Handicapping the race for MLS Cup

As Major League Soccer heads into the postseason, which team has the best chance to lift MLS Cup 2009? Hotdog & Friends endeavors to find out:

The Class of the League

Columbus Crew: Last year’s champions still haven’t lost their edge. With Sigi Schmid gone, former assistant Robert Warzycha has stepped in seamlessly and will likely net the Crew their second consecutive Supporters’ Shield for best regular season record. The biggest difference between last year’s team has been the goal scoring of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who has been at or near the top of the Golden Boot standings for most of the year.

Houston Dynamo: Houston’s success starts with their defense, which thankfully looks healthy and intact in time for the playoffs. All Star Geoff Cameron is one of the premier two-way threats in the entire league. Their record could be a lot better, but injuries and international absences really took their toll in midseason. However, USMNT stalwart Brian Ching teams with young gun Stuart Holden to provide enough offensive firepower in just two players to grab at least a goal a game, which is often all they need.

They also have Brad Davis, one of the best left-sided players in the league

Strong Teams:

Chicago Fire: Brian McBride’s return from injury vaults Chicago to the top of this group. Solid individual defenders (Wilman Conde, Bakary Soumare) but not always solid team defending, but you can never count out a team with Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
APTOPIX MLS Galaxy Fire Soccer
God I love running this photo

Los Angeles Galaxy: Say what you will about Bruce Arena, but he has made the Galaxy competitive in every game. Arena’s crawl-before-you-can-walk ethos and emphasis on defending have transformed the Galaxy into a reasonable pick to win it all. If any games come down to a breakaway (Landon Donovan) or a free kick (David Beckham), it’s good to know L.A. has the two best players on the field.

Teams With Serious Flaws:

Seattle Sounders FC: You can’t win if you don’t score, and Seattle hasn’t shown the ability to do this with any consistency. Summer signing Leo Gonzalez has yet to make any tangible contributions to the attack while Freddie Ljungberg is not as dangerous in midfield as, say, Toronto FC’s Dwayne De Rosario. The opposition has found success by mercilessly hacking down Ljungberg and Fredy Montero – and the referees don’t put a stop to this cynical behavior with yellow cards. Expect even more of this as the play gets more physical in the playoffs.
LEo Gonzalez
Oh Leo…when will you make a goal?

D.C. United: Too many games. They’ve been playing in Champions League in addition to their run to the U.S. Open Cup final – the league’s salary budget really restricts them from having the depth to handle this workload. As such, the players are falling apart physically. Additionally, two rookies (Chris Pontius, Rodney Wallace) all play key roles and they may start to lose focus in the latter stages of the playoffs.

New England: A great team with a history of success, but who will score goals for them? That giant Lithuanian? Steve Ralston’s ACL tear (which will likely end his MLS career) drops the Rev to the status of also-rans. A great defense and excellent coaching but I don’t see them doing anything in the postseason. Shalrie Joseph is a huge talent but can’t do it all himself.

Chivas USA: Quick, who plays for Chivas besides Sacha Kljestan? Ha, I don’t know either. They have really cooled off after a dream beginning to the season. Apparently Paulo Nagamura isn’t the scoring threat he appeared to be after his crazy start, huh?

Dark Horses:

Colorado Rapids: May have the league’s best striking tandem in Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. Either one of them is capable of making a goal out of nothing – which they will need to do more than once, considering Colorado’s suspect defense. Still, a team to keep an eye on.

Toronto F.C.: Oooh I really like this team.  With the exception of Landon Donovan, De Rosario is the best player in the league. Interim coach Chris Cummins has this team playing loose and free – they could be dangerous to any team in the playoffs, especially in the first round where one match will be played at BMO Field.  But they may not even make the playoffs.