With the playoff field finally set, we have a clear picture of what each team must do in order to win the MLS Cup.
Real Salt Lake is probably the best team in MLS right now, and losing out on the Supporters' Shield may have been a blessing in disguise. By finishing second in the conference, their path to the final actually got easier.
On the flip side, the Sounders are being punished by taking fourth in the West instead of falling into the Eastern Conference. They'll have to go through Los Angeles and still have to face RSL in the conference finals.
The New York Red Bulls seem to have the easiest path of them all as they will open against the San Jose Earthquakes and then host either the Colorado Rapids or Columbus Crew. The Red Bulls might not be the best team on a player-by-player basis, but they are more likely to make the Cup final than any other team.
As I've stated in previous columns, this power poll is not so much about who is the best team, but which team is most likely to win the Cup.
1. Real Salt Lake: Losing out the Supporters' Shield is not the worst thing in the world for the Lakers and may be the thing that knocked them into the top slot this week. Sure, they might have to visit the Galaxy in the second round, but avoiding the a home-and-home with the Sounders was probably the lesser of those two evils. Plus, the Sounders may just do RSL's dirty work for them and give the Lakers home-field advantage for the conference finals anyway. That first-round matchup isn't looking so difficult anymore, either. FC Dallas is now on a two-game losing streak — one of which was to RSL — and how fit Kevin Hartman will be is hardly a settled issue. If they make it to the Cup, they are definitely the favorites.
2. Red Bulls: Aside from home-field advantage, they are playing the most one-dimensional team to make the playoff field. Stopping Chris Wondolowski is essentially the only real assignment for the Red Bulls defenders. The Red Bulls are expected to be at full health, with Thierry Henry expected to return, and really just need to get back to Red Bull Arena within striking distance. The Red Bulls have lost just once at home since May 20, a 10-game stretch in which they've won seven times. It might not be a fortress like "El Castillo" but it's pretty darn close. They might be the most likely team to make the finals, but they won't be favored to win against at leas three of the teams they could face.
3. Seattle Sounders: Only time will tell how meaningful that end-of-season loss to the Houston Dynamo was. As it turns out, a win would have allowed them to play RSL in a home-and-home, rather than face the prospects of needing to win at Rio Tinto. Losing that game did have the potential to knock them into the East, but it's now apparent nothing good came of it and it may have even killed their momentum. They were still the best post-World Cup break team in MLS and still have to be considered favorites against any team they would play in the MLS Cup.
4. Los Angeles Galaxy: The Supporters' Shield winners are the third best team in their conference right now, of this I feel fairly certain. Home Depot Center is hardly a fortress since they've lost four of their last seven matches there and they drew the unfortunate prize of playing the hottest team in MLS in the first round. No one would be shocked if they beat the Sounders, but I doubt any bookie would consider them the favorites. They are as talented as any MLS team and would make for a great MLS Cup participant, but it sure seems like they have an uphill battle to fight.
5. Colorado Rapids: If I'm being consistent with my logic, I just feel like the Rapids are actually the favorites to advance out of the first round and would not be entirely overmatched if they had to play the Red Bulls in the conference finals. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey are a two-man wrecking crew. They have combined for 15 goals and five assists in the Rapids' past 10 matches. It's hard to see a team on as bad form as the Crew stopping them right now. Their defense is still kind of flighty, but they actually had a better goal-differential than every team in the Eastern Conference.
6. FC Dallas: Maybe this is overly harsh and putting too much credence in recent form, but the Hoops have just not been the same since Kevin Hartman went down. They've only lost two straight, but they've also only won two of their past eight. Since Hartman went out, they have allowed nine goals in six games after allowing just nine goals in the 15 matches before Hartman's injury. Hartman still hasn't played since injuring himself against the Red Bulls. Although he's expected to be ready for the playoffs, counting on him to be in top form just seems like hopecasting.
7. San Jose Earthquakes: As I said earlier, no team relies on one player for their scoring more than the Quakes. Wondolowksi has scored 18 of their 33 goals, and the Quakes have won just twice all year in matches he hasn't contributed to the scoring. He has scored the Quakes' last 10 goals — an MLS record — and has accounted for all their scoring in 10 games. The Golden Boot winner can carry this team. The question is how far?
8. Columbus Crew: Even before William Hesmer went down with a shoulder injury that will apparently cause him to miss the entire playoffs, the Hardhats were looking like a struggling team. By winning their season finale, they halted their six-match winless streak, but even including that result they were outscored 14-8 in their final seven matches. Hesmer will be replaced by Andy Gruenebaum in goal, a player with a career save percentage of just .617 who hasn't made a MLS start this season. If this season ends with the Crew hoisting the Cup, it will be one of the great upsets in MLS history.