Chest gave you his preview and predictions for the Eastern Conference earlier this week, and he'll have a preview of the Western Conference shortly also. But now it's time to really go out on a limb and make some season predictions for the playoffs.
If my NCAA tournament bracket is any indication, these predictions are probably far more likely to fail dramatically than they would be to shockingly succeed.
With MLS switching to a sort of modified version of a single table format this season, there's really no reason to believe that any team will have much of a scheduling advantage. Since I believe that the Eastern Conference in general is down this year, that would normally give a team like Columbus an advantage over the Western Conference powerhouses in the chase for the Supporters Shield. In previous years, the Crew would have been rewarded with additional matches against weaker opponents from the East like KC and PU, while the several strong teams out west battled for points with each other. That's not the case this year. Every team will face every other team twice, regardless of conference affiliation.
Still though, the Columbus Crew feel like the most likely candidate to win yet another Supporters Shield. They only lost one starter (Alejandro Moreno) and have replaced him by getting ever-improving Steven Lenhart more minutes. Columbus will wrap up the top seed in the East before many teams have even clinched playoff berths.
The second seed in the East will very much be a tossup. I've already stated that I think that there are three teams bunched together behind the Crew: DC United, Toronto FC, and the Chicago Fire. Despite having a lot of talent, I threw out the Fire pretty quickly because I just don't trust their vitually unknown new head coach Carlos de los Campos. He's already released Jon Busch, who has been a top 5 MLS goalkeeper for the past 3 seasons. I wonder what his next questionable decision will be? I'm a Marco Pappa fan, but without Cuahtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe, I don't see this coach adjusting, and I don't see this team winning.
And so if second place in the East comes down to United and TFC, I won't look any further than DC's recent preseason victory over the Reds. Preki's squad will be in the chase, as his squads always are, but I'll take DC United's defensive starters and goalkeeper over Toronto's and put them in the playoffs for the first time in three years.
The Western Conference is a bit more difficult to predict, because there is so much talent at the top of the heap. RSL, Seattle, LA, and Colorado all remain strong contenders to return to the playoffs, with Dallas and Houston not far behind. The decision here comes down to consistency. Led by Bruce Arena and Landon Donovan, the LA Galaxy are stacked with talent this year. Another year under their belts will be a big help for Omar Gonzalez, Sean Franklin, and AJ DeLaGarza. They've also added three new Brazilians who are reportedly fitting in well so far. Losing Donovan for the World Cup break will be the only thing keeping LA from winning the Supporters Shield.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Sounders have a talented starting lineup and a deep bench, so they seem poised to take another step forward and claim second place in the West. I will continue after the break with my wild card and playoff predictions.
Competing for the four wild card spots in the playoffs will be Chicago, Toronto, RSL, LA, Dallas, and Houston. Can you guess where I'm going with this?
I'm so down on the East this year that I have no problem predicting only two Eastern Conference teams to make the playoffs, and six Western Conference teams. Real Salt Lake will be their usual inconsistent selves in the regular season, but have a strong enough lineup to finish third in the West. Next I like the Colorado Rapids to finish fourth. Look for Conor Casey, Omar Cummings, and Colin Clark to finish what they started last year, with new addition Jeff Larentowicz adding a new presence in the midfield.
While the Houston Dynamo have lost several great players this offseason (Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, and Wade Barrett), I won't count them out as their style of play always gets results. The Dynamo will finish the season in fifth place in the West, which will push them over into third in the East.
The final playoff spot could really go to any number of candidates, due to a high level of uncertainly with many MLS teams. Even the lowly Red Bulls could come out of literally nowhere and make a run. But with FC Dallas adding MLS's all-time great goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, I think they'll sneak their way into the playoffs. Which will leave our matchups looking like this:
|Eastern Conference||Western Conference|
|1E. Columbus Crew||1W. LA Galaxy|
|2E. DC United||2W. Seattle Sounders|
|5W. Houston Dynamo||3W. Real Salt Lake|
|6W. FC Dallas||4W. Colorado Rapids|
In the playoffs, I see Columbus avoiding any stupid mistakes and advancing past Dallas this year. And in a battle of the two most successful franchises in MLS history, I think Troy Perkins and Jaime Moreno will make the difference and send DC through to the next round. In fact, this DC United club feels different from the previous two. Yes, I feel like there is something special about this team specifically. And so they will upset the regular season champion Crew and advance to the MLS Cup Final.
Out west, in a battle of two young and progressing franchises, Real Salt Lake will defeat the Sounders, but will ultimately lose to the streaking and seemingly unbeatable LA Galaxy. No one is going to keep LA from returning to the Final once again.
As for MLS Cup, the storylines write themselves. A rematch of the 1996 and 1999 Finals. The two greatest teams from "MLS 1.0" meeting again. Bruce Arena against his original team. How about Omar and AJ versus Rodney? Maybe even David Beckham's return?!
DC United will undoubtedly be the underdogs in this match. How could this mixture of aging veterans and energetic youths stand a chance?
I don't know the answer to that. But I do have faith that Curt Onalfo, Jaime Moreno, and Santino Quaranta do know that answer. Call me a homer all you want. But we will be the ones standing proud when DC United wins MLS Cup 2010.
It takes more. And it starts today.