MLS News
MLS Player Rankings: Toronto Trio Take Up Top Spots After Dominant Showings
MLS News
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 09:04

Toronto FC's designated players dominated the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal against New York City FC on Sunday.

Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley all made significant contributions to push the Reds into the Eastern Conference final. 

The trio of high-paid stars were just a few of the big names who shined during Sunday's four-game slate in which the field for the MLS Cup was cut in half to four. 

Ignacio Piatti, Laurent Ciman and Tim Howard were among the other high-profile stars who shined brightest as Montreal, Colorado and Seattle joined Toronto in the conference final round that begins on November 22. 

Our playoff player rankings take into account every postseason match played by each individual, with the most recent performance holding the most weight. 

Continue reading to see which player from the tremendous Toronto trio secured the top spot in the Bleacher Report MLS Postseason Player Rankings after the conference semifinal round.

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MLS Team of the Week: Giovinco, Piatti Power Clubs into Conference Finals
MLS News
Monday, 07 November 2016 09:37

Three of the four Major League Soccer clubs that took an advantage into the second leg of the conference semi-final round on Sunday moved on to the conference final stage of the postseason.

Montreal, Toronto and Seattle all put together strong performances on the road to knock off three of the best teams from the regular season.

The Colorado Rapids were the lone home team to make it through to the next round. Since the other three top seeds were bounced on Sunday, the Rapids are currently in line to host MLS Cup on December 10 if they move past Seattle in the Western Conference final. 

The standout individual from Sunday's play was Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant unleashed a hat-trick in Toronto's demolishing of New York City FC.

Continue reading to see who joined Giovinco in our best XI from the conference semi-final second legs. 

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Previewing the 2nd Legs of the MLS Conference Semifinals
MLS News
Friday, 04 November 2016 06:07

The home teams had their way during the first legs of the Major League Soccer conference semifinals, but that may not be the case during the quartet of second-leg showdowns on Sunday. 

The L.A. Galaxy, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders head into their Sunday road trips with key advantages in their respective series, and most importantly, none of the leading sides conceded away goals. 

Colorado, FC Dallas and both New York clubs, City and the Red Bulls, have certain things they need to fix in order to secure a berth in the conference final round, especially FC Dallas, who enter Sunday with the largest deficit.

Below is an in-depth look at each of Sunday's second-leg matches.

      

LA Galaxy at Colorado Rapids (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

The Galaxy benefited from a fortuitous bounce on a Giovani dos Santos shot to pull ahead of the Rapids in the No. 3 vs. No. 2 matchup in the Western Conference. 

Robbie Keane is still working his way back to full fitness, which means the hot combination of Alan Gordon and Dos Santos should start at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. 

Gordon's physical presence up top will once again be needed to combat the height and strength of the Colorado back line, led by Defender of the Year finalist Axel Sjoberg.

In addition to the attacking duo of Gordon and Dos Santos, the central-midfield pairing of Baggio Husidic and Sebastian Lletget had a strong first leg. 

If Jermaine Jones plays more than a half, like he did in the first leg, Husidic and Lletget will have to deal with a more physical presence in the middle of the park. The Galaxy defense won't face an onslaught of chances early given the Rapids' nature to sit back and methodically pick teams apart, but they will have to be on alert to ensure one of Kevin Doyle, Shkelzen Gashi or Sebastien Le Toux doesn't break in on net.

A 1-0 victory for the Rapids would force extra time and give Pablo Mastroeni's side an advantage because of the altitude in Colorado.

The Rapids know exactly how to grind out a result, as they've won eight matches 1-0 in 2016. If Colorado have their way defensively, they shouldn't feel too much stress going forward. 

How much time Jones spends on the pitch might be crucial to the club's success since he provided a spark moving forward during the second half of the first leg. If he is able to attract defenders and open up play through the middle, the Rapids should be able to breach the Galaxy back line. 

The second-best team in MLS during the regular season also carry a massive advantage in net. Tim Howard is no stranger to big matches, and he is expected to keep the Rapids in it until the end. 

     

Montreal Impact at New York Red Bulls (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

Mauro Biello's Montreal Impact executed a perfect game plan in their first-leg win over the New York Red Bulls at Stade Saputo.

However, the Impact left the door open for Jesse Marsch's men to pounce since they only won by a goal. 

One of Montreal's biggest concerns entering the second leg is the health of forward Matteo Mancosu. The Italian left training on Wednesday, but he participated on Thursday, per Patrick Friolet of RDS. 

If Mancosu is ready to go, the Impact will have a strong finisher who is ready to pounce on the counter alongside Ignacio Piatti. If the scorer of three playoff strikes isn't fit, there will be a heavier reliance on Piatti to create in space. Dominic Oduro would be the logical option to move up top with Didier Drogba's status still up in the air. 

If Montreal gets the effort out of Patrice Bernier that it did in the first leg, the chances created by the Red Bulls' talented trio of midfielders will be few and far between. Bernier, who has been massive the last two postseasons for the Impact, will be tasked with silencing Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Felipe. 

It's hard to believe the Red Bulls will waltz out of the playoffs without scoring a goal, but this is the franchise that's had everything cruel happen to it since its inaugural season in 1996. Dropping out of the playoffs at this stage isn't a foreign concept to the Red Bulls, which is their exact motivation to win on Sunday. 

No club is hungrier for MLS Cup than the Red Bulls, and they're aware how important home-field advantage can be in this series, the Eastern Conference final and potentially MLS Cup final. 

Bradley Wright-Phillips won't be able to do everything by himself, especially with Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera on his case. That means role players such as Alex Muyl and Gonzalo Veron will have to work magic behind the Englishman in order to avoid a shutout that would end the club's season. 

An early goal seems likely in this match given the pressing nature of the Red Bulls and the slick counter-attacking skills of the Impact. When that early strike comes, the match will open up and anything will be in play. 

     

Toronto FC at New York City FC (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1) 

Formations and suspensions were the biggest topics discussed after Leg 1 between Toronto FC and New York City FC.

Both Greg Vanney and Patrick Vieira trotted out three-man defenses at BMO Field, with Toronto's setup being more successful. 

The Reds have played well in the 3-5-2, but they are susceptible to mistakes if you attack the right areas on the flanks. As long as the proper cover is given on the wings, Toronto should withstand the attacks from Jack Harrison, David Villa and Co. 

The narrow pitch at Yankee Stadium should also help Toronto keep their back line organized. With less space to cover, the Reds should be able to limit the amount of green the home side has to operate in. 

NYCFC could have been playing without Villa after his egregious kick out at Armando Cooper in the first leg. But the Spaniard will not miss a game for his actions thanks to the MLS Disciplinary Committee's ruling. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl provided insight on the decision during Fox Sports 1's UEFA Champions League pre-game show on Tuesday: 

With Villa still in the fold, NYCFC carry a strong chance of advancing into the Eastern Conference Final, but three goals in regulation without conceding are needed. 

Villa isn't the only scorer in the lineup, and if he can't work his way through the Reds' defensive barrier, Harrison and others will have to step up. Thomas McNamara, who didn't start in Leg 1, should be inserted into the starting XI to bring more creativity to the NYCFC midfield. 

The biggest key for NYCFC in the final third on Sunday is the movement of Ronald Matarrita and R.J. Allen from the full-back position. If Matarrita and Allen provide the necessary width on the flanks, Harrison, McNamara, Villa and even Andrea Pirlo have the ability to work fast in transition to test the Toronto defense. 

     

Seattle Sounders at FC Dallas (9 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Before you begin writing the obituary on FC Dallas' successful season, let us remind you for the umpteenth time that this is MLS and anything is possible. 

Oscar Pareja's men face the steepest climb to the next round, as they're down 3-0 to the Seattle Sounders and failed to knock in a vital away goal.

FC Dallas need to attack from the first whistle, but some believe the club's front line may be too weak to threaten for 90 minutes after the losses of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz. 

CONCACAF legend Carlos Ruiz may not start, but look for the Guatemalan to make an appearance early in the second half. El Pescadito has a knack for scoring in big games, and he could be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Supporters' Shield winners. 

Of course, the FC Dallas defense is important as well on Sunday since one Seattle goal will all but eliminate the home side. Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman and Carlos Gruezo, who is one of the most underrated players in MLS, will be tasked with keeping order in front of Chris Seitz while everyone else bombs forward. 

The Sounders enter Sunday with no pressure on their shoulders. All they have to do is find the back of the net once or hold FC Dallas to two goals or less. Both are easily achievable tasks with the club's personnel. 

Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris will be asked to do more defending from their forward positions, but that means they'll also have more chances on the counter. The speed and skill of the two was on display in Lodeiro's 55th-minute goal in the first leg. 

The triumvirate of Roman Torres, Chad Marshall and Osvaldo Alonso need to have near-perfect matches down the middle of the pitch in order for the Sounders to become the unlikeliest participants in the conference-final round.

Seattle seems like a lock to move on given its advantage, but FC Dallas stand a chance if they enter half-time with a lead.

       

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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MLS Player Rankings: Mancosu, Altidore Lead After 1st Weekend of Postseason
MLS News
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 09:08

A number of unexpected heroes appeared during the first week of the Major League Soccer playoffs. 

The L.A. Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Montreal Impact received significant contributions from a few players who were dormant in front of the net for long stretches of the regular season. 

In addition to the unlikely stars of the week, a few of the league's big names continued their impressive seasons with strong performances for their respective sides. 

Our postseason player rankings take into account showings from both the knockout round and Sunday's first legs of the conference semifinal round. We also trimmed our list to 10 for the postseason due to the smaller sample size we have to choose from.

Continue reading to see who topped the first MLS Player Rankings of the postseason. 

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MLS Team of the Week: Altidore and Valdez Dazzle in Postseason
MLS News
Monday, 31 October 2016 08:57

The home teams were thoroughly dominant during the opening two rounds of the Major League Soccer postseason. 

Three of the four home sides advanced out of the knockout round by a combined score of 9-6. Only the Montreal Impact were able to pull out a result on the road. 

The results were even more lopsided on Sunday as Montreal, LA, Toronto and Seattle outscored their opponents 7-0 on home soil in the first leg of the conference semi-finals. 

Seattle, led by unexpected hero Nelson Valdez, came closest to securing a spot in the next round, as they defeated FC Dallas 3-0 at CenturyLink Field. 

We considered performances from both the knockout round and first leg of the conference semi-final round for our MLS Team of the Week.

Continue reading to see who fit into our best XI from the first week of the MLS play-offs. 

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Previewing the 1st Leg of the MLS Conference Semifinals
MLS News
Friday, 28 October 2016 02:41

The conference semifinal stage of the MLS Cup Playoffs begins on Sunday with four first-leg contests between the eight remaining sides in the competition. 

New York Red Bulls and New York City FC will head to Canada to face Montreal Impact and Toronto FC respectively in the Eastern Conference. 

FC Dallas visit the Seattle Sounders and the L.A. Galaxy host the Colorado Rapids in the two Western Conference showdowns on Sunday. 

Below we took a look at each of the individual matchups and what each team needs to do to take an upper hand into the second leg. 

     

New York Red Bulls at Montreal Impact 

Plenty of people will point to the other Eastern Conference semifinal as the one with the most attacking firepower, but the matchup between the Red Bulls and Impact carries three of the front-runners for the Most Valuable Player award. 

Bradley Wright-Phillips earned his second MLS Golden Boot in three years with 24 regular-season goals, while teammate Sacha Kljestan led the league in assists, with 19. 

The pair of Red Bulls playmakers are surrounded by plenty of experience with Dax McCarty, Felipe and Mike Grella a part of the midfield setup. Academy product Alex Muyl may be the most impressive player in the supporting cast. Muyl has easily fit into the attack since Lloyd Sam was traded to D.C. United in July. 

The Red Bulls back line may not get the attention the attack does, but the four-man unit has been sturdy during the club's 16-game unbeaten run. Goalkeeper Luis Robles quietly led the league in shutouts, with 11 during the regular season, and Aurelien Collin is coming off one of his best matches of the season, against the Philadelphia Union. 

All the talk of the talent on the pitch will be overshadowed by the franchise's continued failure to win MLS Cup. The Red Bulls have had plenty of talented squads in club history, but none of them have been able to secure the elusive trophy. 

Montreal made a massive statement on Thursday in the knockout round with a 4-2 thumping of the red-hot D.C. United. Matteo Mancosu, who scored twice in the win over United, has put in some terrific work at the forward position as the Didier Drogba situation gets more bleak by the day. 

Most of the Red Bulls' defensive attention will be cast upon Ignacio Piatti, who scored 17 goals and assisted on six more in the regular season. The Argentinian has a pair of goals and an assist in three matches against the Red Bulls in 2016. 

Belgian center-back Laurent Ciman will be the main marker of Wright-Phillips. If he can impose his physical presence against the Englishman, the Red Bulls may struggle to test Evan Bush on a consistent basis. 

     

New York City FC at Toronto FC 

David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley will all share the pitch in a playoff series that starts at BMO Field.

Second-seeded New York City FC, led by 23-goal scorer Villa, visit No. 3 Toronto, powered by the duo of Giovinco and Altidore, in what could be the most entertaining series of the postseason. 

We don't say that just because of the attacking talent expected to be on the pitch. Both clubs have defenses that are susceptible to mistakes, and with pressure at an all-time high, we're expecting at least one at BMO Field. 

NYCFC's young stars and world-class veterans have traveled well in 2016, putting together a 7-7-3 road record. Villa and rookie Jack Harrison should be able to create a good amount of chances, but Patrick Vieira's men will only go as far as their defense, which let in 57 in 34 matches, takes them

Toronto benefited from a few lapses at the back in Wednesday's Eastern Conference knockout-round win over Philadelphia. Altidore comes into the match in the form of his life, and not just because he's lighting the net on fire. The American's work on the ball near midfield to build up possession has been superb as well.

Giovinco will benefit from that play, as he'll be able to use his speed to link up with Altidore's balls from the middle. The Italian is also one of the best free-kick takers in the league, and he came close to scoring from a set piece on Wednesday. If he gets behind the NYCFC defense, Giovinco should be able to earn a few free-kick opportunities. 

Given NYCFC's ability in the final third, TFC manager Greg Vanney may move away from the 3-5-2 he used on Wednesday. The success of any formation used by the Reds will be determined by Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper in midfield. The central trio was one of the top units in MLS at the end of the regular season. 

       

Colorado Rapids at LA Galaxy 

The Western Conference semifinal between the Colorado Rapids and L.A. Galaxy presents a stark contrast in personnel, and that may turn this matchup into the must-see tie of the round. 

We all know what the LA Galaxy are about. Landon Donovan, Giovani dos Santos and Robbie Keane are three of the most talented players in the league, and manager Bruce Arena always gets one unexpected player to break out during the postseason.

Emmanuel Boateng was that man on Wednesday, as he bagged a brace against Real Salt Lake, but the midfielder's only strikes in 2016 have come against the Claret and Cobalt. 

If Boateng is able to replicate his production on the wing on Sunday, the Galaxy should be able to stretch the Rapids thin. As if that weren't enough to impress you, Donovan was one of the top defenders for the Galaxy on Wednesday. The two-way work rate of the American legend will be key when Colorado attempts to break forward. 

Of course, all of the attacking firepower in the L.A. lineup can be silenced by the best defensive team in the league. Pablo Mastroeni's side conceded just 32 times in their chase for the Supporters' Shield, which came up two points short. 

Central midfielders Sam Cronin and Michael Azira don't get the love they deserve, but they have the capability to shut down the most dangerous players in the league. If Cronin and Azira can congest the middle, the Galaxy would have to rely on their speed and crossing from the wings. 

Colorado center-back Axel Sjoberg is a threat in the air on both sides of the pitch, and he should be able to hold the Galaxy at bay if they are forced to launch cross after cross. One player he'll have to watch out for the in the box is opposing center-back Jelle Van Damme, who crossed midfield on numerous occasions versus RSL. 

Shkelzen Gashi, Kevin Doyle and Sebastien Le Toux all carry big-game experience in attack, and each one of them is capable of bagging in an away goal. Colorado could only look for one goal at StubHub Center since they are the experts of the 1-0 victory. 

On top of all that, Jermaine Jones could make a cameo for the Rapids. The United States international returned to the pitch in the club's regular-season finale against Houston Dynamo. 

      

FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders 

FC Dallas' quest for the treble begins inside a raucous CenturyLink Field on Sunday. 

Oscar Pareja's men have already captured the U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield, but the chase for postseason success will be their most difficult journey of the season. 

FC Dallas have survived the transfer of Fabian Castillo and the season-ending injury to Mauro Diaz so far, but one has to wonder where the consistent attacking threat will come from in the postseason. 

If the top seed in the Western Conference can figure that out, they'll be the favorites to win it all. But until then, there will be a heavy reliance on the Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman-led defense to win matches. Earning a clean sheet in Seattle would be huge, but conceding once shouldn't hurt FC Dallas too much.

Seattle owns a good amount of momentum heading into Sunday's contest. The Sounders used Nelson Valdez's first goal of 2016 to advance past Sporting Kansas City on Thursday. 

The Sounders put two shots on goal in the last meeting between the clubs on October 16. The 2-1 defeat is the only time the Sounders have lost since September began. 

Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro must be better in order to break down the Dallas back line. However, the biggest key to Seattle's success on Sunday will be keeping Osvaldo Alonso on the field, with some believing the Cuban should've been sent off against Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round. 

As long as Alonso controls his physical play and doesn't earn a spot in the referee's book, the Sounders should be able to disrupt Dallas' rhythm for 90 minutes.

       

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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MLS Player Rankings: Golden Boot Winner BWP Ends Regular Season on Top
MLS News
Tuesday, 25 October 2016 09:35

In a league in which parity and competition reign supreme, one player has been able to dominate the headlines since the middle of the summer. 

Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls won his second Golden Boot in three years behind one of the best scoring runs in league history. 

The scorer of 24 goals is once again the top man in our Bleacher Report MLS Player Rankings. The Englishman faced stiff competition from David Villa, Jozy Altidore, Ignacio Piatti and teammate Sacha Kljestan for the top spot, but none of them could keep up with him every week. 

Our player rankings take into account the last four performances from a specific player, with the most recent one holding more value.

Continue reading to see who landed where beneath Wright-Phillips in the final Bleacher Report MLS Player Rankings of the regular season.

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MLS Cup Playoffs 2016: Dates, Schedule, Odds, Bracket and Live-Stream Info
MLS News
Tuesday, 25 October 2016 07:00

There will be a new MLS Cup winner in 2016.

Both the Portland Timbers—the reigning champions—and 2015 runners-up Columbus Crew SC failed to qualify for the playoffs, marking the first time in MLS history that neither finalist has made it to the postseason, per Alicia Rodriguez of the league's official website.

FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids, the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC have already booked places in their respective conference semi-finals. They are waiting for the winners of Wednesday's and Thursday's fixtures.

The LA Galaxy are the favourites for their match against Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, DC United don't expect to be troubled by the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference.  

Here are the schedule and streaming details:

 

2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Schedule Date Time Conference Match TV Live Stream Wednesday, Oct. 26 7:30 p.m. ET (12:30 a.m. BST) East Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union ESPN 2, UniMas, TSN 2/Sky Sports 2 WatchESPN Wednesday, Oct. 26 10:30 p.m. ET (3:30 a.m. BST) West LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake UniMas/Sky Sports 2 MLS Live Thursday, Oct. 27 7:30 p.m. ET (12:30 a.m. BST) East DC United vs. Montreal Impact UniMas, RDS2/Sky Sports 3 MLS Live Thursday, Oct. 27 10 p.m. ET (3 a.m. BST) West Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC Fox Sports 1, UniMas/Sky Sports 3 Fox Sports Go

MLSSoccer.com

Here are the live-stream links: MLS Live, WatchESPN, Fox Sports Go.

For the full bracket, visit the league's official website.

Here are the outright odds for the competition:

 

2016 MLS Cup Odds Team Odds FC Dallas 7-2 New York Red Bulls 9-2 Colorado Rapids 7-1 LA Galaxy 8-1 New York City FC 8-1 Toronto FC 9-1 DC United 25-1 Seattle Sounders FC 25-1 Sporting KC 28-1 Real Salt Lake 33-1 Montreal Impact 33-1 Philadelphia Union 50-1

For the latest outright odds, visit Oddschecker.com. 

Here are the odds for the upcoming knockout matches:

 

Upcoming Odds Match Odds Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union Toronto (-135), Philadelphia (+370), Draw (+260) LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake LA (-115), Real (+310), Draw (+240) DC United vs. Montreal Impact DC (+125), Montreal (+200), Draw (+230) Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City Seattle (+110), KC (+230), Draw (+230)

For the latest match odds, visit Odds Shark.

             

Preview

FC Dallas are worthy favourites after securing the Supporters' Shield with the best record during the regular season. The Texas club equalled some MLS history, according to OptaJack:

Dallas boast a squad loaded with power and experience, particularly in defence and midfield. Former Wigan Athletic full-back Maynor Figueroa is a vital and versatile member of the back four.

Further forward, former Paris Saint-Germain grafter Peter Luccin anchors the midfield. This is a tough and disciplined squad, but Dallas can't match the star power the Galaxy boast.

Left-back Ashley Cole underpins the left flank, but forwards Landon Donovan and Giovani dos Santos cause the most problems.

The pair are creative and artful on the ball while perceptive and intelligent off it. Their movement and technique will be too much for Salt Lake.

If Sporting Kansas City need any added motivation, they may get it from Brad Davis' desire to bow out as a winner. The club confirmed the veteran playmaker is set to retire:

As for DC United, their squad is defined by power and ingenuity in the middle. Luciano Acosta provides the latter quality. At just 22 years old, the Boca Juniors loanee has supplied 11 assists this season.

Lloyd Sam's brawn and energy supplement Acosta's vision. A natural workhorse, Sam covers every blade of grass as a box-to-box type who links each part of DC United's game together.

Skill and strength in the middle could also carry the Philadelphia Union far, but much will depend on how well classy pass master Ilsinho performs.

The Brazilian has the flair and touch to conjure magic in the final third. However, he'll need the support of Alejandro Bedoya and Tranquillo Barnetta.

There's even talent in the midfield ranks for the team, which has 33-1 odds to surprise the bracket, per Oddschecker.com.

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MLS Team of the Week: Kaka, Molino, Giovinco Impress on Decision Day
MLS News
Monday, 24 October 2016 09:31

The final day of the Major League Soccer regular season was supposed to hand us 90 minutes of drama-filled action with playoff berths on the line. 

However, instead of the final playoff positions being determined late on, they were sealed long before the final whistle thanks to a few spoilers. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps were the biggest spoiler on Sunday as they trounced Portland. Two of the other impressive showings on Decision Day came out of eliminated sides Orlando City and New England. 

Due to the offensive outburst on Decision Day, we aligned our team selection in a 3-4-3 formation.

Continue reading to see who was named to the season's final Bleacher Report MLS Team of the Week.

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D.C. United Emerging as Dark-Horse MLS Cup Contender as Regular Season Ends
MLS News
Friday, 21 October 2016 02:49

When you start compiling a shortlist of MLS Cup contenders, the teams that easily come to mind are FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, who lead the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively.

Maybe you're drawn to the Colorado Rapids' worst-to-first story and the club's grind-it-out defensive mindset. Some will talk about star-studded Toronto FC and a second-year New York City FC club led by David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. 

You can't count out Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy either anytime the postseason rolls around, especially with the star power they can trot out on to the pitch any given week combined with the former United States head coach's managerial genius.

But there's one other team you should add to the mix among the perennial favorites and top teams from the 2016 regular season. 

They definitely aren't the sexy pick to be crowned champions on December 10, but D.C. United are a team to look at as a serious MLS Cup contender. 

Under the guidance of manager Ben Olsen, D.C. have put together a six-game unbeaten run and have lost just once since July 31. 

The Black and Red were left for dead along with the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire, who both still sit at the basement of the Eastern Conference, as the calendar flipped from July to August. But a few changes have been made to boost them to the cusp of a hosting a match in the knockout round of the postseason. 

United enter the final day of the regular season—Decision Day as it's being called by the league—in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. All it takes to lock up at least a home match at RFK Stadium is a win over Orlando City on Sunday at Camping World Stadium. 

All of this has been made possible by a pair of shrewd acquisitions near the end of the summer transfer window—one of which was a deal with D.C.'s biggest rival—a stout defense and a manager who has made the required tweaks to his side.

Let's start with the trades for Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam because both of the attack-minded midfielders have brought a new dimension to the final third, and they've actually made D.C. an attractive team to watch, which is a big step considering what they've looked like in past years. 

The addition of Mullins, a 24-year-old striker in his third Major League Soccer season, has meant the world to D.C. The University of Maryland product didn't receive a chance to blossom into the striker he should be under Patrick Vieira at New York City FC this season. 

With playing time diminishing and D.C. in desperate need of a consistent scorer, Olsen pulled the trigger on one of the best moves of the season. Since joining D.C. on July 20, the No. 11 pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft has scored eight goals in 12 matches. 

Mullins is second on the team in scoring behind Lamar Neagle, who was brought in during the offseason from Seattle. The lively presence of Mullins in front of net has been a welcome sight to the eyes of D.C. fans after Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola failed to provide a consistent spark up top during the first half of the campaign.

Saborio remains a solid option off the bench for the Black and Red, especially in the postseason with his wealth of experience. Espindola was jettisoned to Vancouver to make room for Mullins on the roster. Kennedy Igboananike, who was brought in from Chicago at midseason, is also available off the bench.

The rest of the goals have come from a wide variety of players, but Mullins has ushered himself in as the top scorer for years to come in the nation's capital, and given his newfound confidence in the box, D.C. have a chance to pounce at any second. 

Acquiring winger Lloyd Sam from the New York Red Bulls has also been beneficial to the attacking style of United. The 32-year-old, who featured in plenty of big matches with the Red Bulls, put in one of his best performances of the season a week ago as he contributed to two goals in D.C.'s playoff-clinching win over NYCFC. 

Mullins and Sam have taken some of the attention away from Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta, who was the club's top attacking target for the first five months of the season.

Since opposing defenses can't key in on one player now, Acosta will have more space moving forward, especially when the back-and-forth postseason affairs begin. 

And then there's Neagle, who emerged as a super-sub in August and September with two goals and two assists. The former Seattle man also added three goals as a starter, including a brace against Toronto on October 2. 

The D.C. defense has complemented the offensive firepower and even added to it at points during the recent spell of good form. 

The defensive line led by center-back pairing Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum has conceded three goals in the last four matches, all of which have been victories. That number is much better than the 15 strikes let in from July 31 to September 16 when the team was hitting its stride. 

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid has kept the club in quite a few games during the course of the regular season, but he can't do it all if the Black and Red want to make it to the MLS Cup, although the United States international might be able to achieve the task if he tried. 

D.C.'s path to the MLS Cup could end up being an easy one if they continue to play like they have over the last month. Most of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference have shown signs of weakness that can be exploited by the right game plan, which is where Olsen's managerial experience comes into play. 

The former United States international led the Black and Red to the Eastern Conference semifinal in 2012 and 2015 and helped the club rebound from an atrocious 2013 to earn a playoff berth the next year. 

Olsen has also done a great job working with his squad this season given the long-term injury issues the Black and Red have faced.

Midfielder Chris Rolfe, who was the club's top player a year ago, has been out with a concussion, while defenders Chris Korb and Kofi Opare are both out with injuries. The D.C. coach has also had to deal with the absence of central midfielder Marcelo Sarvas and full-back Sean Franklin in recent weeks. 

In any other season, Olsen would've been in the running for MLS Coach of the Year, but Pablo Mastroeni in Colorado, FC Dallas' Oscar Pareja and Vieira are the favorites to receive that honor. 

Regardless of who D.C. ends up playing in the knockout-round match, they should have an upper hand on either Montreal or Philadelphia.

The Impact have had a good amount of ups and downs this season, and the Didier Drogba drama from the last week doesn't exactly help a team's focus on the postseason. Montreal's attack has plenty of weapons—with or without the former Chelsea man—but their defense is a bit concerning as they've recorded just three clean sheets since the start of July.

The easier matchup for D.C. would be the struggling Union, who backed their way into a playoff berth on the penultimate Sunday of the regular season. No matter how awful D.C. play in that match, they should win due to the lack of preparedness and effort in the Philadelphia squad. 

When it comes to the semifinal and final rounds, United face a solid chance of advancing against either Toronto or NYCFC, who both still have questions in defense despite the stellar attackers in each lineup.

The biggest matchup problem for the Black and Red, or any team in the East if we're being honest, is the Red Bulls and their trademark pressing system. The good news for United is they've earned five points from three matches against their top rival in 2016, including a pair of come-from-behind 2-2 draws. 

D.C. may not have a chance to challenge the Red Bulls for a 180-minute series if they settle in and defend against Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan and Co., but they do have the capability to strike early and find vulnerabilities in the press. 

Anything is possible when it comes to the MLS Cup, which will most likely be played at a Western Conference venue if D.C. come out of the East. The road environment shouldn't hurt United's blueprint for success by that point in the season. 

The MLS Cup final may still be a month and a half away, but if you're looking for a dark-horse contender to get behind, hopping on the D.C. bandwagon right now is for you. 

           

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com. 

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