Looking at the Eastern and Western conferences it’s evident to most that the balance of power is leaning heavily toward the left coast again this season. The playoff format has changed in 2011 with 10 teams qualifying in lieu of last year’s 8. In an attempt to avoid having only one Eastern team qualifying for postseason play, MLS has decided that the top three teams from each conference will earn playoff spots while the following four best records regardless of conference will make it to November play via wildcard berths.
Expanding the number of playoff contestants has given hope to the cluster of “bubble” teams in the Eastern Conference. While New York is clearly the most talented side out of the group, the remaining teams all face serious questions going into the season. None of the other eight Eastern teams should be considered locks to finish higher than any of the competition. A matter of a few points could easily separate third place from ninth when all is said and done.
What are the Fire’s chances? Consider that last season was an incredibly disappointing campaign for an organization and fan base that is accustomed to competing in post season play every year. After starting the year 5-5-5, the Fire fell off the pace and finished the year at 9-12-9 which was good enough for fourth place in the East. Now consider that the Fire’s unflattering 2010 final line would have been good enough to qualify for a playoff appearance if the league had expanded to the ten team format it’s currently using.
MLSsoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal, Hot Time In Old Town’s Tweed Thornton and I take at stab at predicting the final table and the ten playoff participants after the jump…..
GR SS TT
3. FC Dallas 3.
9. Chivas USA 9. Chivas
GR SS TT
2. Sporting KC 2. Sporting KC 2. Sporting KC
3. DC United 3. DC United 3. DC United
* Denotes Wild Card team
* Denotes Wild Card team
GR SS TT
RSL over NY NY over Sea LA over SKC
The Fire’s chances at a playoff berth are no better or no worse than any of the teams we’ve placed below them or immediately ahead of them. Of course, any sustained success or run at playoff qualification will depend on the success of several new acquisitions. The Uruguayan tandem of Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves will need to surpass the combined production of Collins John, Brian McBride, and Nery Castillo in order to give the Fire a chance. For those keeping score, that “production” was nine goals and four assists among the three…..combined. While the talents of Puerari and Chaves are virtually unknown those figures are certainly not insurmountable.
Despite the lack of a classic playmaker in midfield the Fire do boast some depth in the middle of the pitch. Patrick Nyarko was one of the most dangerous players in the league in the first half of 2010 before injuries slowed him down. Marco Pappa, at 23 years old is considered one of the better wing players in MLS although the team is looking for him to take the next step as a more complete player. Bratislav Ristic’s ability to play multiple positions effectively will give De Los Cobos options and flexibility in the starting eleven. Replacing the boost that Freddie Ljungberg provided will fall to these three players (along with Puerari who assumes the playmaker role from the withdrawn forward spot). Logan Pause will get help in the defensive middle from Baggio Husidic although neither one possesses much pace. Marko Maric can also play the holding midfield role and can provide a physical presence that neither Pause or Husidic bring to the table.
The Fire looks to be reasonably strong defensively with Sean Johnson benefitting from an impressive rookie year which earned him his first US Men’s National Team cap in January. Gonzalo Segares should return to his form of 2009 after having a full training camp to regain his fitness. Whether Segares plays as a fifth midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation or at his customary left back position his role will remain similar in either alignment, a left sided defender who can get forward. Cory Gibbs is a solid defender who had a bit of an off year with a bad New England side in 2010. Gibbs along with Josip Mikulic has been pretty solid during pre season and training. The true bright spot along the back line could be rookie Jalil Anibaba. The Fire’s first round pick appears to be the real deal and should earn some Rookie of the Year consideration.
Are Houston, Philadelphia, DC, Houston, Columbus, Toronto, and even Kansas City appreciably better than the Fire? Absolutely not. Before you write off the season take a look at the comings and goings of the Eastern Conference teams. We’ll take a closer look at their issues in the next few days.