Well boys and girls, the regular season’s over and the second season is about to begin. Six teams left in the East to duke it out for a chance to hoist the MLS Cup. Questions abound. Theories and opinions do too. But let’s set all that aside for a second and consider – which of these six teams is really under the most pressure in the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs? Let’s take this in reverse order.
Pressure Drop: A Look at the Eastern Conference Playoffs
Atlanta United FC
A bit of a mea culpa here – I admit I had no idea they were gonna be this good. Good enough to qualify for the playoffs in their first year in the league? Good enough to scare the bejeezus out of me with that attack? Nope. Didn’t see it coming. And I don’t think I’m the only one who was surprised either. But that’s exactly why these guys have to have the least pressure of any team in the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs. Because they’ve already exceeded expectations. They made the playoffs right out of the gate. NYCFC couldn’t do that. Orlando couldn’t either. So they’ve already won. DID YOU HEAR ME ATLANTA? YOU’VE ALREADY WON. SO KNOCK IT OFF.
Columbus Crew SC
Last year I think a lot of people expected Columbus to make a run, a run that, as we now know, never materialized. Or said another way, I expected them to make a run and I got burned and then mocked endlessly for that prediction. But that’s exactly why the Black and Gold have the second least pressure in the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs this year. Sure, every NYCFC player I spoke to on Sunday said that Columbus was a quality side and that they were lucky to come away with a point. But these guys have to be happy just to be back in contention after a dismal 2016 in which they finished 18th overall – especially with their future looking so chaotic.
You’ve got a World Cup winner in Bastian Schweinsteiger and 2017’s Golden Boot winner in Nemanja Nikolic – so why isn’t there more pressure on the Men in Red to win? I mean, with a pedigree like that, they should be at the top of this list, right? Not if you’ve been paying any attention to MLS for more than this season. These guys have suffered so much pain for so long – with only one playoff appearance since 2009 – that you have to think their fans are just happy to be one of the six sides to make it to the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs. The fact that they square off in what some are calling “The Dax McCarty Cup” on Wednesday night in Bridgeview is just a bonus (okay, okay; I’m the only one calling it that…)
New York City FC
Am I being too easy on the team I have spent the better part of three years covering? Should these guys – who scored more goals than any other team in MLS last year and yet couldn’t put a single one into the net in the playoffs – be feeling more pressure than a third spot indicates? Especially with those big stars like David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. Especially with that big payroll. And especially since they play in New York City, where results are the only thing that matters (unless you own the Knicks, it would seem)? No – because those are all precisely the reasons they are at number three in this rundown of teams in the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs. Last year was an embarrassment – a huge disappointment – that their high-priced talent must avenge this season. But that’s achievable without winning the Cup. Win one series and they will have done that. Win one game and they will have done that. Hell, score one lousy goal and they… well, maybe not.
New York Red Bulls
And now the other shoe drops. Really? The Red Bulls? These guys barely made it in at all, how can they have any pressure? They’re probably just happy to be in the show, right? Au contraire, mes amis, and here’s why. First, this is a team that has only missed the postseason once since 2003. Their fans expect them to be in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Plus this is a team that has won the conference four times since 2010 and the Supporters’ Shield twice. Which means the Viking Army doesn’t just expect them to appear in the post-season, they expect them to succeed there. The fact that they’ve not achieved the success that their supporters have wanted, is, I think, a key source of their pressure. As does the fact that the team now faces a one-game, do-or-die, match with the team they traded their heart and soul to. So yeah, there’s a lot of pressure. A lot, but not the most.
I don’t know if it was my buddy JJ Devaney or if it was Andrew Gundling – or if it was basically anyone with a pulse who said it, but it was true. Our brothers from the Great White North will invariably look at this season – in which they set an MLS record for most points scored in a season (becoming the first Canadian team to win the Supporters’ Shield) AND won the Canadian Championship – as an utter disaster if they do not raise the Cup when the playoffs are over. That’s a lot of pressure. And it’s legitimate. They came about as close to winning it last year as you possibly can. And they’ve acted like they were on a mission from God this year. But mostly because they’re playing for fans who had to stand by them for eight long years before even getting a sniff of the post-season. Those fans are hungry. And they’re gonna make the cold Canadian winter even colder for the Reds if they don’t bring home the big hardware.