Sizing up the MLS Cup contenders: All 12 playoff teams ranked

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Toronto FC is the clear-cut favorite to win its first MLS Cup, but it isn't the only team with a good chance of lifting the title in December

Is the 2017 edition of Toronto FC the best team in MLS history? It is a question that has been asked more and more as TFC marched toward an MLS record for points in a season, and it is easy to understand why.

The Canadian powerhouse has it all, from attacking stars to a strong defense and blossoming goalkeeper. TFC also boasts quality bench options, giving coach Greg Vanney security against injuries and options to help him take different tactical approaches.

Toronto has it all, except for history on its side. Only six of the league's 21 Supporters' Shield winners have gone on to win the MLS Cup, with the last to do it being the 2011 LA Galaxy. It is an even longer time since a team has bounced back from losing an MLS Cup final to win it the next season. That has only happened twice, with D.C. United in 1999 and the Galaxy in 2002 having pulled it off.

The road to bucking those trends won't be an easy one for TFC, but that won't stop the Supporters' Shield winners from entering the playoffs as the biggest title favorites since the 2011 Galaxy.

Who can stop TFC? The East has some teams with the weapons to pull off the upset, while the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders have the recent championship experience to feel good about their chances against Toronto in a one-game final, even if it's at BMO Field.

Here is a look at all 12 playoff teams' chances of winning the MLS Cup, why they could win and why they probably won't win:


1. TORONTO FC


Sebastian Giovinco Toronto FC

Odds of winning: 3/1

Why they will win: Combine a considerable home-field advantage with a stacked offense, organized defense, deep bench and tactically astute coach and this TFC squad is arguably the best collection of talent in league history. 

Why they won't win: Plenty of land mines stand in the way, including a Chicago team with the attacking weapons to cause problems and an NYCFC side that matches up well with TFC. The biggest hurdle will likely come in the final, where there is a good chance a team with a recent MLS Cup under its belt will be waiting, and the pressure to deliver in the final will weigh much more heavily on TFC.

Outlook: You have to love TFC's chance in any two-leg series, so it will come down to whether the 2016 MLS Cup runner-up can learn from the mistakes of last year's final and deliver a title. It wouldn't be wise to bet against them.


2. PORTLAND TIMBERS


Diego Valeri Portland Timbers MLS

Odds: 11/2

Why they could win: It's tough to overlook the championship experience on this roster, and also the excellent form we saw the Timbers show late in the year. There are definitely some similarities to the MLS Cup-winning season in 2015. Diego Valeri just capped an MVP-caliber season, and the defense has come together well after some midseason hiccups and injuries. 

Why they won't win: As good as the attack can be, Portland's offense does go into sleep mode at times, struggling to finish chances. Getting Fanendo Adi back healthy is a big key to their title chances. If there's a real question, it's the Timbers' defense, which has shown a penchant for mistakes you don't like seeing from a title contender.

Outlook: With the nucleus of their MLS Cup-winning team still leading the way — including Valeri, Adi, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe and Liam Ridgwell — the Timbers have the championship experience and attacking weapons to roll through the West. A conference final clash with Seattle looks likely, and could be an all-time classic. After that, the Timbers are more than capable of winning a tough road game against an East foe, and they have a win at NYCFC to their credit. Denying TFC in a final might be a step too far, though.


3. SEATTLE SOUNDERS


Will Bruin Joevin Jones Cristian Roldan Seattle Sounders

Odds: 8/1

Why they could win: The reigning champions have plenty of the same players who helped them lift the MLS Cup a year ago, and that experience coupled with quality in attack and defense make the Sounders a strong pick. They have also done a good job of adding some effective pieces to give the squad some depth.

Why they won't win: Injuries have hit the Sounders hard, with Jordan Morris and Osvaldo Alonso having been sidelined. They miss Morris' speed and will sorely miss Alonso if he can't be ready for the conference semifinals.

Outlook: Clint Dempsey's suspension for the first leg of the conference semifinals is a worrisome development, but all eyes will be on Alonso and whether he will be good to go. With a healthy Alonso, Seattle's midfield is as good as any in the league. Without him, the Sounders will struggle against the stronger teams. Give the Sounders Morris and Alonso and a repeat title is entirely possible, but Portland will have something to say about that.


4. NEW YORK CITY FC


David Villa MLS NYCFC 08202017

Odds: 10/1

Why they could win: An attack led by David Villa is always one to worry about, and with the midfield threats NYCFC possesses, opposing defenses don't have the luxury of completely keying in on the Spanish star. The big news is the team is as healthy as it has been since the summer, with defender Maxime Chanot's return of major importance.

Why they won't win: NYCFC's late season form was worrisome, with the attack struggling to find a good rhythm after Villa missed time with an injury. We saw some good signs in the regular season finale, though. The bigger question is whether NYCFC boasts a championship-caliber defense. Even with Chanot, the back line could be what keeps the New Yorkers from lifting MLS Cup.

Outlook: Overlook NYCFC at your own peril. The late season slump cost them some luster as a title contender, but Patrick Vieira's men are definitely capable of making a run, especially if the defense can hold up.


5. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS


Yordy Reyna MLS Vancouver 09092017

Odds: 12/1

Why they could win: Yordy Reyna's arrival has given the Whitecaps the playmaking presence they desperately needed, and with Fredy Montero leading the line, Vancouver has the offense needed to go with a tough defense.

Why they won't win: Vancouver's depth has become a point of pride for Carl Robinson, who has made full use of his bench with some liberal squad rotation. Will that rotation come back to bite the Whitecaps? Is goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic really the answer ahead of longtime starter David Ousted?

Outlook: Vancouver doesn't boast as loaded an attack as Atlanta or even the Crew, but the Whitecaps do a good job of making things tough defensively on opponents. Going through the West rather than the East gives the Whitecaps some better odds of a title than similar contenders, but there's clearly a gap between the Whitecaps and their Cascadia counterparts.


6. ATLANTA UNITED


Atlanta United wall 08062017

Odds: 13/1

Why they could win: The Atlanta United attack is a joy to watch when it's firing, and having Miguel Almiron back for the playoffs is huge. Josef Martinez might be the most dangerous striker in the league, and the flank tandem of Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

Why they won't win: Gerardo "Tata" Martino is very much an "attack first, worry about defending later" kind of coach, and he may be in for a rude awakening if he doesn't adjust his tactics to account for what is generally a much more physical brand of soccer in the playoffs. The Atlanta fullbacks don't worry about defending too much, and that will be a trouble against the likes of Columbus and NYCFC.

Outlook: A popular "sleeper" pick because if its high-flying attack, Atlanta is a good team but there are clear question marks. As impressive as this team has been at home, Atlanta lost at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to Minnesota United earlier this month, and the top teams aren't going to be intimidated by the atmosphere. Realistically speaking, Atlanta is more likely to suffer a knockout round loss to Columbus than lift an MLS Cup, but that doesn't mean this is a team opponents are going to want to see in the playoffs.


7. COLUMBUS CREW


Federico Higuain Adam Jahn Columbus Crew

Odds: 15/1

Why they could win: The Crew are in the best form heading into the playoffs, having gone unbeaten in their past 10. Their attack has multiple top-end threats, including the underrated Ola Kamara and ever-dangerous Federico Higuain. Gregg Berhalter's work with the defense has been especially impressive.

Why they won't win: Starting out with a trip to Atlanta is a very tough first step toward a return to the MLS Cup final. The regular season-ending draw against NYCFC raised some familiar questions about whether the defense is going to hold up come playoff time. The knockout round trip Atlanta will answer that question.

Outlook: If the Crew clear that challenging first hurdle in Atlanta, get ready to see the Columbus bandwagon fill up quickly. They have the reliable goal-scorer, the midfield creators and a potential difference-making goalkeeper in Zack Steffen to make a run, but the East is filled with so many land mines that a trip to the final is still a tough ask.


8. HOUSTON DYNAMO


Erick Torres MLS Houston Dynamo 08232017

Odds: 16/1

Why they could win: Speed kills and the tandem of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis makes the Dynamo a nightmare matchup. Their threat makes Erick "Cubo" Torres that much tougher to deal with. The Dynamo have been very tough at home as well, making their path to a final a better bet than some realize. Houston's defense showed real improvement in recent months, having allowed multiple goals in just one of the past eight matches.

Why they won't win: Much like Atlanta, there are questions about whether Houston's wide-open style will translate in the playoffs, when referees tend to allow a more physical brand of soccer. Their penchant for wide-open play leads to turnovers, which better teams can capitalize on. Losing A.J. DeLaGarza to a torn ACL also hurts their defense.

Outlook: The Dynamo are an interesting team. We know they can score goals and create chances, but their defense has shown real improvement, led by the tandem of Leonardo and Adolfo Machado. Has Wilmer Cabrera tightened things up enough to make them a real title contender? That's likely too tall an order, but the Dynamo are definitely capable of springing an upset.


9. CHICAGO FIRE


Nemanja Nikolic MLS Chicago Fire 09272017

Odds: 19/1

Why they could win: If Bastian Schweinsteiger is healthy and ready to go, then the Fire become a legitimate contender. They boast MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, All-Star midfielder Dax McCarty and the dangerous David Accam.

Why they won't win: Their defense has looked shaky in the second half of the season, and Richard Sanchez hasn't looked anything close to a shutdown goalkeeper. Schweinsteiger's calf injury is also troublesome, and could leave the Fire exposed to an early playoff exit.

Outlook: The Fire looked every bit like a title contender in the first half of the season but struggled to show that same level in recent months. The defense — particularly the center backs — has looked vulnerable, and Schweinsteiger's absence has been felt greatly in midfield. The lack of a top-end goalkeeper could also cost the Fire, but it will likely be the defense that keeps Chicago from going far.


10. SPORTING KANSAS CITY


Latif Blessing MLS Sporting KC 07292017

Odds: 32/1

Why they could win: It wasn't too long ago that Sporting KC looked every bit like a serious title contender. Then the attack began to struggle generating goals and MLS Goalkeeper of the Year favorite Tim Melia went down injured. If Melia can return, and Sporting KC can find a reliable striker to lean on, its defense is good enough to get the club deep into the playoffs.

Why they won't win: Melia's injury is a crucial blow, and with him set to miss the knockout round clash against Houston, it's looking like Peter Vermes' side is headed toward an early exit.

Outlook: As much as you may not like betting against Vermes, his team hasn't looked the part lately. There will also be real questions asked about the Dom Dwyer trade if none of Sporting KC's strikers step up to show they can lead the attack.


11. NEW YORK RED BULLS


New York Red Bulls MLS 04292017

Odds: 40/1

Why they could win: The Red Bulls have a much better chance of knocking off the Fire in the knockout round than they're being given credit for, and Jesse Marsch's side probably benefits from entering the playoffs as underdogs after falling flat in the past as favorites.

Why they won't win: The road is a brutal won. They must first beat the Fire, then take on Toronto FC, an opponent they have stood up well against.

Outlook: A knockout round win against the Fire followed by an admirable showing against TFC might be enough to leave Marsch feeling like 2017 wasn't a bad season, but expecting much more than that from the Red Bulls would be a stretch.


12. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES


Chris Wondolowski MLS San Jose 04082017

Odds: 50/1

Why they could win: The never-say-die attitude is back in San Jose after the heart-stopping win on the final day. The strike trio of Chris Wondolowski, Danny Hoesen and Marco Urena is an absolute handful.

Why they won't win: The defense was atrocious for much of the season, and while the Earthquakes have tightened things up in recent weeks, it's tough to see that back line holding up on a long run through the West.

Outlook: The Earthquakes own a recent win against Portland and a road draw in Vancouver, so a surprising run to an MLS Cup final isn't that crazy an idea, right? No, it's pretty crazy. Beating the Whitecaps isn't impossible, but it's a long shot, and it's tough to see the Earthquakes having another miracle left in their bag.

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