The MLS Playoffs are finally here, complete with a new format that will ensure that more teams than ever have crack at the trophy. But no matter how many teams the MLS lets in, there are only two favorites in this field – and they’re the same two teams that battled for the MLS Supporters’ Shield until the last week of the season. The New York Red Bulls were the ones who clinched the league’s best record and won the Shield, but FC Dallas has been formidable all year long. The two teams will be the top seeds in their respective conferences in this year’s playoffs.
There’s no question that FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls are the two top teams in MLS, but which one is more likely to make it all the way to the big game? Here’s our breakdown.
Meet the Teams
New York Red Bulls
If you called the Red Bulls as the Supporters’ Shield winners before the playoffs began, it’s time you started playing the lottery. The Red Bulls appeared to be in shambles this offseason. Longtime star Thierry Henry retired and the team inexplicably fired head coach Mike Petke, who had led the team to its first-ever major trophy when his squad won the Supporters’ Shield in 2013. Payroll dropped from around $11 million to less than $4 million. At a “Town Hall” meeting for season ticket holders, longtime fans screamed at ownership and their new coach.
But somehow, these new-look Red Bulls are a stronger team than ever. They play with a distinctive high-press style that has made them the league’s premier scoring threat, and their strong defensive midfield play keeps them prepared for the counterattacks that their style encourages. They breezed through the Eastern Conference: second-place Columbus is 7 points behind
FC Dallas has won, tied, and lost the exact same number of games as New York has. They only lost the Supporters’ Shield on a tiebreaker, and now they’re out to prove that they are the real champs. Also like New York, Dallas stands head and shoulders above its competition: they finished first in the West by 7 points, the same distance that New York put between itself and the East’s second-best team.
Dallas has a very young squad that features lots of homegrown players. They play with a bit more athletic flair than New York does, but they still have a strong head coach in the form of Óscar Pareja, who has solidified his legacy in Dallas by guiding his squad to their highest-ever regular-season points total.
Both the Red Bulls and FC Dallas have been very solid in the last month of the season. Dallas is 4-0-1 in October, while the Red Bulls are 4-1-0. Both teams won on Decision Day, with New York topping a surprisingly motivated Fire team in Chicago and Dallas winning a tough duel at home against the San Jose Earthquakes, a significantly better team than the Fire. Both New York and Dallas will get a first-round bye and take on the lowest remaining seed.
MLS’s two conferences were a bit more balanced this year than they often have been in the past, thanks in part to a decline of the Western Conference’s power teams. This year, the biggest threat to the top seeds probably lurks in the Eastern Conference in the form of the red-hot Columbus Crew. The Crew just shellacked a strong DC United team to secure a first-round bye, and they’ve been very solid over the past couple of months. That said, both the Red Bulls and FC Dallas have wins over Columbus on their resumes. The second seed in the West is the Vancouver Whitecaps; they’re a solid team, but not as frightening as the Crew.
Of course, before New York meets Columbus or Dallas meets Vancouver, each team will have to get past their first-round matchup. Each team will face the lowest remaining seed from the knockout round. Here again, New York’s competition looks like it could be a little tougher: they could have to deal with their archrivals, DC United, if things don’t break their way. Dallas, though, could have to face Los Angeles or Seattle. Though the Galaxy and Sounders have not been elite this year, they remain talented squads that can break through at any moment.
Who Will Go Further, the Red Bulls or FC Dallas?
The New York Red Bulls are probably a better team than FC Dallas, but we like how Dallas matches up with the rest of the Western Conference. New York will have to deal with more dangerous teams, and despite its solid points lead over Columbus in the regular-season, may find itself on the wrong end of an upset. We think FC Dallas will avenge their Supporters’ Shield loss by advancing further in the playoffs than the New York Red Bulls.