I'm of two minds as I put together the Power Rankings for this week. On one hand, I really think Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders are heads and shoulders above the rest of the teams, at least when it comes to form.
As RSL demonstrated against FC Dallas, it's just a matter of time before they are able to impose their will, especially at home. The Hoops did an admirable job of keeping it close in the first half, but one bad play from Dario Sala was the only opening the Lakers needed to take the lead. Another poor decision by Sala allowed the opening for the second goal.
That match highlighted another issue: Dallas is just not the same team when Kevin Hartman is not in goal. He's now missed the last five matches and it's unclear whether or not he'll return during the regular season, let alone how fit he'll be for the playoffs. Until proven otherwise, we have to assume Dallas is just not on the level with the top contenders.
The Sounders haven't had to play against the same level of competition lately, but they have been playing a series of teams that had a lot on the line. Each time, they've taken care of business and even had room to allow a late goal here and there. Their opponent last week, Chivas USA, was of a different caliber all together. The Sounders did not look as sharp as they have lately, but it was still plenty to handle the Goats.
Since July 11, the Sounders have claimed 32 of the available 39 points. Rest assured that no matter what happens on Saturday against Houston and who they end playing in the first round, no one wants a piece of this team.
With the playoff structure the way it is, though, RSL and the Sounders could end up facing off in the first round. There's a very good chance that at least one of these teams is not going to advance to the conference finals where they'd face another tough opponent. Considering those likelihoods, it seems to go against my established ranking criteria to put them as the two top teams.
The New York Red Bulls, even if they don't hold onto the top spot in the East, would seem to have a much easier path to the MLS Cup. They are likely to face either the San Jose Earthquakes or the Colorado Rapids in the first round and probably won't have to go through any of the top four teams in the conference finals. It's hard not to consider them the most likely team to reach the MLS Cup.
Call these rankings counter-intuitive if you must, but as long as I'm using "most likely to win the MLS Cup" as my criteria, I think it's the only way to go.
1. New York Red Bulls: Not only will they likely have the easiest path to the MLS Cup of any of the top teams, but they should also be the least bloodied once they get there. Not to totally discount the loss to the Union, but it came in the absence of Thierry Henry against a team that seemed to be more motivated. If Hans Backe can convince Juan Pablo Angel that leaving New York on top is the bet for all parties, watch out.
2. Real Salt Lake: The Lakers are the best team in MLS, of that I believe there is little argument. By beating FC Dallas on Saturday, they became just the second team in MLS history to go undefeated in a single season at home. If not for having to play half of their first round on the road, I'd say they were a lock as long as they are playing at "El Castillo."
3. Seattle Sounders: Put this team in the East and I think they roll into the finals. That's still a possibility, but it would require the Rapids and Earthquakes winning out and for the Sounders to lose to Houston. With this team on as good a roll as they are, it's hard for me to see them losing. Even a tie likely means a spot in the West. Beating the Dyanamo could mean the No. 3 seed, though, which at least gives them a chance to host the conference finals.
4. FC Dallas: If this seems low, I'm curious how you justify putting them much higher. Without Hartman, this is not the same team and it's not inconceivable that Sala is forced into action during the playoffs. That 19-match unbeaten streak was impressive. Unfortunately, it will probably be the pinnacle of their achievement this year.
5. Los Angeles Galaxy: There's a good chance this team will win the Supporters' Shield, and they would deserve it if they did. They were definitely dominate early on and have avoided any prolonged slumps. That loss to the Rapids was not a mirage, though. This team has some holes, not the least of which is a defense that is starting to be exposed. The offense has become a two-man show and they've had almost no home-field advantage for the past three months. No matter who they play, I'm not sure I'd bet on them getting out of the first round.
6. Colorado Rapids: I'm still not quite sure what to think of this team. When they are clicking, like they were against the Galaxy, they can play with anybody. Conor Casey and Omar Cummings might be the scariest two-headed monster in MLS. I think we'll learn a lot more about them this week when they play RSL for the Rocky Mountain Cup.
7. San Jose Earthquakes: Just about every statistic suggests this is an average team. Their goal-differential has been near even all year and they are actually being outshot by their opponents. Whatever they are doing, though, it seems to be working. It's tough to discount them because they've held their own against the other playoff teams, but it's equally hard to see them making a lengthy run.
8. Columbus Crew: Maybe getting the equalizing goal from their goalkeeper during stoppage time will be the spark they need. Looked at another way, they needed those kind of heroics just to salvage a point against a team that is on as bad form as any. There are very few reasons to believe the Crew have a lengthy playoff run in them, but anything is possible in MLS ... right?