There is no doubt that Lionel Messi’s entrance to the MLS has changed the talk about the quality of the league, its future, and what potential the league has. But lost in Messi mania is that the MLS playoff picture has begun to take shape in earnest down the back half of the schedule. One of the bigger surprises has been how St. Louis SC entered the league.
St. Louis SC is sitting atop the Western Conference with a six-point cushion over second-place the Seattle Sounders. Winning the Western Conference would be a big deal for a city that has long loved soccer.
Here’s a look at the rest of the playoff picture as the final part of the schedule is set to start.
St. Louis Protects Its House
St. Louis SC has been excellent at World Wide Technology Soccer Park in St. Louis. At its home park this season, St. Louis has a 10-1-3 record. Nicholas Gioacchini has scored a team-high 10 goals and leads an attack with plenty of pop.
St. Louis has six players who have scored four goals or more. Eduard Lowe and Samuel Adeniran have each contributed six goals apiece. St. Louis is likely to hold onto the top spot in the Western Conference standings. What St. Louis does in the playoffs will make for exciting theater during their first season in the league.
Messi, Miami Have a Lot of Work to Do
Inter Miami has successfully dug out of the Eastern Conference basement. But with nine games left on the schedule, Inter Miami will need to make up an eight-point gap just to get to the No. 9 spot in the playoff picture and earn a chance at the final series play-in. In the three MLS games Messi has appeared in, he has produced a goal and two assists.
Messi also brought some of his talented friends with him to Miami. Sergio Busquets played with Messi in La Liga’s Barcelona and made a big impact with Inter Miami. The third player to come over with Messi was defender Jordi Alba. The trio has already helped Inter Miami win the Leagues Cup and grab a victory in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Inter Miami’s last victory was an impressive one, running over defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles FC 3-1 on the road. While Inter Miami still has a hard row to hoe, its chase to make the playoffs down the stretch will be a fascinating one.
FC Cincinnati Becomes First Team to Punch Ticket
The Orange and Blue may be jealous that their Argentine star, Luciano Acosta, hasn’t gotten more shine from the national media. Acosta has led an excellent FC Cincinnati team by scoring 13 goals and recording eight assists. FC Cincinnati is running away with the Eastern Conference.
The Orange and Blue have a 10-point lead over New England and Orlando City for first place. FC Cincinnati has a plus-14 goal differential and scored 44 goals in 27 matches this season.
Defending Champions are in Tough Stretch
LAFC hasn’t been quite as sharp this season. While the Black-and-Gold is still sitting in third place in the Western Conference, LAFC hasn’t been able to finish games like it did last season. The Black-and-Gold are currently in third place due to having to settle for seven draws this season.
LAFC will need to find ways to collect points down the stretch as it takes on some tough opponents clumped together between second and sixth place.
Western Conference Playoff Picture is Tight
Only seven points separate the second-place Seattle Sounders from ninth-place FC Dallas. LAFC (40 points), Real Salt Lake (40), Houston (39), and Vancouver (38) are all clumped together right behind the Sounders. Vancouver (38), Minnesota (36), San Jose (36), and Dallas (34) are all still in the chase to make major moves up the standings. Austin FC (33) and Sporting KC (32) are lurking behind Dallas.
Philadelphia Not as Efficient This Season
The Union lost a crushing match in the MLS Cup Final to LAFC last season. When Philadelphia made its run last season, the Union relied on a rough defense to keep other teams off the scoreboard. This year, Philadelphia still has a stingy defense, but other teams have been able to open things up.
The Union has a plus-16 goal differential. Philadelphia has been heating up lately, winning four of its five games. The Union’s only loss during the streak was a 3-1 head scratcher to last-place Toronto.
Columbus, Atlanta Need to Shore Up Defense
The Crew and Five Stripes both play exciting, attacking styles of soccer. Despite scoring 54 goals this season, the Crew are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta is in a similar spot, sitting in sixth place despite scoring 51 goals.
Columbus has allowed 37 goals this season but has struggled to finish games and has taken eight losses. Atlanta is comfortable engaging in firefights and has allowed 43 goals thus far. St. Louis SC is the only other MLS team to score more than 50 goals this season.
It would be nice to see the teams willing to push the pace and make a deep playoff run, but they may have to be more pragmatic to make a deep run.
Orlando City SC is Starting to Heat Up
Orlando City is on a five-game unbeaten streak and have thrust themselves into the playoff picture. During that stretch, Orlando City has scored two or more goals in three of their four victories. Orlando City’s attack is led by Uruguayan Facundo Torres, who has scored 11 goals and handed out three assists.
Duncan McGuire and Martin Ojeda were also essential parts of Orlando City’s attack. McGuire is second on the team with eight goals, and Ojeda has scored five times. Orlando City is even with the New England Revolution in the standings now. New England does have a game in hand on Orlando City.