Editorial (May 17, 2018) – MLS from its inception has always been a quirky, unique league. It started with half-field shoot-outs and teams named the Wiz and continues today with salary caps, no promotion/relegation, and over half the teams making the playoffs.
The MLS Eastern Conference Playoff Race will be insane
This being the United States, a playoff is to be expected and welcomed but most observers would recognize that MLS has usually gotten the process wrong. The drummed up drama of being above the “red-line” just to qualify for a one game play-in game is extremely overdone. However, one positive of recent expansion is that it is getting harder every year to qualify for the playoffs. This increased competition looks like it will be especially fierce in a stacked Eastern Conference.
At first glance, the Eastern Conference playoff race looks rather pedestrian at the moment. Atlanta United FC has a small lead followed by five teams within four points of each other. The five outsiders are six points adrift of the red line. Despite appearances, the race is and will be much tighter. The reasons revolve around injuries, schedule congestion, and MLS parity.
The first wildcard is obviously Toronto FC. Decimated by injuries and nursing a brutal CCL hangover, the Reds have dug a ten point hole for themselves. Sebastian Giovinco getting a silly red card in the final moments of their game against the New England Revolution on Saturday night symbolizes the malaise they currently find themselves in. Of course, Toronto FC is the defending league champion and will surely start to climb the standings soon. A resurgent TFC makes for seven teams fighting for the top six.
Stragglers or Qualifiers?
Besides Toronto, even the other struggling Eastern Conference teams at the moment could improve in short order. Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union have beaten a resurgent Revolution side this year. Chicago Fire has beaten Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls. Even lowly D.C. United have the opening of their shiny new stadium to look forward to. It is unlikely that all these teams will recover this season but only one needs a run to make the list of playoff contenders.
The team most responsible for throwing a kink into this race right now are the New England Revolution. Historically they would be sitting in the table around Chicago and Philadelphia at this point. Instead, they have consistently shown resolve in picking up results after setbacks. Their hard work (and perhaps some luck) have them right on the heels of the Eastern Conference playoff elite. They, arguably more than any other club, are the reason the playoff race is shaping up to be so intense.
Everyone is Strong
Finally, looking at the top of the table, the Eastern Conference is incredibly strong this year. Atlanta and NYCFC have begun as the front runners but even they have shown moments of weakness in losses to Sporting KC and the New York Red Bulls, respectively. The Red Bulls have recovered from their CCL exertions with three wins in a row and Columbus is thriving under the guidance of Gregg Berhalter and an on-fire Gyasi Zardes. As Eastern Conference match-ups pick up later in the season it is anyone’s guess who will ultimately survive the playoff qualifying gauntlet.