Armchair Analyst: Playoff teams by tier as the regular season ends | Week 31

And so with the conclusion of Decision Day presented by AT&T, the 24th regular season of Major League Soccer is in the books.

Since there were 12 games going on at the same time I can't pretend I'm going to give you a full blow-by-blow analysis and breakdown. Instead let's take a look at where everybody stands heading into the postseason:


TIER I: Still the Favorites

LAFC

Decision Day result: 3-1 win vs. Colorado at home

Well it probably felt good to have another resounding win to end the season, and to watch Carlos Vela set a record in style. But bear in mind that this is still a side that hasn't beaten a playoff team in two months.

It's still not clear whether they'll have Adama Diomande back for the playoffs, nor is it clear whether or not he'll be in any sort of condition to have an impact. Diego Rossi is now playing center forward, or Vela is sliding over there as a false 9. New DP attacker Brian Rodriguez has shown flashes, but neither consistency nor end product. Bob Bradley has outright said that the midfield lacks the same kind of sharpness they had through mid-August, and they've really begun to look more vulnerable when the fullbacks push up:

There are a ton of red flags compared to mid-summer. But there are still fewer red flags for this team than there are for anybody else in the league.


TIER II: The Contenders

NYCFC

Decision Day result: 2-1 win at Philly

In case there was any doubt who the alphas in the East are, NYCFC gave everyone a reminder in Chester.

They've been able to bounce back-and-forth between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3, and through the last two-thirds of the year have mostly looked really good doing it. They've absolutely earned that homefield advantage in the East.

Most important: They will go into the playoffs damn near 100% healthy and with match-winners almost everywhere on the field. City Football Group's scouting network has proven to be a major asset.

Atlanta United

Decision Day result: 3-1 win vs. New England

Josef's back and happy days are here again. The man was carted off the field in tears two weeks ago and and had himself 1g/2a in 90 minutes on Decision Day. Please appreciate him.

This is now the same Atlanta team that won the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup back in August, and they will certainly carry themselves like it for however long their playoff journey goes. Given what they've been able to do over the last two seasons, are you comfortable betting against them in a one-game knockout?

That said, I'm wondering when teams are going to start leaving their right winger high and just angling long diagonals into that spot in order to turn Justin Meram into a defender. This is exactly what Tata Martino did last year when Kemar Lawrence got injured and the Red Bulls had to play Connor Lade at left back.


TIER III: The Pack

Philadelphia Union

Decision Day result: 2-1 loss vs. NYCFC

Even in a best-case scenario – everyone healthy, everyone clicking – it's an open question whether Philly have the horses to hang with the best. On Sunday we saw them at much less than the best-case scenario.

There's also an intriguing subplot: the tale of Marco Fabian. The Mexican international attacker was brought in last offseason to be the kind of high-end attacking talent who can win you a match with a moment of magic in a big game. Philly don't have a lot of those. But Philly are better in the 4-2-3-1 than in the 4-4-2...

...and there's really no place for Fabian in the 4-2-3-1. Truth be told there hasn't been much reason to put him out there regardless – he hasn't delivered many of those promised moments, and he's been a major liability defensively.

Maybe Kacper Przybylko (if he returns from his injury) or Ilsinho can be that guy. If they both can, then I've got the Union ranked too low. But I won't believe it until I see it.

Minnesota United FC

Decision Day result: 1-0 loss at Seattle

This performance was probably more ammo for the argument that the Loons have got little-to-no room for error. They'll have to just grind teams down in the playoffs.

Regardless of where you fall regarding this team, what's clear about Minnesota is that from goalkeeper to central defense to central midfield they've got a bunch of veterans who don't beat themselves. If you can go through game after game after game refusing to concede cheap goals, you will give yourself a chance to get result after result after result.

The work those five guys and the fullbacks have done has allowed head coach Adrian Heath to shuffle through attackers both up top and on the wing based upon who's hot and who's not.

With only 10 goals scored in the last 10 games of the season, though, that does become more difficult. It sure would smooth things out if the August version of Mason Toye reappeared.

Seattle Sounders

Decision Day result: 1-0 win vs Minnesota

There's not much flash or flair about the Sounders, but suddenly they've become a resolute defensive team, pitching three shutouts in four games down the stretch. And whether it's transition or set pieces, they've found just enough going forward.

Over the past half-decade you could always rely upon Seattle to be one of the toughest outs in the postseason because they had Ozzie Alonso and Chad Marshall. Now they've got neither, so it's still an open question. But it feels like they've started to answer it at least a little bit recently.

Regardless, I don't know what's going to happen to this team in two weeks, and I doubt anyone involved – Brian Schmetzer, Nico Lodeiro, the defenders themselves – really know, either. Anything is on the table for Seattle.

LA Galaxy

Decision Day result: 4-2 loss at Houston

How do you trust a team that concedes eight goals over the course of 180 minutes to Vancouver and Houston with homefield advantage in the playoffs on the line? The answer is you don't.

Just remember, though, that no matter what happens, you've got to deal with 90 minutes of this guy playing like he's got a point to prove:

The Zlatan that we keep seeing against LAFC? I think that's the Zlatan everybody's going to see in the playoffs, and I think that makes terrifying.

That said, I won't be at all shocked if they ship another four goals – this time to Minnesota – and go out with a whimper.

D.C. United

Decision Day result: 0-0 draw vs. Cincinnati

Well, the defense keeps doing the job and that keeps being the key for D.C. Which, yes, should be taken as a slam on the attack after failing to score at home against nine-man Cincinnati with playoff seeding on the line. Now they've got to go on the road.

I don't know if there's a ton to say about this team beyond the obvious: They run til they drop and have rediscovered their "we're miserable to play against" gene. If they're going to make noise in the postseason it's going to be by just grinding teams down and then relying upon either a moment of inspiration from Wayne Rooney or a poacher's goal from Ola Kamara. There is no plan B for United.

Of course, D.C. conceded the second-fewest goals in the league this year. If you're going to knock them out of the playoffs, you're going to have to earn it.

Toronto FC

Decision Day result: 1-0 win vs. Columbus

They finished the regular season with a 10-game unbeaten streak. It wasn't always pretty and they managed to leave a bunch of points on the table, but they're tough to beat right now.

Even so, they give up chances. Toronto take more risks than anyone in the league outside of LAFC:

Sometimes they pay off. Sometimes they get roasted.

There's a good argument to put the Reds in the same category as LA, since either team could 5-4 their way to MLS Cup, and either team could just as easily lose by that score in the first round.

No word on Jozy Altidore's injury just yet, by the way. If he's out for the playoffs, knock the Reds down to the "long shots" category.

Portland Timbers

Decision Day result: 3-1 win vs. San Jose

They got it done by the skin of their teeth, and they are far from "clicking." But they're playing a lot better now than they were a month ago.

Of course, they still cross the ball too much. It's jarring how comfortable they've become with the idea that they're just gonna whip it into ye olde mixer. But at least when they put their minds to it they have the skill and talent to slow things down and carve out better looks.

Of course, that's only one phase of play. The Timbers are likely to spend the entire postseason on the road, and that means they'll be able to sit and counter into space, and when they do that they are very, very tough to play against. And over the season's final three games, 1) Jeremy Ebobisse continued to prove that he's a difference-maker, and 2) Dairon Asprilla got himself into "Postseason Dairon Mode." It's uncanny:

The fact that they did what they needed without Diego Valeri and Brian Fernandez should be heartening. The fact that they had to is a real worry.


TIER IV: The Underdogs

Real Salt Lake

Decision Day result: 1-0 win at Vancouver

RSL needed homefield advantage badly and they got it done. They repeatedly showed in the second half of the season that they probably don't have the firepower necessary to compete with the best teams, but they got themselves the third spot in the West by never slacking off no matter who they were facing. They didn't drop points they shouldn't have.

But here are the issues:

  • Basically all those moments came at home
  • In terms of xG, they finished ahead of only FC Cincinnati and Vancouver
  • They lack reliable match-winners in attack

LA, for example, actually played lousy at RSL on September 25. But LA still won that game 2-1 because they have Zlatan and Cristian Pavon, and RSL don't. A month before that RSL were really, really good at Portland, but they lost 1-0. Portland have Diego Valeri, and RSL don't.

Maybe Jefferson Savarino can make the leap this postseason. At least they've given themselves a chance to find out.

EDIT: To make this a little clearer, since there was some confusion in the comments section as to why RSL are here instead of Tier 3... they had 12 games against the other Western Conference playoff teams this year and won once. If you go 1-9-2 with a -9 goal differential against the teams you're about to face for a trip to MLS Cup, you are abject underdogs no matter how well you did taking points off of Vancouver, Houston and the like.

New York Red Bulls

Decision Day result: 3-0 loss at Montreal

It seemed like they'd turned the corner. Then they went up to Quebec and it looked like they turned said corner and ran right into a truck.

Over the past five seasons the postseason story for RBNY has been the same: Bradley Wright-Phillips needs more goalscoring help than the front office has been willing to give him. BWP is one of the greatest goalscorers this league has ever seen, but even at his best he wasn't able to be a "climb on my back, boys, I'm taking us there single-handed" force like Jozy Altidore in 2016, Carlos Ruiz in 2002 or Josef Martinez last year.

BWP's obviously no longer at his best, so not only does there remain a huge question about RBNY's secondary scoring option(s), there's an even bigger one about their primary scoring options. And the defense has been uncharacteristically leaky through long stretches of the season.

I don't know. My colleagues Bobby Warshaw and Jimmy Conrad say that this year sets up perfectly for the Red Bulls since nobody's afraid of them anymore and everybody's writing them off. I get his point, but I think talent matters more and I don't think RBNY have enough.

Losing Kyle Duncan hurt, by the way. And it showed almost immediately.


TIER V: The Long-Shots

FC Dallas

Decision Day result: 6-0 win vs. Sporting

They made it in spite of themselves after a miserable September

The question with FC Dallas isn't whether or not they'll play good soccer – we know they will. They're among the league leaders in possession, total passes, passes per possession and throughballs. A lot of the "build from the back" stuff they went hard on this year has worked.

But coming into this weekend they were near the bottom of the pack in terms of raw chance creation, goals and expected goals. If you watch the way they play, their movements are super-coordinated until they get to the final third. Once they get into the final third it's something closer to a free-for-all.

That, combined with an underperforming attacking corps, has made for a frustrating season in Frisco. If they're facing a weak team, they can feast (just ask KC). When they face anyone good, though, it's almost always famine.

New England Revolution

Decision Day result: 3-1 loss at Atlanta

They got their heads above water at midseason and just kept on surviving, and now here they are.

I keep writing "match-winners." Here's Gustavo Bou:

Bou has been superb since he arrived, and gives the Revs the type of attacking player who can just win you a game (or get you a result) out of the blue. Between him and Carles Gil, they have two match-winners in attack.

Even so, they should've gotten blown out a bunch in the second half of the season, and would've if not for Matt Turner. By some measures he saved his team about half-a-goal per game, which is insane. Since coming into the starting XI in the spring, Turner's put together one of the best runs of pure shot-stopping I think I've ever seen in this league.

Will that be enough? I doubt it. The Revs have been remarkably tough to beat – only two losses since Brad Friedel was replaced – but on the road in the playoffs should be a different story. Decision Day was Round 1 and it's not likely they'll fare any better in Round 2.


Home for the Winter

San Jose Earthquakes

Decision Day result: 3-1 loss at Portland

I do think the playoffs would've been more fun with the Quakes in them. Their style of soccer under Matias Almeyda – on both sides of the ball, mind you – was fast-paced, intense and endlessly entertaining. They would've gone into every game with the intent to hold 60 percent possession and generate 20+ shots. Who doesn't love that?

But talent matters, and when the bottom dropped out on this team, it wasn't the system failing or gas tanks hitting empty. It was a case of attackers put in spots to win the game and coming up short. If you only have one reliable goalscorer, and he's a 36-year-old part-time starter, you're playing the game on a very difficult setting.

San Jose have to keep Almeyda and have to hit the ball out of the park with at least one major attacking signing this winter.

Colorado Rapids

Decision Day result: 3-1 loss at LAFC

One of the most entertaining seasons in club history, maybe? The front office made a necessary change of the head coach, and then some very clever moves in the summer transfer/trade window and whipped together a blend of cast-offs and mis-matched parts that somehow all made each other better. And the early returns on the Robin Fraser era are very, very promising.

Bear in mind, though, that their set-piece dominance is unsustainable. They'll probably still be very good next year on restarts, but not this good.

Chicago Fire

Decision Day result: 5-2 win at Orlando City

For as far back as we have advanced data, no team has underperformed their numbers like Chicago did in 2019. They were third in expected goals for and fourth in expected goals allowed as per Opta. This could've been a 55-point team, and should've been a playoff team at the very least.

I have a few possible explanations. One is that the constant game-to-game shuffling through the first two-thirds of the season was enough to unsettle the side to the point where what looks like a 25% chance is actually a 40% chance. One is that teams were able to capitalize on the lack of a left-back – it's no coincidence that things got better once Jonathan Bornstein arrived. And one is that if you play guys out of position, other teams will take advantage of it:

Gyasi Zardes had Bastian Schweinsteiger on skates there. I don't think a real center back would've bit that hard.

Because of all of the above the Fire were almost constantly playing from behind. It did get a lot better at the start of August when they settled into a pretty standard 4-2-3-1 and patched some holes, but the damage had been done by that point.

Between a new owner and missing the playoffs three times in four years, it feels like major changes are coming.

Montreal Impact

Decision Day result: 3-0 win vs. RBNY

As with Chicago, it's likely there will be major changes this offseason in Montreal. Unlike the Fire, they've really started making them on the sporting side, having brought in a new head coach and a new sporting director as well as a host of new players this summer.

It worked well enough to get the Impact into the Concacaf Champions League, which really is a silver lining. And that Decision Day win over the Red Bulls at least finished the season on a high note – just a month earlier than they'd hoped.

Sporting KC

Decision Day result: 6-0 loss at FC Dallas

Peter Vermes has already said there's going to be a couple of major additions to the roster, which makes sense. One big change from within I'd expect to see is Gianluca Busio's role. The 17-year-old raumdeuter looks both stronger and quicker than he did at the start of the season, and is showing it whenever he gets on the field these days:

He played nearly 1,000 regular-season minutes this year and will, I'm sure, have a chance to win a starting job when preseason starts.

Busio will be with the US U-17s at the U-17 World Cup beginning at the end of this month. Hopefully he doesn't bring the bad taste from Sunday with him.

Columbus Crew SC

Decision Day result: 1-0 loss at Toronto FC

The Crew made a bunch of mid-seasons additions which propelled them up toward the playoff line and snugly into the realm of respectability. It was a nice turnaround after a 1-13-1 stretch that took them from mid-April to mid-July and effectively ended their season by the All-Star Game.

They have to figure out how to stop blowing leads and giving up soft goals, and I'm curious to see in what capacity – if any – Federico Higuain returns.

Regardless, the Crew relished playing spoiler and really did ruin a couple of seasons. I respect the hell out of that.

Orlando City SC

Decision Day result: 5-2 loss vs. Chicago Fire

There were undeniable steps forward for this team, but it was all still mostly out-of-joint from the start and stayed that way throughout. They literally didn't win back-to-back games even once all season, and took just four of the final 24 points with a playoff spot on the line.

I don't think there will be massive changes between now and the start of next season, but I can't rule it out, especially after their collapse vs. the Fire.

Houston Dynamo

Decision Day result: 4-2 win vs. LA Galaxy

Low-key one of the biggest disappointments of the year, right? It was easy to chalk up 2018's faceplant to the lack of Juan David Cabezas, especially after Cabezas came back late last year for the U.S. Open Cup final and was really good in Houston's win.

Cabezas once again missed most of the season, but the new guys were supposed to pick up the slack and – more importantly – this was supposed to be an absolute break-out year for the three-headed attack of Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. This was supposed to be a reprise of that surprising and kind of delightful 2017 season.

None of it worked. After a hot, home-heavy start, the Dynamo slogged through the rest of the year in a stupor and didn't even get a real new-coach bounce after Wilmer Cabrera was dismissed.

Houston will be a much different team in 2020.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Decision Day result: 1-0 loss vs. RSL

The only candidate for a breakout player or a pleasant surprise was goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. Just about everyone else on the team fell well short, and when that happens everybody's job is in danger.

And I mean everyone. There was already a major change at the top of the organization as now-former director of soccer operations Bob Lenarduzzi was moved into a liaison role, and when heads roll at the top, heads tend to roll at the bottom.

After a year like this nobody should feel safe.

FC Cincinnati

Decision Day result: 0-0 draw at D.C. United

FC Cincy's rebuild started when they fired Alan Koch after 11 games, and there are reports leaking out about more changes to come.

There's a ton of work needed on this roster in terms of bringing in new talent. But that can't be the only work – Ron Jans is going to have to channel his inner Almeyda and coax some individual improvement from within (which, to be fair, they showed a lot of on the defensive side over the season's final month). The Quakes were 23-points better year-over-year with minimal roster changes, and while that wasn't enough to get them across the line and into the postseaon it should serve as an example of what's possible if you get clarity and buy-in from the players already on-hand.

But yeah, the definitely need to make some better signings. In that regard – and many others – there's nowhere for this team to go but up.

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