Warshaw: These six teams could top the MLS Eastern Conference in 2019

There’s either a really weird or a really cool thing going on in the Eastern Conference right now, depending on how you see it. You can make an equally compelling case for up to six teams to be the favorite heading into the playoffs.

This isn’t an argument about “who is the best team.” The time for those conversations are long gone; LAFC have run away with the Supporters’ Shield. It now comes down to the ability to win a single-elimination game in the playoffs. 

Here’s my breakdown of how those six teams could, or would not, make a run to MLS Cup.

Why Atlanta United are the favorite in the East

Atlanta beat New York City FC, Club America, Portland, Minnesota and the LA Galaxy in a single month. They have a league-leading thirteen shutouts, including two more in U.S. Open Cup. They have a goalscorer who only needs one chance in Josef Martinez. They have about a dozen different players who could be Man of the Match on any given day. When they are good, they are very good. And they, as a club, know how to win trophies.

But they should be worried about

The stinkers in the last couple months. They looked bad against D.C. United, LAFC and Orlando City on either side of their fantastic five-game stretch. A lot of the game flows through Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, and they can both be hot and cold. It doesn’t look like they have tactical mechanisms to put the brakes on a poor performance in the middle of the game, either.

Why New York City FC are the favorite in the East

 

New York City FC striker Heber has 13 goals and four assists on the year | USA Today Sports

The loss at Atlanta came without Heber in the lineup. When Heber plays, NYCFC have a record that would put them right next to LAFC. They have been the most complete, consistent team in the East over the last three months. They can switch between multiple formations in a single game, all while sticking to foundational and overarching principles. In case of an emergency, they have multiple game-changers who can come off the bench.

But they should be worried about

What happens when they get pressed. They were excellent playing out of the back against Red Bulls. But against Atlanta and Columbus, not so much. And if NYCFC were willing to pass out of the back against Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium, I’d bet they will do it in the playoffs. It’s not a question of whether they can do it, it’s a matter of whether they do it well enough so they never get it wrong.

Why the Philadelphia Union are the favorite in the East

Philadelphia have two game-winning approaches. They can pass you off the field or they can press you off the field. In previous years, if they couldn’t pass through you, they were cooked. Now they can also beat you by forcing turnovers – both through counter-pressing and regular pressing – in good spots and creating chances in transition.

But they should be worried about

Finishing the chances. Playoff games – all soccer games, but it’s accentuated in a single-elimination game – come down to moments. We’ve seen a few games this year where the Union dropped points because they missed chances. Who do you trust when that big chance falls at his feet? In the playoffs, those misses aren’t dropped points, they’re “see ya later.”

Why Toronto FC are the favorite in the East

 

Will Toronto's talent be enough? | USA Today Sports

Because every now and then, Toronto put together 15 minutes that remind you that Jozy Altidore is the best overall striker in the conference, Michael Bradley is still the best defensive midfielder in the league and Chris Mavinga can eat up everything at center back. And that sentence didn’t even include Alejandro Pozuelo, Justin Morrow, Jonathan Osorio or Omar Gonzalez. Those players have trophies to their names and know how win playoff games.

But they should be worried about

They haven’t been able to do it for more than 15 minutes in two years. I still wait every week for Toronto to flick the switch and it hasn’t happened. It’s fair to wonder at this point if the switch has been lost.

Why the New York Red Bulls are the favorite in the East

They are still the best pressing team in the league. When you let them press you, they are going to smother you. They will overwhelm you and completely dominate the game for at least 20 minutes. If they finish their chances in those 20 minutes, it could be game over real fast.

But they should be worried about

Teams not bothering to pass from the back in the playoffs. We saw it happen against Atlanta last year. Red Bulls haven’t proven they can beat you in any way except pressing, so why give them the chance?

Why the New England Revolution are the favorite in the East

 

Carles Gil has nine goals and 12 assists for the Revs | USA Today Sports

Because really who knows what the hell is going on there. New England have played multiple formations with multiple players in different spots. They are 8-1-6 in their last 15 games, with wins over San Jose and LA and draws at Seattle and Red Bulls. More importantly, they are still under the radar. Whoever gets New England in the first round will feel good about it, which is good for New England.

But they should be worried about

The fact that they haven’t beaten an Eastern Conference playoff team since April. And minus Gustavo Bou, this is still the exact team that started the season 2-8-2.

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