As we enter the final throes of the regular MLS season, many pieces of the Play Off jigsaw are falling into place, while elsewhere there is still plenty of time for those often overlooked to force their way into the frame.
With Portland Timbers struggling to secure a top six finish at present, we could well have a new name on the trophy. And the way things are shaping up, it is the two teams from New York who are tipped to be challenging for the big prize.
What a topsy-turvy season it has been in the Eastern Conference, where New York City must be the only leaders on the planet who, after 25 matches, have registered a goal difference of exactly zero. Being able to score goals freely can put one hand on silverware, but an ability to defend properly secures the trophy. A porous backline – highlighted by 0-7 and 1-4 defeats to their local rivals the Red Bulls – highlights just how weak Frank Lampard and co’s grasp of the title is at present.
NYC have three sides breathing down their collective neck. Toronto, in second, feature the outstanding player of MLS in Sebastian Giovinco, the diminutive Italian who looks well placed to defend his Top Goalscorer, Most Assists and MVP crowns in the end-of-season awards. With his attacking talents on board, the Canadian side will be hoping to upset the odds and storm straight through to the Conference Semi Finals. With a game in hand on their nearest rivals, they look well set.
New York Red Bull’s schizophrenic form will need to improve if they are to make the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row, although with Bradley Wright-Phillips – a player reborn Stateside – banging in the goals anything is possible. The Red Bulls also boast the enviable talents of Sacha Kljestan, who currently tops the assist charts with 12.
Cases can still be made for Philadelphia and Montreal Impact to qualify automatically for the Conference Semi Finals, and it is the latter in particular who impress with their ability to avoid defeat; a key characteristic in this bizarre season. The goals of Ignacio Piatti, who has notched 13 so far, and the experience of Didier Drogba could also prove decisive when the dust has settled.
Things look a lot more straightforward in the Western division, with FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids making a clean break for semi-final qualification. Dallas look likely to go the distance, but it is the Rapids who appear the best bet to top the Conference. They have only lost three matches all campaign, and while they haven’t blown anybody away (27 goals scored in 23 appearances is hardly destructive form) they have been coolly efficient; a great quality to have in the play-off shake-up.
If LA Galaxy had been able to covert some of their eleven draws into wins, then they too would no doubt be in the hunt for a top two finish. Led nobly by Steven Gerrard with the impressive young Gyasi Zardes in attack, no team has a better goal difference in the MLS than the Los Angeles outfit. There is still time for them to turn those raw materials into points; and we all know what points make.
A brief sentence must go to Sporting Kansas City as well, who despite not pulling up any trees sit second in the MLS possession stats and top of the ‘average shots on goal’ metric. With greater precision in the final third, they could become a real threat.
The MLS Most Wanted
The end-of-season awards in the MLS are met with almost as much fervour as the team trophy winners, and if you were to place your bets now on the player likely to collect the MVP gong then you’d have to go for Giovinco. With 15 goals (44% of his side’s tally) and eleven assists, the Italian has at times dragged Toronto along almost single-handedly.
With plenty of game time still to come we can expect plenty of twists and turns, but even so the Golden Boot looks destined to be a straight shootout between Giovinco (15), David Villa (15) and Wright-Phillips (14). Of that trio, it is the former that is the more reliable goal-getter.
The Rookie of the Year award has thrown up some interesting winners in the past, and the likes of Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu have all gone on to have varying levels of success across Europe and beyond. The outstanding candidate this year so far has been Jack Harrison, a 19-year-old Englishman who hasn’t looked out of place in an NYC team containing the likes of Lampard, Villa and Andrea Pirlo. An industrious winger, he is likely to catch the eye of the judges well into the Play Off campaign.