig. It’s still a tough sell, but that’s why we’re here, right?

I don’t have a good reason why they can make a run to MLS Cup. The only real reason I have is that not having a reason to make a deep run in the playoffs has never stopped them before.

Take the Puig argument for LA and then add it into a team with an elite winger like Bongokuhle Hlongwane (I said it) and then couple all that with some of the league’s best underlying numbers and it might not even be fair to call the Loons are dark horse. They might just be a solid pick. Especially if Emanuel Reynoso keeps playing at the MVP-caliber level he’s been on since he returned to the starting lineup.

Since Reynoso made his first appearance of the year on June 3, Minnesota have been the single best team in the league, per the underlying numbers. That’s by expected goal differential, expected points and expected goals for. Maybe the Loons should be a favorite?

They haven’t quite been Minnesota over the last couple of months, but the underlying numbers love the ‘Caps. They’re fourth in the West in American Soccer Analysis' expected points metric and second in MLS in expected goal differential on the season. Yeah, they aren’t as threatening as they were without Julian Gressel. But Richie Laryea was an excellent pickup and Ryan Gauld and Brian White have been one of the single-most effective pairings in the league this season. If the two get hot at the right time, the Whitecaps could start rolling.

Like Minnesota and Vancouver, it might be unfair to call them a dark horse. But let’s not get carried away on claiming Houston are all the way back too early. There’s still a lot to prove. 

They have been excellent lately, though. Héctor Herrera has been one of the best players in the league and the Dynamo have been playing some of the most entertaining ball in MLS. Over their last 10 games, their underlying numbers have been right on par with the Loons and Whitecaps as the three best in the league. The only real question at this point for those three is whether those numbers are due to truly performing at an elite level or if they’re just excelling against a weak conference.

I’ll be honest, they haven’t shown they can do it without Pablo Ruiz and I won’t truly believe they can until we get some piece of evidence otherwise. They still have plenty of talent, though, and it would have felt rude to leave them out. It still feels like they can get it together.

It feels weird calling them a dark horse, but here we are. They haven’t looked like the best (or even a good) version of themselves for months, but it’s still Seattle. They still have a ton of talent. And… like… it’s Seattle. They’re just lulling you into a false sense of security and you know it.

Other things

Inter Miami's Campana named Player of the Matchday: Leonardo Campana is the MLS Player of the Matchday presented by Continental Tire. The Ecuadorian international striker netted a brace as the Herons came from behind to beat Sporting Kansas City, 3-2, at home and keep their late-season Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs push going. 

Bradley takes over as Stabæk coach: Bob Bradley, two and a half months after parting ways with Toronto FC, has returned to lead Norwegian top-flight side Stabæk. The 65-year-old American coach previously oversaw Stabæk from 2014-15, part of his half-decade overseas that also included time in charge of Egypt's national team, French side Le Havre and Welsh club Swansea City.

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Good luck out there.