It's the magic of playoff season: Hope springs eternal.
As long as you're in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, you've got a shot at the trophy, no matter what your record. That's what each of the 12 playoff-bound MLS clubs are telling themselves on the eve of the postseason. They're convincing themselves of the reasons that this could be their year.
But then reality strikes: the realization that there's a better probability of finishing among the 11 teams that will all come up short of MLS Cup in 2017.
Here's a look at the psychological see-saw that all 12 MLS playoff clubs and their respective supporters are currently riding:
Why they could win MLS Cup: The best regular season team in MLS history boasts the league’s best forward tandem in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore (photo above) and conceded the fewest numbers of goals in a conference that was oozing with attacking talent. Toronto FC have home field advantage throughout these playoffs, making them unanimous favorites. Anyone picking against TFC is just being contrarian.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: After losing twice in 23 MLS games, the Reds haven’t looked nearly as dominant during the previous six weeks. Giovinco hasn’t scored from the run of play since Aug. 27. Toronto’s back line has conceded 11 times in five matches. There are at least a few more questions now than there were just two months ago.
New York City FC
Why they could win MLS Cup: A dip in form – NYCFC have won twice in nine games – shouldn’t worry supporters in the Bronx. While scoring has dried up, New York City have conceded just 1.1 goals per game since being blown out at BMO Field in July. NYCFC received a taste of the playoffs last season. They’ll be more prepared to go at least one step further. Oh, and David Villa (above) is back to scoring again.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: The Bronx Blues are playing beneath themselves, having won just once in seven games. While City’s defense is better than it was this time last year, can veteran center back Frederic Brillant be relied upon against some of the top attacking sides in the East?
Atlanta United FC
Why they could win MLS Cup: Defense wins championships, but so does averaging three-plus goals per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A veteran spine — Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona — combined with quality goalkeeping gives the expansion side a chance in any series. Keep in mind Atlanta were a world-class Sebastian Giovinco free kick away from knocking off the top side in the league. Don’t bet against them.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: Atlanta’s upstart and, at times, overeager press leaves plenty of space for opposing attacking players to exploit. Break Atlanta’s front line and there are opportunities on the other side. Question is, can teams score more than the Five Stripes?
Columbus Crew SC
Why they could win MLS Cup: Crew SC have been arguably the best team in MLS through the final third of the regular season, in part due to the number of goals they’re conceding. Their goals-against average has been halved from 1.63 through the first 24 games of the season to below a goal-per-game during their 10-game unbeaten run. If Jonathan Mensah (above) and Co. can stand up against the East's top attacks, Crew SC have more than enough talent up front to reach — and maybe even host — MLS Cup.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: The Crew have been really good against average-to-bad teams this season. Eleven of Crew SC's 16 wins have come against teams that were outside of the playoff picture entering Decision Day. What’s more, Columbus were just 5W-9L-5D against teams above the playoff line this season. They won’t have the luxury of facing Orlando three times in the postseason.
New York Red Bulls
Why they could win MLS Cup: The New York Red Bulls might be the best positioned of any Eastern Conference team to advance beyond the Knockout Round. While Chicago, Atlanta and Crew SC all were forced to slug it out for seeding on Decision Day, the Red Bulls knew they were locked into the No. 6 spot. With that in mind, head coach Jesse Marsch rested key figures like Sacha Kljestan (above) in preparation for the short turnaround. For once, the Red Bulls won’t have the added weight of expectations after finishing mid-table.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: The Red Bulls have three wins since the end of July, one of which came against a depleted Vancouver Whitecaps side and the other in a zero-stakes match against D.C. United. The Red Bulls want to create scoring chances using their hard press, but it also leaves them stretched throughout games — something that’s seen them concede far too often to win a championship. They haven’t shown an ability to adapt to the game state.
Why they could win MLS Cup: There’s no more difficult away venue in the Western Conference than Providence Park, where the Portland Timbers always raise their game to another level. Hosting the return leg in back-to-back playoff series could be enough to tip the scales in Portland’s favor. The fact they’ve already played at Toronto’s BMO Field and NYCFC’s Yankee Stadium this year could be a benefit should they return for MLS Cup.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: The Timbers are too reliant on Diego Valeri (above), whose remarkable season carried Portland atop the Western Conference standings. The question becomes whether MLS Cup-caliber teams can rely solely on one player to produce in the postseason.
What happens if Fanendo Adi, who hasn’t played since the beginning of August, doesn’t contribute in these playoffs? Sebastian Blanco, Portland’s third leading scorer, doesn’t exactly strike fear in the opposition. And we haven’t mentioned Darlington Nagbe.
Why they could win MLS Cup: The Seattle Sounders return eight of 11 starters who won MLS Cup in 2017. That list doesn’t include Clint Dempsey (above), who despite being suspended for the opening leg of the Conference Semifinals will return for a huge second leg.
In addition to their good form — the Sounders have lost just twice since the end of June — there’s no reason to believe Seattle isn’t capable of an MLS Cup return. After another slow start, Seattle again looks to be peaking at the right time. Hear that? That’s Toronto FC fans taking a collective gulp.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: They’ll likely have to play for MLS Cup on the road — and attempt at least one shot on goal. Other than that, there’s no reason Seattle can’t emerge. Truth be told, the Sounders probably are the best side in Cascadia.
Why they could win MLS Cup: The Vancouver Whitecaps didn’t have enough going forward before Peruvian international Yordy Reyna (above) turned up July. Suddenly, Fredy Montero has someone to play with and opposing defenses have far more to think about. The ‘Caps also boast one of the best aerial games in the league — something that could be the difference in a tight playoff game decided by set pieces.
While they’re not the most talented team in the conference, head coach Carl Robinson has gotten more than anyone thought out of his roster. Who’s to say he can’t get even more?
Why they might not win MLS Cup: The ‘Caps are the Atlanta of the West, a side with a solid defensive six behind a front four that’s dangerous on the counter. But what happens if you don’t let them run? Can the ‘Caps find ways to break teams down consistently? Or is it a side still lacking MLS Cup-caliber creativity? It’s probably the latter.
Why they could win MLS Cup: Only the Portland Timbers have scored more goals in the West this season, which leads me to believe the Houston Dynamo have more than enough going forward to scrape a result in a two-leg series. While they’ve won just once on the road this season, the Dynamo haven’t received enough plaudits for improving things at the back through the addition of Adolfo Machado, leading to a plus-12 goal difference.
Furthermore, is the Dynamo’s away record as dismal as it seems? Houston have lost just twice in their last eight road games (1W-2L-5D). Draws away from home are good enough in a two-game series.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: The Houston Dynamo’s abysmal 1W-9L-7D road record is an indication they’re going to have problems throughout these playoffs if they can’t find results at home, especially when you consider there’s no chance they’ll host the championship game. Furthermore, Houston’s top two attacking players — Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto (above) — face a daunting World Cup qualifying playoff vs. Australia in-between playoff rounds. Can’t see them getting four straight road results en route to what would be a shocking MLS Cup victory.
Sporting Kansas City
Why they could win MLS Cup: Think Greece at the 2004 UEFA Euro Championships. You always have a chance if you can keep things close. Statistically speaking, Sporting Kansas City boast one of the best defenses in MLS history. It’s never smart to bet against manager Peter Vermes (above), who has a side littered with veteran MLSers and internationals in key positions. The question becomes whether Kansas City can get more from their young players up front.
Why they might not win MLS Cup: Sporting KC probably won’t score enough over two legs to win multiple series. They’ve averaged a paltry 1.18 goals per game this season. Much like Columbus Crew SC, two-thirds of SKC’s 12 wins this season were against clubs below the playoff line entering Decision Day. Kansas City likely wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the East.