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Underdog may emerge from loaded field
The Philip F. Anschutz Trophy: Ten teams will battle it out for Major League Soccer's most coveted prize.(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
As much as it may seem like the Los Angeles Galaxy are destined to lift the 2011 MLS Cup trophy at their own stadium, the Home Depot Center next month, the reality is that there are nine teams ready to keep that dream scenario from occurring.
In fact, several of those teams just might have the quality to spoil the party the Galaxy is hoping to throw come November, and we may even see another underdog emerge from the loaded field.
The 2011 MLS Playoff field is the biggest in the league’s history, and in many ways, it is the toughest to handicap. While there are some clear-cut favorites to win it all, trying to measure which of the lower-seeded teams have the best chance for surprising runs is a bit tougher.
Will some team emerge from the bottom of the playoff ladder to lift a championship trophy? It’s been done three times in the past six years, so it can’t be ruled out, but the addition of a wild card round will make that road from dark-horse to champion that much tougher.
MLS POWER RANKINGS
The top-heavy West has the top four spots in Ives Galarcep's MLS Power Rankings, but the East's depth claims the rest of the list's top half.
1. Real Salt Lake
2. Seattle Sounders
3. Los Angeles Galaxy
4. Sporting Kansas City
5. Houston Dynamo
6. Colorado Rapids
7. Portland Timbers
8. FC Dallas
9. Vancouver Whitecaps
10. San Jose Earthquakes
11. Toronto FC
12. New York Red Bulls
13. Chicago Fire
14. Philadelphia Union
15. D.C. United
So which MLS playoff teams have the best chance to lift silverware in November? Here is our ranking of all ten teams in the playoffs, in order from least likely to be crowned champion to most likely to be celebrating at Home Depot Center on Nov. 20th:
10. COLUMBUS CREW
Why they can win- Their defense can be one of the stingier one’s in the league when it’s on, and Will Hesmer has had stretches of truly dominating play.
Why they won’t win- Just not enough offensive firepower and the wild card path will prove too tough.
Final verdict- Robert Warzycha did well to help a rebuilding Columbus side make the playoffs, but this Crew team just lacks the punch and depth to be a real threat for the title.
9. COLORADO RAPIDS
Why they can win- They’re the defending champions and that experience of having won it before can only help. Omar Cummings is still one of the most dangerous attacking players in MLS, and the Jeff Larentowicz-Pablo Mastroeni central midfield can stifle any playmaker.
Why they won’t win- As much as Sanna Nyassi was a nice fill-in at forward at times, the Rapids never really did make up for the loss of Conor Casey. With defenses able to focus on Cummings, the Rapids will have a hard time scoring.
Final Verdict- The Rapids proved plenty of people wrong with their title run a year ago, but this year’s version lacks the depth and attacking options to put together a deep run, let alone a repeat MLS Cup.
8. NEW YORK RED BULLS
Why they can win- Packed with talent all over the field, the underachieving Red Bulls are still a team that can play some of the best soccer in the league when they are clicking.
So bullish: For better or worse, head coach Hans Backe will have his New York Red Bulls ready come playoff time. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
Why they won’t win- They would have to beat three of the top four teams in MLS just to get to the MLS Cup Final. That road, and the team’s inconsistency throughout the year, makes them a tough pick to put it all together now.
Final verdict- If you’re looking for a long-shot to put your money on, the Red Bulls are that team. But with Luke Rodgers nursing a knee injury and the defense still a unit that could be exposed by some stronger teams, the Red Bulls are still very much a long shot.
7. FC DALLAS
Why they can win- They boast much of the same talent that made that impressive run to the MLS Cup Final in 2011 and Brek Shea is a force capable of carrying a team.
Why they won’t win- The lack of reliable forwards makes Dallas too reliant on its wingers to produce. That, coupled with the fatigue being felt due a congested schedule, has FC Dallas looking very vulnerable for an early playoff exit.
Final Verdict- With a defense that hasn’t been nearly as dominant as early in the year, a bench that isn’t nearly as strong as last year, and with major question marks about their forwards, FC Dallas doesn’t look to be built to make the same kind of run they made in 2010.
6. PHILADELPHIA UNION
Why they can win- Their defense and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon can slow down most opponents and Sebastien LeToux can cause problems for any opponent. You also have Freddy Adu who is a serious wild card if he gets going.
Why they won’t win- The lack of a second forward to take pressure off LeToux and the inconsistent play of the midfield has the Union looking like less of a sure bet.
Final verdict- Philadelphia is a young team that could be punished for its inexperience come playoff time. But more importantly, the offense just doesn’t look to have the horses to make a run to the final.
5. HOUSTON DYNAMO
Why they can win- Brad Davis creates chances against any opponent and the defense has shown consistent improvement and is playing at a high level right now.
Why they won’t win- The inconsistent play of the offense is a cause for concern, particularly the play of the team’s forwards.
Final Verdict- Having hit a good run of form late in the season, the Dynamo could be hitting their stride at just the right time, though a continued over-reliance on Brad Davis leaves them vulnerable. They will go as far as their forwards take them, which is tough to predict at this point given their inconsistent play.
4. REAL SALT LAKE
Why they can win- One of the stingiest defenses in the league and arguably the best central midfield combination in the league, is together again thanks to Javier Morales’ recovery from a broken ankle.
Why they won’t win- RSL has hit a poor run of form late in the season and it could be tough to find their rhythm again, particularly with a tough opponent like Seattle awaiting in the conference semifinals.
Final verdict- RSL absolutely has a team capable of winning a championship, but with an equally tough Seattle standing in the way in the West semis, and a potential West Final against Los Angeles looming, Real Salt Lake will face a much tougher road to MLS Cup than the one they traveled on their way to the 2009 championship.
3. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Why they can win- A high-powered offense with three forwards who all cause problems, and a midfield that can make things difficult for anybody. You also have the home-field advantage of Livestrong Sporting Park, and did we mention the fact Sporting KC’s road to the final won’t include facing any of the top three teams in the league during the regular season?
Braveheart: Never short on confidence, Omar Bravo will lead the Sporting Kansas City offense into battle during the MLS playoffs. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Why they won’t win- After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, this Sporting KC team will be relying on several players who lack playoff experience.
Final verdict- With an improving defense, dangerous offense and strong home-field edge, Sporting KC has no excuse not to reach the final, but if they reach the MLS Cup Final, they’ll be considered an underdog against any of the West’s top three teams.
2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
Why they can win- The league’s most dangerous offense and goalkeeper Kasey Keller are enough to give any team a chance, but throw in their strong midfield and Seattle is very much a title threat.
Why they won’t win- A recent knee injury for Mauro Rosales is a slight cause for concern, but a tough path including Real Salt Lake and likely Los Angeles will make a trip to the final a daunting one.
Final verdict- The Sounders have everything you could want in a championship contender. The potent attack, strong midfield, disciplined defense and standout goalkeeper. If Seattle can get over the stigma of having never won an MLS playoff game, they can certainly make a run, and if anybody can hand the Galaxy their first home loss of the year, it’s the Sounders.
1. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
Why they can win- Stingiest defense in the league by a mile, the attacking tandem of Landon Donovan and David Beckham, and home-field advantage all the way through the MLS Cup Final for a team that hasn't lost at home all year.
LA's three-headed monster: Robbie Keane (L), Landon Donovan (M), and David Beckham (R) are the favorites to lift the trophy at The Home Depot Center. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
Why they won’t win- If Robbie Keane can’t be back in time for the Western Conference Final, the Galaxy offense could struggle against the likes of Seattle and Real Salt Lake, who are both capable of knocking off the No. 1 seed.
Final verdict- The Galaxy are poised to win it all and will have no excuses not to lift the MLS Cup trophy named after their owner in the stadium they call home. Robbie Keane’s injury is definitely a cause for concern, but Bruce Arena’s Galaxy still have too strong a defense and too many other attacking weapons not to be considered the clear-cut favorite to win the 2011 MLS Cup Final.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.