Ranking the 2012 MLS Playoff Teams

 Photo by ISI Photos.com

Ten teams, one month and one special trophy. The 2012 MLS Cup playoffs begin tonight and the race to crown a champion is a wide-open one.

The San Jose Earthquakes are the favorites to lift the MLS Cup trophy after their dream regular season, but a loaded Western Conference playoff field and a strong contender in East leader Sporting Kansas City have other ideas.

How do the ten teams in the MLS playoffs stack up? Here is a closer look at how we see the field measuring up heading into the post-season (factoring not only form and quality, but also the degree of difficulty in the path to to the final).

1. SPORTING KANSAS CITY

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Aurelien Collin plays at a high level and C.J. Sapong can be their go-to goal-scorer.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- Their offense struggles to score goals, which has been a problem at times this year.

X-Factor- Roger Espinoza. The relentless Honduran midfielder is one of the most underrated players in MLS, though that has changed since the Olympics. If he is healthy, it will be tough to keep KC out of the MLS Cup Final.

Outlook- Their stingy defense, and high-pressure style makes things difficult for anybody they face. Getting Espinoza back healthy is key to that stifling approach working.  With an easier road to the final than the San Jose Earthquakes, we give Sporting the edge

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2. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES

They’ll win MLS Cup if- they can keep on scoring goals in bunches and if their defense can shut teams down in the second half of matches the way they have most of the season. They will also win if Chris Wondolowski maintains his record-setting form.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- their defense doesn’t tighten up and if their late-game magic runs out. It is no secret that San Jose has been vulnerable early in games, and that sort of weakness could cost them dearly in the post-season against stronger teams.

X-Factor- Steven Lenhart. Wondolowski and Gordon are also vital what the Earthquakes do offensively, but Lenhart’s physical presence is such a disruptive element that it helps makes things easier for his teammates. He better be careful though. Officials have surely been prepped on his antics.

Outlook- They may be second on this list, but only because they have the tougher road to get to the final. That being said, if San Jose can continue to generate chances and score goals seemingly at will, even the stacked Western Conference won’t be enough to keep them from what feels like an inevitable MLS Cup title.

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3. REAL SALT LAKE

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Jamison Olave can stay healthy, and if forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola can hit their stride.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- The forwards don’t finish chances, or worse yet, the normally reliable midfield isn’t capable of generating chances.

X-Factor- Ned Grabavoy. He has missed a large part of the season injured, but will be a key player in the playoffs because of his ability to step up in big games and the spark he brings to the midfield.

Outlook- RSL has had the same strong nucleus for a while now and this could be their last best chance to lift another MLS Cup title. They are good enough to beat any team in the field, but they must have their forwards produce or that could be what costs them, much as it did in the CONCACAF Champions League.

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4. LOS ANGELES GALAXY

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Omar Gonzalez can stay healthy and dominate, Landon Donovan plays with passion and if Robbie Keane keeps up his outstanding form.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- A.J. De La Garza doesn’t come back, David Beckham looks rusty or if Donovan is anything less than at his best.

X-Factor- Edson Buddle. Sidelined by injury most of the season, Buddle is back now and could wind up being the goal-scorer the team needs to knock off the strong field in the West.

Outlook- The Galaxy have all the pieces to repeat as champion, but their road will be a difficult one. If Beckham, Donovan and De La Garza can be healthy for the semifinal series against San Jose, the Galaxy could definitely knock off the top seed, and if they do that, it could be tough to keep them from repeating.

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5. D.C. UNITED

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Chris Pontius can get on a roll, the back-line keeps playing well and Bill Hamid keeps on playing like a young Tim Howard.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- The offense stalls against tougher competition, young players like Nick DeLeon and Andy Najar show their age in the high-pressure environment of the playoffs, or if the team’s forwards waste chances.

X-Factor- Nick DeLeon. The Rookie of the Year finalist was a driving force in D.C. United’s late-season surge with his combination of tireless energy and attacking quality. He can be a dangerous threat on the wing and heads into the playoffs on good form.

Outlook- D.C. put on an amazing late-season run to become the No. 2 seed in the East, but it should be noted that they didn’t exactly beat strong teams during that stretch. That being said, D.C. enters the playoffs riding a wave of confidence that just might help them make a dream run to the final.

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6. SEATTLE SOUNDERS

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Eddie Johnson’s hamstring heals, their defense steps it up a notch and if Fredy Montero plays his best.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- Johnson can’t play, playmakers Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert don’t generate chances or if Montero disappears.

X-Factor-  Osvaldo Alonso. The most reliable player on the Sounders, Alonso will be key to Seattle’s chances of knocking off Real Salt Lake, and if he succeeds in making that happen, the Sounders will stand a solid chance in the conference final.

Outlook- The path to a title is a tough one for Seattle, especially now with Eddie Johnson hampered. They face a veteran Real Salt Lake side that knows how to win in the playoffs, something Seattle has yet to do in MLS. The Sounders need their fast-paced attack to overwhelm RSL, because if they don’t, and RSL is given time to settle in, Seattle could be doomed to another early playoff exit.

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7. NEW YORK RED BULLS

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Thierry Henry goes into beast mode, Dax McCarty moves back into central midfield and if the centerback tandem of Markus Holgersson and Rafa Marquez can avoid mistakes.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- Kenny Cooper gets cold, speedy forwards expose their centerbacks or if the midfield fails to generate enough chances.

X-Factor- Luis Robles/Bill Gaudette. It remains unclear just which goalkeeper Hans Backe plans to turn to in the playoffs, but whether it is Robles or Gaudette (and Robles seems the safer bet), they will need to play very well because the Red Bulls defense is a safe bet to surrender plenty of scoring chances.

Outlook- The Red Bulls have the pieces in place to make a deep playoff run, and their regular season-ending results definitely gave the team confidence. That said, the Red Bulls have struggled against good teams all year so it’s tough to picture them plowing through a field full of them on their way to a title. A conference final trip might be about as far as they can realistically go.

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8. HOUSTON DYNAMO

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Brian Ching finds the fountain of youth, the defense plays at its highest level and if Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia hit their stride.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- the forwards can’t finish the chances that are sure to come, if the back-line struggles to stay consistent or if anything happens to Brad Davis.

X-Factor- Will Bruin. He’s only in his second year, but if the Dynamo have any chance of a deep run, Bruin has to be the catalyst up top.

Outlook- Dom Kinnear is one of the best in the business, and he always gives his teams a chance to win, but the task may be too tall an order this time around. Particularly having to go through the wild card. Beating Chicago at Toyota Park in the wild card match is definitely possible, but getting past Sporting Kansas City is probably too much to ask for this team.

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9. CHICAGO FIRE

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Sean Johnson plays like he did in the middle of the season, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald find their scoring touch and if Pavel Pardo can channel his Bundesliga-winning form of half a decade ago.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- the midfield struggles to generate chances, Johnson plays shaky or if older players like Arne Friedrich and Pavel Pardo start slowing down.

X-Factor- Patrick Nyarko. His speed and shiftiness should cause problems for the Houston Dynamo, and if the Fire can get into the semifinal, Nyarko will be crucial to any chance Chicago has of upsetting Sporting Kansas City.

Outlook- The road to an MLS Cup is a tough one for the Fire, especially with a very tricky wild card match against Houston serving as the first step. Chicago’s offense is good enough to score goals against anybody, but consistency has been an issue. If the Fire are to have any chance in the playoffs, they will need the attack to find a rhythm and the defense to play its very best.

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10. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS

They’ll win MLS Cup if- Kenny Miller finds career-best form, Brad Knighton turns into 2000 Tony Meola and the rest of the Western Conference comes down with a nasty flu.

They won’t win MLS Cup if- they play like they’ve played the past two months of the season.

X-Factor- Darren Mattocks. The speedy rookie is the type of disruptive force who can cause problems for defenses and give the Whitecaps attack a real boost.

Outlook- The Whitecaps already made history by simply making the playoffs. Beating the Galaxy in the wild card match would be epic, but about as far as they can expect to go this season.

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What do you think of the playoff field? Who do you see as the favorite? Which team do you think is ranked too low? How about too high?

Share your thoughts below.

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33 Responses to Ranking the 2012 MLS Playoff Teams

  1. Smitty says:

    Thanks for the laugh: “…and the rest of the Western Conference comes down with a nasty flu.”

  2. Hogatroge says:

    I can’t say I love the Dynamo’s chances of making it to the final, but I love how everyone simply assumes they have no chance against SKC.

    The Dynamo are 2-0-2 against SKC dating back to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final. 3 of those 4 were played at LSP.

    If last season is any measure, that record shouldn’t be taken for granted (especially since the Dynamo sucked it up against SKC twice last season before the playoff upset). Additionally, should the Dynamo end up playing SKC, that would mean they are coming off a midweek game at Chicago.

    That said, I still think it’s funny to see overwhelming predictions of a sweep for SKC in the semifinals, especially since BOTH Chicago and Houston have taken the series against them this season.

    • dan says:

      small sample sizes, and in the case of last year, a lot of different players on both sides. that’s why we play the games, though, anything can happen. should be a fun ride.

      • PD gets his Swami on... says:

        never underestimate the Dynamo or they will beat you like a red-headed stepchild…

    • Andy says:

      Houston also beat KC in the playoffs last year without Brad Davis. (They did have Cameron though)

    • The Imperative Voice says:

      I actually like Houston’s chances better against KC than Chicago, based on recent history. The question to me is do we survive tonight’s game. L and a T against Chicago this year, the defense is defanged and slow, and Nyarko and Oduro have speed to burn. I think we have a chance I just think this year’s Dynamo are not a particularly good unit.

  3. Fishy says:

    I LOL’d at the Brian Ching part but here is the thing: KC did NOT beat Houston this season but Houston did. Last time I checked KC lost, AT HOME, 2-0 last year to them in the playoff run. I think your Houston because at top form they are almost unbeatable. However, chances are they will go down in Chicago…all I am saying do not ride them off just yet…

  4. Tim M. says:

    The dynamo can boss anyone around in mls. They have the capability to dictate matches on their terms with their physicality and the team’s mentality to cover for one another and consistently play both sides of the ball.

    • Ives Galarcep says:

      Nobody said Houston has NO chance, but Sporting KC is a different team than they were in 2011, and if anything that loss to Houston last year was a good learning experience. Houston also isn’t the same team, having lost Geoff Cameron. And let’s look at Houston’s win vs. Sporting KC this year. It came against a KC team playing without Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Chance Myers. AND Sporting KC played that match down a man for half the game. Not exactly a fair measure of how those teams really stack up. That all may sound like excuses, but the reality is a full-strength Sporting KC has been very tough to stop this year.

      • Tim M. says:

        And those are all worthy points to consider and logically make skc a front runner to win it all. But the reality of the playoffs, from what i,ve experienced these last few years, is that anything can happen between two teams playing capable football but big factors in determining success is a teams mental fortitued and their willingness to self sacrifice for for a win. This is what makes the dyanmo so successful and at the end of the day, their always in contention, if healthy.

  5. ed houston says:

    if its not my team, i dont care who wins MLS cup – as long as its not seattle…

  6. MemRook says:

    That has to be one of the ugliest faces ever made by that SKC player! Holy hell that’s ugly.

  7. Manu says:

    Dynamo should be up higher.

    They are made for the playoffs.

    Would not be suprised of another final.

  8. JRP says:

    Something must be wrong. Ives made a list and NY isn’t in the top 5. I am afraid for RSL as they are getting picked by SI and Ives to do some damage in the playoffs. RSL always plays better as the underdog.

    • Camjam says:

      True, but can they be taken seriously if they didn’t pick RSL to win? It was a toss-up before the Johnson injury, and as Ives said, RSL has won in the playoffs. Seattle hasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, Seattle is fully capable of winning; but the safer bet is RSL.

  9. Waterlewd says:

    An x-factor has to bring unknown qualities or unknown contributions. Ozzie Alonso is probably the exact opposite of an x-factor player in all of MLS. Everyone knows what he’s going to bring. It’s stated he’s the most reliable player in the write-up yet he’s an x-factor? That makes no sense. For Seattle, the x-factor is either Montero because of his inconsistencies in the playoffs or Gspurning because his performances and positioning have some question marks, and GK errors can kill a team in the playoffs.

    Maybe you meant that the game could be won or lost in the midfield if Ozzie could make up for RSL’s extra player there. I think we’ll see Montero drop back into midfiled to help out.

  10. Heft says:

    If Houston can get past Chicago in the Wild Card, I think that they may have the momentum to go all the way. Davis and Boniek will have to be clicking though. With the midfield on the same page, I can’t see the Dynamo losing to anyone in the Eastern Conference. If the Dynamo show up late and start slow, I can’t see them going too far at all. It is a rebuilding year for the Dynamo.

    • Manu says:

      Every year is a rebuilding year for the dynamo LOL.

      We lose a key player every year. De Rosario. Holden. Clark (granted, he’s back), Cameron. And we had Wondo and never played em.

  11. Charles says:

    Seattle has to score. 5 of the last 6 games against Salt Lake they have failed to do so. Close to the same for the last 6 playoff games they have played.

    Not too optimistic, but happy as heck to see it start. Let’s get it started !!!!

    • JRP says:

      This series is going to be spectacular. To me, this is what soccer is all about. Tough D. Both teams play it very well. With SJ you can always expect slop goals scored and slope goals conceded. With RSL and SS you get a nail bitter every time.

  12. Murph says:

    Gaudette is not better than Robles. I hope Backe realizes that.

    This could be a great playoffs. I’m looking forward to all the conference semi-finals. LA v SJ would be a great battle (if LA beats Van City).

  13. Travis says:

    I don’t get the comment about Seattle’s defense needing to improve, allowed the second least amount of goals in the league and their starting goalie had the best GAA….

  14. Josh says:

    When did this forum turn into such a Dynamo love-fest. Yes, we all know they upset SKC last year in the playoffs. But it was called an upset for that exact reason, not being expected to grab a win at LSP. SKC looks better than last year, Houston doesn’t seem to have caught up to losing Cameron quite yet. Can’t argue the SKC pick.

    Either way, cheering for anybody but LA and Seattle.

    • Coop says:

      Because they’re clearly a team that is much better than their record. If you’ve watched them you should have some idea as to how silly their low ranking is.

  15. mls addict says:

    How can anyone root against LA. When LA is playing at their best it’s the most beautiful football MLS has ever produced. Robbie Keane has been nothing short of a joy to watch. He gives lessons every game on how to play the forward position. If you love football you should want LA in the final so MLS can feature it’s best quality.

    • Travis says:

      It is not the most beautiful football the MLS has produced. I prefer RSL from a year or two ago and when Seattle is on their passing best it is far better looking than LA to.

    • Coop says:

      Trollolol hilarious. I’m a Tottenham fan and I have to say you’re full of it. Gals have not been great. Donovan is too jaded to get up to begIn with…

  16. Hal says:

    I predict that the TV ratings for MLS playoffs will be very low.

    American soccer fans for the most part see the game through a global narrative. Or to be more specific: a euro centric narrative.

    So this conferences, playoffs, no league winner during the season business is turning off the fan.

    Lets see how the TV ratings are. But i predict they will barely register. American soccer fans will not watch.

    what we need:
    single table with league champion
    MLS cup to happen throughout the season with final 4 after the season.

    We need to differentiate between winning the league and winning the cup.

    Otherwise MLS will not grow much more.

  17. mls addict says:

    This may not be the appropriate forum but I just heard the Landon Donovan interview. Landon Donovan has done more for US soccer than any player in our country’s history and he’s had to endure more hate than is just. The man is tired because he’s tired of carrying a nation. For all of you Landon haters you need to show a little respect. If you think this country would be where it’s at with soccer without Landon Donovan than you live in a bubble. We’ve always been a better team with him, he has the ability to do things other Americans have never been able to do. Give the guy some respect already!