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Five clubs stand out as potential MLS Cup contenders.

By Kyle McCarthy

The season starts now.

Think of the first 20 games as a prelude to the real tussle. Sure, the first two-thirds of the campaign matters in terms of positioning and some clubs will not recover from a dreadful season to date, but the real meat and potatoes fare commences as the teams turn down the home stretch.

It seems appropriate to start the most important period of the season by trying to discern where the teams fall in the pecking order as the critical and influential matches pile up thick and fast.

THE LET'S HOPE NEXT YEAR IS BETTER BRIGADE

16. D.C. United
15. Philadelphia
14. Chivas USA

D.C. United will spend the remainder of its campaign trying to sort the wheat from the chaff as it seeks to reclaim its pride in 2011. … Philadelphia may employ the same approach, though its youthful foundation holds considerably more promise than D.C.'s tattered roster right now. … Chivas USA also needs to reassess its group during the close season, particularly with Jonathan Bornstein heading out the door to Atlante.

THE FALLEN POWERS

13. New England
12. Houston


After almost a decade of consistent success, both of these clubs have faltered as the talent drain finally took its toll this season and punished both sides for their inability to magically replace their star players. … Lots of hard questions to ask in New England these days with the long-cherished possession game a thing of the past and a playoff berth likely six or seven wins away. The most pressing one from a roster-building perspective: was this side good enough to make the playoffs even if Taylor Twellman returned to full fitness this season? … Injuries – particularly the crippling blow suffered by Geoff Cameron, though he has recently returned – played their part in Houston's plunge down the table, but the insurmountable task of replacing two top-notch central midfielders in Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden proved too great even for Dominic Kinnear.

THE TOO MUCH TO DO CREW

11. Kansas City
10. Toronto FC


Kansas City – as discussed in this week's Monday MLS Breakdown – may stand a better chance of making the playoffs next season with Omar Bravo and a couple of high-quality additions to bolster the improving squad. Right now, the five-point gap to a playoff spot will take some closing and the Wizards' dreadful road form may prevent them from doing it. …  Most observers expect Toronto FC to make a concerted push toward playoff safety, and Preki's side possesses some pieces to suggest there is enough quality in the squad to do so. The problems, however, outweigh the positives as TFC faces six of its final ten matches away from BMO Field and supplements its already hectic travel schedule with CONCACAF Champions League duties.

THE SCHEDULEMAKER'S DARLINGS

9. Chicago
8. Colorado




No team in MLS has played fewer games than Chicago. Depending on the foe, the Fire holds anywhere between one and three games in hand as it enters the most critical portion of the campaign. Needless to say, Chicago maintains a significant advantage over its fellow clubs as it attempts to extend its season. Then again, the Fire isn't the most dependable home side in the league and may have to rely on Freddie Ljungberg to inspire this disjointed and defensively suspect group to the playoffs. … Colorado currently holds the eighth and final playoff berth and plays home games against the five lowest-ranked clubs on this list in its remaining ten matches. Not even the perpetually mediocre Rapids can find a way to blunder away a playoff spot, right?

THE ONE YEAR AWAY CROWD

7. San Jose
6. Seattle

Both sides could presumably fall out of the playoff picture before the dust settles, but their form of late indicates they may have just enough in the tank to sneak into the postseason. … San Jose can't keep its players healthy and can't rely on Geovanni to sparkle just yet, but the Earthquakes hold a game or two in hand on most sides and exhibit the type of pluck that usually guides teams to the playoffs. … Seattle has played more games than the other clubs chasing the final three playoff berths, but those other sides don't have MLS MVP candidate Fredy Montero driving the bus, do they? The combination of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's absence and a thin squad may limit Sounders FC's championship potential, however.

THE NEW GUARD

5. FC Dallas
4. New York


The real cream of the crop starts here. From this point forward, we're looking at sides with a real chance to win it all. … It's hard to figure out quite what to make of FC Dallas these days. All of the evidence – the composed midfield play, the miserly and underappreciated defense and the 11-match unbeaten run, in particular – suggests FCD offers a compelling case as a MLS Cup contender. Even with all of that proof in tow, FCD still needs to persuade during the closing stages of the campaign to indicate it can find a way through experienced performers Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles in the postseason. … New York boasts the largest upside of any side in the league right now with Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez still yet to find their top form, but it's the supporting cast – particularly at the back and in between the sticks – that raises questions about whether Hans Backe had his side correctly pegged when he said the Red Bulls were a year away.

THE DISRESPECTED OLD STEADY

3. Columbus


Columbus hasn't quite convinced observers with its noticeable personnel flaws and its performances this season, but the Crew are a deep, veteran-laden team with the right blend of experience and talent to make a push for the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup. One look at the gutsy performance by the Crew's reserves in Mexico on Tuesday night reveals why Robert Warzycha's side will remain in the equation until the Eastern Conference title is awarded.

THE FAVORITES

2. Los Angeles
1. Real Salt Lake


While Los Angeles has stumbled in recent weeks, it is only natural to see the front-runner fall back to the pack a bit in this parity-filled league. David Beckham's return in the next month or two should give the Galaxy a much-needed boost as Bruce Arena attempts to right the ship in time for another playoff run. … Real Salt Lake may have to cope with CONCACAF Champions League considerations, but the reigning champions certainly deserve the favorite moniker at this point. No team in the league has fewer holes in its squad and no side – not even Toronto FC – can bank on its home field more than RSL.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page.


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