Armchair Analyst: What I'm watching for over the final two MLS weekends

OK, here we are: The very end. The final 180 minutes of the year for all 24 teams.

As always, there's a lot on the line this time of year as teams try to elbow their way into the playoffs, or into home field advantage. Let's think about that, and what might come next – in the playoffs themselves. One eye on the present, one eye on the future, and off we go...

Are LAFC still the favorites?

A month ago LAFC weren't just the presumptive Supporters' Shield winners, nor even the presumptive runaway Supporters' Shield winners. They were the runaway best team in MLS history, seemingly on an inexorable journey toward records for points, points per game, goals, goal differential and winning margin. They played soccer as beautiful as it was irresistible.

And then 60 minutes into last month's El Trafico, Carlos Vela pulled up lame. They still might break all those records above, and they did officially clinch the Shield on Wednesday night. But it's still probably fair to say that things haven't quite been the same, for one reason or another, since last month against the Galaxy.

The good news is that Vela is back, but there are two other issues now. One is that smart teams have adjusted to how LAFC play and are harder/better/faster/stronger at exploiting space when the Black-and-Gold's fullbacks overlap:

That's fixable. Coach A has a certain style of play, and Coach B makes an adjustment, and it's back to Coach A to figure things out. Bob Bradley's been playing this game for damn near 40 years, and I'm sure he's got something up his sleeve.

The second problem is a bigger one. Adama Diomande "voluntarily entered into MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (“SABH”) Program" according to LAFC comms last week, and there's no known timetable for his return. Obviously Diomande getting well is the only real priority here, but from an on-field perspective... after LAFC traded Christian Ramirez, they didn't go out and get another center forward. Dio's it.

So now they're playing a busted-up 4-3-3 wherein their fullbacks can't get as high as early in the play as they used to, and Vela is no longer playing the position where he was having the best season in MLS history (right wing), and is instead playing as a false No. 9, and there's no actual remedy for this on the roster as it's constructed right now.

Over the past month LAFC have trended from "might not smash the record" to "might not set the record" to "might not even be the favorites." They're a very different team than they were at the start of August.

Worth noting, though: Toronto FC and Atlanta United both kind of went into the tank down the stretch each of the last two seasons (it cost Atlanta the Shield), so maybe LAFC are just trodding a well-worn path.

Can Atlanta United cope without Josef?

No. And I felt that way before NYCFC murked 'em on Wednesday night.

Josef is the second-best player in the league, and is arguably the most important player in the league. Bobby Warshaw came up with his "break in case of emergency" plans for how Atlanta could maybe go about replacing their MVP, and I respect the effort he put into that as well as the fact that the Five Stripes still have a ton of talent on that roster.

But I don't think there's any real way for them to replace Josef Martinez. He is not just their GOAT-level goalscorer, he is an inimitable tactical piece with his off the ball movement, and – most importantly – their emotional and spiritual leader. When their season was fading in mid-July, it was Josef who put them on his back. Now he’s gone.

I think Wednesday night in the Bronx is a sample of what’s to come until he comes back healthy... this year or next.

Are NYCFC just a regular really good team, or something beyond that?

First, read Bobby's column breaking down the Cityzens' smashing of Atlanta, which is instructive in terms of both what they do and who they are. This is the key point:

NYCFC use their positional play to set up the field in a way that suits them. Before you know it, Moralez and Mitrita and Heber and Valentin Castellanos and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi are flying at you and you’re cooked like the chewy stew at grandmas. Nobody wants that.

And if you over-compensate to compress the middle of the field, they switch to a 3-4-2-1 and release their wingbacks to attack the space down the flanks. Instead of piercing through the middle, they get the ball wide and crash the box.

NYCFC have weapons and they use them. They also have one of the best defenses in the league, have been one of the best teams in the league both at home and on the road, and they're going to have homefield advantage in the East. They are 17-4-5 since mid-April, which is not just "good" that's "they're a steamroller." They've done it with and without a whole cadre of key players. They are easily – easily! – the favorites in their conference.

That said, they've been thoroughly outplayed by TFC twice this season and historically don't have a great record against the East teams that have dominated the past few years (TFC, RBNY and Atlanta). Nor have they ever done anything of note in the playoffs.

If the Reds in particular advance out of that 4/5 game and are NYCFC's first opponents, it'll be a very nervous team in light blue taking the field.

Yeah but who's second in the East?

Atlanta have, by almost any measure, an easier final two games (at Montreal, home vs. New England), but Philly (at Columbus, home vs. NYCFC) are not missing their best player. Even though I'd want no part of NYCFC at home on Decision Day presented by AT&T, I still think I'd rather be the Union. Philly have a one-point lead and a "we don't give a damn" toughness/swagger that's so much fun right now.

Look at this staredown!!!!

That is just lovely. And to be perfectly clear: Philly need that No. 2 seed more than Atlanta do for the culture and for the proof of concept, while I think Atlanta need it a lot more for reasons that are about to be made clear.

"Yeah, getting second in the East matters because then you get to host the game against the third seeded team in the Conference Semifinals," but that's only true if you both get there. And you've got a much, much better chance of getting there from the second seed than from the third seed, because the third seed likely has to play Toronto, RBNY or D.C. United. Do you want to face one of them in a one-off, even at home?

The second seed, meanwhile, will face...

Oh man, that East seventh seed is rough

New England got a miracle result Wednesday night with a goal in the 87th and then another seven minutes into stoppage. They had no business being in that game, but came away with a point thanks to a late Timbers meltdown en route to a 2-2 draw. It was a great moment for the Revs, and they justifiably celebrated like they'd won.

But they sure haven't been doing any actual winning lately. New England have just one W in their past nine games, and have NYCFC and Atlanta rounding out their schedule. They have been poor by almost every metric. The same goes for the Fire (home vs. Toronto, at Orlando) and Orlando (at Cincy, home vs. Chicago) either of whom can pass New England if the results break right.

Any of those three teams is massively preferable to matching up against any of the three teams that could occupy the sixth spot.

The second seed in the East is the biggest prize on the table right now. Both Philly and Atlanta desperately need to snag it.

And the final two spots in the West?

Also not great! Portland blew a 2-0 home lead to draw and San Jose blew a 1-0 home lead to lose just last night. The Quakes have lost four straight, the Timbers are 2-4-2 in their last eight – all at home – and the third member of this dance, FC Dallas, are winless in three. Right now it's the Timbers in sixth (45 points + the first tiebreaker, which is wins), Dallas in seventh, and San Jose in eighth (44 points).

All three teams control their own destiny. Dallas control it a little bit differently, though:

Jacob's math is correct.

Anyone who claims to know how this one is going to shake out is a big fat liar. Any of these teams can beat pretty much anyone, and have proven it. Any of these teams can lose to pretty much everyone, and have proven it.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, it's going to come down to that final weekend when the Quakes pay Portland a visit at Providence Park. I imagine that game will have the intensity of a steel-cage death match.

What is the West hierarchy beyond LAFC?

Wait, are we back to accepting that LAFC are the absolute favorites? We are, for the sake of this argument? OK then...

In general, I have three rules of thumb in the playoffs:

  • If you have multiple match-winners in attack, you can really mess teams up (LA Galaxy)
  • If you have proven, veteran winners up the spine, you can 1-0 your way through the bracket (Minnesota)
  • If you've been there before and don't get rattled, you're probably in good shape (Seattle)

That's the order I've got those teams in right now. The Galaxy are still a mess defensively, but I'd be utterly terrified of lining up across from Zlatan and Cristian Pavon. I think that's a scarier proposition for any playoff team than lining up against Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso, which is more "unpleasant" than "scary" because you know they're totally content to just bunker in and wait you out, then annihilate you on the break or set pieces.

Of course, they really do need to play better than they did on Wednesday. Sporting missed about five tap-ins

Seattle are 3-4-3 in their past 10 games, and I'm not sure they even deserve to be in this conversation. They're not scaring anybody and I really, really question whether they have the team or the ethos to wait you out and wear you down. But they're Seattle, and Nico Lodeiro's still Nico Lodeiro so here they are.

But yeah, back to LA for a second: Zlatan has 12 goals in his last eight games, and wow, wouldn't you know it! That coincides almost perfectly with Pavon's arrival!

Turns out adding an in-his-prime Argentine international attacker to your team is a good way to boost attacking production (the Galaxy are crossing less and soccering more). They have scored 23 goals in Pavon's nine appearances, and a lot of those have come against good teams.

D.C., Toronto and RBNY coming alive...

I mean, maybe. I think it's kind of hard to say a team that just lost to Montreal is "coming alive," but certainly in the regular season the Reds have been legit. Same goes for D.C. (they've won three straight, all by shutout) and RBNY (back-to-back 2-0 wins that might've saved a job or two).

With D.C. it comes down to Wayne Rooney looking free and unencumbered by whatever it was that was holding him back earlier this season, combined with a new-look, press-everywhere-out-of-a-mid-block midfield that is just miserable to play through. With their defense, and Rooney's work – he's one of the superstars in this league who actually defends – suddenly the backline hasn't been engaged in pure rearguard actions (though they showed a few weeks back in Portland they can still do that if called upon).

And then when they do win the ball, Wayne goes and does whatever he wants while everyone else just runs. There's not a lot of set patterns of positional play, it's "see space, take space, trust Wayne." It's a good plan.

TFC, as I mentioned above, have been legit in the regular season with a 6-1-5 record since late June. Truth be told it should be 9-1-2, but a howler from Quentin Westberg at New England, a missed penalty at Yankee Stadium and a late, ridiculous challenge from Chris Mavinga vs. LAFC turned a trio of wins into draws. The Reds have actually been at least six points better than their already good second-half-of-the-season record indicates.

But while I think Westberg's biff was a one-off, Mavinga showed again on Wednesday night that he'll still make those kinds of plays and cost his team points. As for finishing penalties... if I were a betting man, I'd see how much I could get for hitting "Toronto FC will miss a penalty in the postseason." And if it goes to a shootout I would be shocked if they advanced. I bet they would be, too.

The Red Bulls have been less convincing despite their back-to-back excellent results, and just based on pure talent they don't have match-winners like Rooney, Jozy Altidore or Alejandro Pozuelo. For what it's worth, here are a few arguments in RBNY's favor:

  • They're 5-4-2 against Eastern Conference playoff teams, with just one loss in their last five.
  • They've dropped a ton of points from winning positions this year, mostly through lack of intensity.
  • "Lack of intensity" should cure itself down the stretch.
  • It is easier to press for 90 when the weather cools down a bit.
  • After last year's lesson, I bet Chris Armas will have his team pressing no matter the situation.

We'll see what happens this weekend against D.C. My money is on United, but I think if I was an Atlanta fan I'd be rooting like hell for the Red Bulls because the last thing I'd want to see is a fired-up RBNY team coming into that 3/6 game looking for blood. And they absolutely would be.

So that means RSL are the sleeper team everybody's forgotten about?

One of the under-the-radar stories of the past month is that the Claret-and-Cobalt just haven't been good enough. They played well in Portland, and lost 1-0. They went to Minnesota and were pretty good, but the Loons were plain better in a 3-1 win. They were smart to rest their regulars and got a well-earned point in New England this past weekend, but having a fresh group of starters did nothing for them on Wednesday in a 2-1 home loss to the Galaxy. LA didn't out-play them; they out-talented them.

The margin for a team like RSL is slim, and in order to expand that margin they needed home field for at least a game. A month ago, they had it in their grasp.

Now they need to win both their remaining games (which they should), and for Seattle or LA to entirely fall on their faces. It all seems unlikely.

So yes, that means RSL are still under the radar and are indeed the sleeper team everybody's forgotten about. The silver lining is that's exactly how they entered last year's playoffs before beating LAFC and giving Sporting a real scare, and... well, it's the 10-year anniversary of this:

"The underdog has won." It seems implausible to suggest they could do so again, but that's what we all thought the first time. Maybe history's ready to repeat itself.

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