MLS teams look for a big weekend ahead
7 teams, 4 spots: The fight for the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy starts early in the MLS. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Seven teams. Seven weeks. Four playoff spots.
That is essentially what the MLS playoff stretch drive is going to boil down to over the course of the next two months. Barring an unlikely collapse from a team like Columbus, or an incredible winning streak to finish the season off from someone like Chicago, the race for playoff spots boils down to seven teams trying to battle for four places.
Sporting KC, Philadelphia, Houston, New York, D.C. United, Portland and Chivas USA are in position to keep their playoff dreams alive with strong finishes, and for all five aforementioned Eastern Conference teams, the possibility of securing a Top Three spot in the East, and a much easier road to a potential MLS Cup berth, also looms.
The playoff race hasn’t exactly gotten off to a flying start for these teams, who are a combined 3-6-5 in their past two matches. Only Portland’s two-match winning streak keeps that combined record from being absolutely embarrassing.
As much as it looks like all of the playoff contenders are going to try and back into the post-season, the reality is that it’s going to take strong finishes to secure the remaining post-season berths, and it’s going to take players stepping up to help carry teams across that regular season finish line.
So which players are going to be most important to the late-season success of their clubs? Here are the seven players whose teams need them to step up in the stretch run:
Aurelian Collin, Sporting Kansas City
The French center-back was the unquestioned anchor of the Sporting KC defense before being sidelined with a back injury. His first start after the injury was against LA and he showed some rust, as well as the flash of his goal-scoring ability (even if his would-be equalizer was ruled offside).
If Collin can return to his pre-injury form, and combine with the steady and solid Matt Besler, the Sporting KC defense should be good enough to not only qualify for the playoffs, but potentially make a run at first place in the East.
Danny Mwanga, Philadelphia
After an outstanding rookie season, Mwanga was expected to shine in year two. The 2011 season hasn’t quite worked out that way. His five goals and four assists are modest numbers, but he’s produced less this year than he did in similar minutes as a rookie.
More importantly, Mwanga just hasn’t been dominant or reliable as a goal-scoring threat. When Carlos Ruiz was sold, Philly’s need to have Mwanga step up intensified and the young striker hasn’t quite responded yet. With Freddy Adu on board to provide some better service, Mwanga could enjoy a late-season surge. If he doesn’t pick up his form, the Union will struggle to recapture their early-season success.
Carlos Costly, Houston
The Dynamo went into the summer desperate to boost their attack with some new additions. Costly was signed and expected to be the impact striker Houston was lacking. Five matches into his stint in MLS, the Honduran playmaker hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Through five matches, Costly is searching for his first goal, but you can see the qualities that have made him such a threat for Honduras. Brian Ching needs Costly at his dangerous best to help draw attention away from Ching, so that rookie Will Bruin can be brought back slowly from surgery to repair a torn quad. If Costly can’t get going, the Dynamo might not have enough firepower to secure a good playoff position.
Charlie Davies, D.C. United
After starting the season incredibly, Davies’ contributions to D.C. have slowed considerably and questions are starting to surface about whether he’ll even be back for D.C. in 2012. Dwayne DeRosario’s arrival and subsequent outstanding play has helped keep some of the pressure off Davies and his struggles, but the fact is D.C. needs him to pose a serious threat in the playoffs.
So what’s been wrong with Davies? It’s easy to forget that this season is his comeback after a year and a half away from the game, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Davies would hit a wall physically. He has acknowledged as much, but insists he’s ready to finish the season strongly. If he does, D.C. United will be a serious threat come playoff time. Without Davies firing, D.C. United’s attack will struggle for consistency.
Rafael Marquez, New York Red Bulls
When Rafa Marquez signed with New York last season he was expected to dominate, and when Hans Backe decided to move Marquez to center-back before the 2011 season, the Red Bulls were expected to field one of the best defenses in MLS.
Needed man: Mexican international Rafael Marquez needs to be in top form for the New York Red Bulls' playoff push. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
It hasn't quite worked out that way. Marquez was solid early in the season, but slowly saw his MLS form dip. Since returning from an injury suffered at the Gold Cup, Marquez has been mediocre, and while he is hardly alone in that regard (Tim Ream, for one, has struggled as well), Marquez is a Designated Player expected to do more. His defending and set pieces need to improve if the Red Bulls are to break from their current funk.
Kenny Cooper, Portland Timbers
For a long stretch of the summer the biggest concern in Portland was a defense that had suddenly become extremely weak. With the back-line looking better in recent weeks, attention in Timber country is back on Kenny Cooper and his continuing struggles.
How bad has it been? Try one goal in Portland’s last 19 games. A spell on the bench didn’t do much to end the drought, but Timbers head coach John Spencer continues to stick with the big striker and shows confidence in him. As good as Jorge Perlaza has looked this season, Portland is going to struggle to make the playoffs if Cooper’s goal drought continues.
Justin Braun, Chivas USA
When considering which players need to step up for the Goats down the stretch, the easy answer is Juan Pablo Angel. Acquired from Los Angeles after struggling to get going, the veteran Colombian striker was signed by Chivas USA with the hope that he could recapture his all-star form.
As important as Angel is, the one player on Chivas USA who has actually had moments this season of looking like a goal-scoring difference maker is Justin Braun. A year ago he was on the national team radar and considered one of the better young attacking players in MLS. Now? He’s coming off the bench. His seven goal season total looks impressive, but six of those came in two hat-trick performances. Those games reminded us just how good Braun can be, and if Chivas USA is to return to the playoffs, they will need Braun to be just some sub off the bench