D.C. United’s four-game winning streak has people throwing the word “contender” around, and has seen them jump from the playoff bubble to potentially hosting a knockout round game. A win tomorrow over Orlando City SC will do the job, but that’s only part of the equation. Lining up the best opponents will help down the road, and it takes a little luck to make a run at MLS Cup. So let’s look at what United fans should be hoping for tomorrow:
The idea here is for United to get the easiest path to MLS Cup. For the knockout round, that means the worst playoff team finishing in fifth. That looks pretty unlikely, unfortunately. The team in the worst form right now is the Philadelphia Union, who are winless in six games (nearly two full months), and they’re sitting in sixth place right now. To get them into fifth, they’d need to beat the New York Red Bulls, who are on a fifteen game unbeaten streak.
So that’s probably not going to happen, and it’s a shame. The Union keep pressing high while leaving themselves exposed at the back, and CJ Sapong’s loss of form (no goals or assists in nine games) has left them toothless going forward. In this playoff field, they look like the easiest out in either conference.
Of course, a Union win doesn’t do the job in and of itself. If Montreal gets even a draw against the New England Revolution, even a Union win over the Red Bulls - a maximum MLS result if there ever was one - wouldn’t work. United can only end up facing Philly at RFK if the Revs beat the Impact while the Union upsets NYRB.
There is the preposterous long shot possibility of the Revs taking sixth, but that wouldn’t do anything for United’s knockout round match-up, so we’ll move past it and consider what could happen if United ends up with a draw or loss on Sunday. Montreal pretty much has to beat the Revs on the road to have any chance of taking back the right to host; the Impact could also theoretically host United if they got a draw while United lost by 9 or more goals. Assuming United does not set an all-time MLS record for getting blown out, Montreal would need to win while United does not win to guarantee themselves one more game in Quebec.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals, it seems like United would prefer to play New York City FC. NYCFC’s home field might be a problem due to their unusual dimensions, and United has not lost to the Red Bulls this year, but that fifteen game unbeaten run is no accident. The Pigeons have a defense that looks like a sure bet to cough up goals, and it’s hard to imagine them managing a home-and-away series properly right now.
For United to get that more favorable pairing, they’d need the Union (or possibly the Impact) to go on the road and knock Toronto FC out in the other knockout round game. That sounds tricky, but TFC is on a five-game winless run at home, and they look like a team with no idea of what to do against well-organized defenses. Sebastian Giovinco’s return might change that, but tactically the Reds look quite vulnerable. Philly is probably not equipped to spring the upset, but if they could leapfrog the Impact - setting up a TFC-Montreal series to go with United-Union - we’d be in business.
The best possible Eastern Conference final? It’s kind of a paradox. The Union or Impact look beatable, but if they take out TFC and the Red Bulls in consecutive rounds, they won’t really look like such a favorable draw. If we’re being honest, the most likely match-up here is the Red Bulls, and if United meets their oldest rival, it will be the two hottest teams in MLS colliding with a spot in MLS Cup on the line. We live in exciting times, friends.
We’re not done. If United gets to MLS Cup, they could host the final. That’s not particularly likely due to FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids, and LA Galaxy all having more points than the Black-and-Red. Real Salt Lake would join that group if they win tomorrow, or if United can’t get a better result than RSL can manage in Seattle. If the Sounders or Sporting Kansas City (home vs. San Jose) were to win, United would have to match that to maintain the right to host the final.
That doesn’t add up to MLS Cup coming to RFK Stadium for a third time, but it’s not an impossible dream either. Dallas just lost their best player, Mauro Diaz, to a torn achilles tendon. Without him, FCD is a far more predictable team (though they’re still good enough to contend for the Cup).
Colorado’s roster is the weakest in the entire playoff field in terms of individual talent, and while they’ve done a wonderful job of scratching and clawing their way to wins, it stands to reason that their lack of goalscoring punch is going to cost them. United fans are familiar with their approach, which leaves no margin for error. One bad bounce could be all it takes for the Rapids to crash out of the playoffs.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, have been deceptive for a while now. They’ve only lost six times all season, but they’ve also ended up with fifteen draws on the year. LA’s record in their last thirteen outings is 3W-7D-3L, which is not championship form. Steven Gerrard is pulling a Marcelo Gallardo by returning to his home country over a muscular injury, and Robbie Keane is hurt as well (at least he still seems committed to playing for the team paying him millions of dollars to do so). That’s the thing with following LA’s Designated Player-heavy approach: when the DPs aren’t successful, the solid MLS players behind them aren’t going to carry you to a trophy. Giovani Dos Santos has been pretty good, but the aging Galaxy still seem ripe to run out of gas in the conference semifinals.
Those flaws mean that the teams United could end up with more points than all have a shot at winning the West. RSL would be my preference at this point, due to an attack that currently has one goal in five games. There are other issues here as well: RSL is still built around three players in their mid-to-late thirties, and their offense seems unable to be a sustained threat. Sure, Juan Manuel Martinez or Joao Plata might pull a rabbit out of a hat, but there seems to be little ability to score more mundane goals. That’s a problem United used to have, and guess what? Spectacular goals are rare.
KC looks like an inviting possibility too. They’ve won once in six games, and that was over the lowly Earthquakes. That form extends further, as they’ve got two wins in their last nine (with the second win coming against Vancouver, another bad team). Dom Dwyer is still a goalscoring machine, but there’s no other source of goals on this team. Jacob Peterson was that guy for a while, but his run of five goals in eight games is an aberration. We’re talking about a player with 22 career goals in 246 MLS appearances.
Peter Vermes, when he’s not screaming in a blind fury, is trying to move the pieces around - Roger Espinoza recently played as a “left forward,” for example, though SKC’s 433 saw their wide forwards dropping very deep - but the issue here is much like the issue with RSL. It’s just not likely that either of those teams lasts long enough to get to MLS Cup.
The Portland Timbers would be a fantastic draw, as they’re one game away from a winless 2016 road slate. The CONCACAF Champions League group stage has surely drained them, and it ended with a morale-sapping midweek draw that ended their hopes of a spot in the quarterfinals. The Timbers also still have to do the work of actually qualifying for the postseason - with Seattle and RSL playing each other and SKC favored to eke out a win over San Jose, they probably need to win in Vancouver - before they get onto the radar here.
That leaves Seattle, who might be United’s salvation as far as this hypothetical goes. The Sounders are on a 7W-3D-2L run, and with Nicolas Lodeiro they have a game-breaker good enough to guide them past the stiff defenses that each of the top three teams out west will field. They have their own issues, of course, but they seem like the most plausible MLS Cup finalist from the group that would give United the right to host the game.
So let’s sum up, shall we? The best scenario for United involves a win in Orlando while Philadelphia beats NYRB and Montreal loses at New England. From there, United would want the Impact to knock out TFC and the Red Bulls. Then out west, the most helpful set of events would involve Portland surviving Decision Day and then hauling themselves back to a second straight MLS Cup. Oh, and hopefully the Timbers would do that without breaking that road winless streak, because who wants to play a confident foe with a trophy on the line if they don’t have to?
Is that greedy? Of course it is! But hey, United’s actually got a shot at this thing. Why not get a little greedy?