The MLS regular season has shifted to it’s second half, as the league’s 20 teams fight for a place in the 2016 MLS Cup playoffs. With the current playoff structure the regular season can sometimes feel like a grind, especially during the hot summer months.
But with each point important down the stretch for playoff pairings and seeds, now is the time for clubs to reach their maximum potential for a championship push. We take a look at who may challenge for a league title and who may see their dreams fade off in the winter wind.
- FC Dallas
Manager Oscar Pareja has crafted a talented squad with a strong emphasis on South American flair. Midfielders Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz provide pace and incredible creativity, allowing forwards Tesho Akindele and Maximiliano Urruti the space and service to finish chances in bunches.
They topped last year’s Western Conference standings, but have a worrisome habit of being torn apart on the road this season (4-0 to NY Red Bulls, 5-0 to Seattle and 5-0 to in-state rival Houston) and have yet to win a MLS Cup title in their 20-year history. They certainly have the tools to accomplish that this year if they can keep up their solid recent form.
- LA Galaxy
Perhaps no other roster in MLS boasts the combination of quality and star power quite like what Los Angeles brings to table. Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos, Gyasi Zardes, Nigel de Jong and Ashley Cole lead a talented group that has kept itself near the top of the standings all year long.
While the squad has appeared out of sync at times, they continue to grind out results and earn points on the road. Manager Bruce Arena has won five MLS Cup titles in his career and there is certainly no reason to think he can’t lead this stacked lineup to another championship.
- Colorado Rapids
After missing out on the playoffs for the past two seasons, there were not many reasons for optimism in the Mile High City leading up to the start of 2016. But with smart additions like forward Shkelzen Gashi from FC Basel and Guatemalan national team midfielder Marco Pappa from Seattle leading the attack, the team has found the types of goals that were not always there in recent years.
Even more importantly, a strong backline has helped to solidify a defense that has become one of the best in the league and can win a match 1-0 when necessary. Adding US national teamers Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard provides a mixture of quality and leadership that could take Colorado to their second ever MLS Cup title this season.
- Real Salt Lake
Despite being the final unbeaten team in the league to start the season, RSL finds itself in the difficult position of fighting time. Key members of the squad such as Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales and Jamison Olave have passed their peaks and are often battling injuries.
After missing the playoffs last season, a return to the postseason may be in order but the journey may not last very long from there.
- New York City FC
As a longtime New York Red Bull season ticket holder this pains me to admit and I grit my teeth a bit as I type, but NYCFC are a legitimate potential MLS Cup winner this year. After a problematic first season on and off the field, manager Patrick Vieira has found a winning formula with his lineup and the team is currently on top of the Eastern Conference.
Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa are starting to gel and #1 Superdraft pick Jack Harrison has shown incredible potential on the wing, with several impressive goals already in his first season. The not-so-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium have turned the squad into road warriors, but if they can find a way to be more effective at home this team could be dangerous in the playoffs.
- New York Red Bulls
Last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners have had a season full of highs and lows already in 2016. Currently 3rd in the Eastern Conference, the squad has registered some big wins against quality competition, including a 7-0 win over NYCFC and a 4-0 win over FC Dallas.
However, a poor record away from home and a bad habit of losing leads in the 2nd half of matches has put a major dent in team confidence. Last year’s Manager of the Year Jesse Marsch has been dealing with a multitude of injuries this season, but will ultimately need more consistent performances from his squad to go deep in this year’s postseason.
- Philadelphia Union
With 2011 being Philadelphia’s most recent trip to the playoffs and a losing 2015 season in their rear-view mirror, the Union brought in former US national team player Earnie Stewart as Sporting Director this past offseason. Bringing valuable experience from his time in the front office at AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie, Stewart has brought a new attitude and fresh talent to the squad.
Midfielders Roland Alberg, Ilsinho and Chris Pontius have all provided major contributions as the team has already equaled last year’s win total. Rookie all-star Keegan Rosenberry has been a revelation at rightback as the team’s defense has greatly improved in all areas.
- Toronto FC
As a successful team, one star player at the peak of his powers can only get you so far. Despite one of the league’s highest payrolls, TFC find their depth being tested at the midway point of the current season. Last year’s league MVP Sebastian Giovinco has been playing his part again in the Toronto attack, with 8 goals already in 2016.
But with injuries to Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, the team finds itself unable to reach top gear as defenses adjust to focus on stopping Giovinco.
After making the playoffs for the first time in team history in 2015 and being eliminated by Montreal, Toronto FC and their supporters may find themselves with an early postseason exit again this year as well.
Roy Emanuel, TFN International Correspondent on 23/07/2016 at 12:49
Follow Roy on Twitter @roy13a