Addressing the Biggest Weaknesses for All Playoff Contenders

Peter Galindo@@GalindoPWFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2014

Addressing the Biggest Weaknesses for All Playoff Contenders

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The MLS playoffs are on the horizon, and as always, there are several teams on the brink of qualifying for the postseason as the regular season comes to a close.

    This slideshow highlights eight teams battling for the last few playoff spots in both conferences. Four are from the East, ranked fourth to seventh place, while the other four play in the West, lying from fifth to eighth.

    Each club's biggest issue will be addressed, and a solution to each problem will be suggested in order for those teams to make it into the playoffs.

Columbus Crew: Lack of Pace at the Back

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    Graham Hughes/Canadian Press

    The Columbus Crew might be the biggest overachievers in MLS this season. They lie fourth place in the East with 36 points, level with fifth-place Philadelphia.

    The Crew's most glaring issue is their lack of pace in defense. They've only conceded 34 goals this year, but in crucial matches against Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and New York Red Bulls, Columbus' high line and slow defenders have left them exposed.

    Giancarlo Gonzalez was recently sold to Palermo, and the Costa Rican was arguably the Crew's best player. On the bright side, newly announced signing Emanuel Pogatetz should be a fine replacement.

    In the meantime, Tyson Wahl has replaced Gonzalez beside Michael Parkhurst. The chemistry will come together once the partners have a few more games under their belt.

    However, Columbus' remaining opponents include Montreal, New York, Philadelphia and New England. All of them are dangerous on the counterattack, so these will be big tests for the back line.

Philadelphia Union: Okugo and Edu Swap

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Union boast some incredible playmakers. Cristian Maidana and Sebastien Le Toux have been exceptional this season, but the deep-lying midfielders have left something to be desired.

    Amobi Okugo and Maurice Edu have swapped positions between center back to defensive midfielder on several occasions this season. Okugo has recently operated just in front of the back line, with Edu playing in the center of defense.

    Okugo would be much better at center back, his primary position, compared to Edu, who's a defensive midfielder. Edu has the composure and relatively accurate passing that can transition play forward.

    Neither player has been poor, but the Union could benefit with Okugo and Edu starting in their regular roles. It could be the catalyst that gets Philadelphia into the playoffs.

New York Red Bulls: Conceding Too Many Shots

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    The New York Red Bulls are in the playoff hunt thanks in large part to Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry. However, the amount of shots that the Red Bulls concede is the reason why they are currently on the outside looking in on the postseason. 

    Goalkeeper Luis Robles has made 89 saves, the second-highest amount in the league, per MLSSoccer.com. He's also faced 137 shots; only Jon Busch and the San Jose Earthquakes have seen more.

    Armando Sanchez was a disaster at the start of the year, which has benefited Ibrahim Sekagya, who has been solid in replacing him. Jamison Olave has been just as impressive.

    All the defenders have to do is just close down their opponents. They got away with a few mishaps against Sporting Kansas City on Friday, which could have turned out a lot worse. SKC were able to muster 17 shots compared to New York's five. If it wasn't for the visitors' lack of composure in the box and Robles' heroics, the hosts might have lost that match.

    The Red Bulls have to close down the open space, or else they'll continue to allow tons of shots.

Toronto FC: Injuries

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    THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

    Toronto FC is crumbling. Head coach Ryan Nelsen was fired, and star striker Jermain Defoe reportedly wants to leave the club, per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star.

    Despite all of the turmoil, injuries have been the main issue for TFC all season. Defoe is one of many players who have a knock. Steven Caldwell and Justin Morrow, two stalwarts in the back line, are also unavailable.

    Take any three starters out of any lineup, and that team will most likely struggle. Sporting Kansas City had to cope with several injuries in their defense this season and were shaky as a result.

    Due to all of the shuffling, Toronto doesn't have a lethal goalscorer and have no defensive stability. That's led to more expectations on Michael Bradley's shoulders, who's clearly fatigued and under tons of pressure.

    Midfielders are turning over the ball, defenders are out of position and strikers can't finish chances. The only way around it is to sign a couple of players, or else new coach Greg Vanney has to switch away from a 4-4-2.

    TFC are still just three points out of the playoffs. Defoe is expected to return to training on September 20, per CBC. Morrow and Caldwell are supposed to be available soon, according to John Molinaro of Sportsnet. That might be enough to steer Toronto away from disaster.

Portland Timbers: Defensive Disorganization

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    STEVE DYKES/Associated Press

    A year ago, the Portland Timbers conceded the fewest amount of goals in the regular season. Fast-forward to 2014, and the Timbers have allowed 46, already 13 more than in 2013.

    Liam Ridgewell signed a designated player contract with Portland to help bolster the defense. The jury is still out on the Englishman given his recent arrival, but so far he's been inconsistent.

    Even when the center backs are solid, the full-backs disappoint. They've been integral to Portland's strong attack, but they've neglected their defensive responsibilities in the process.

    Portland had a very organized back line last year because it was balanced. The full-backs tracked back and helped snuff out any danger in the defensive third. 

    Head coach Caleb Porter might have to sacrifice someone like Jorge Villafana in order to regain that form from 2013.

Vancouver Whitecaps: No Composed Striker

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    Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    The Vancouver Whitecaps haven't scored a goal since August 10 against Sporting Kansas City, but it hasn't been down to a lack of trying.

    Vancouver's addition of Mauro Rosales has given the Whitecaps another option in midfield. Pedro Morales, Sebastian Fernandez and others are all capable of providing their strikers with plenty of scoring opportunities.

    However, neither Darren Mattocks nor Erik Hurtado has been able to take advantage of their terrific service. They have great speed and love to take on defenders but don't have any composure in the box.

    Last season, Camilo was capable of being involved in the buildup. He could dribble past defenders and score from practically anywhere in the penalty area.

    That's the only thing stopping Vancouver from qualifying for the playoffs. Apart from the 3-0 drubbing by the Portland Timbers, they've been stingy in defense, so that isn't an issue right now. It's just a matter of their current forwards capitalizing on their great service, or finding some replacements.

Colorado Rapids: Inexperience

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Colorado Rapids have lost seven straight games. They've been outscored 22-6 in those matches, yet the Rapids are still just five points away from the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

    Colorado have also been abysmal on the road. They've won just twice and have a road goal differential of minus-18, the worst in the West by a wide margin.

    Head coach Pablo Mastroeni has one thing in common with his squad in that they're both inexperienced. The 38-year-old is in his first season as Rapids manager and has fielded a young squad.

    Dillon Serna, Shane O'Neill, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown are just a few of the young players who are regular starters. Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor are experienced, but that hasn't seemed to help the younger players.

    Colorado might have to learn a valuable lesson in order to move forward. Ex-coach Oscar Pareja used his experience to guide the Rapids into the 2013 playoffs. Mastroeni's last hopes are his home games: He can utilize the high altitude and speed in the squad to capitalize on fatigued opponents.

San Jose Earthquakes: Goodson Absence

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The injury to Matias Perez Garcia was a blow to the San Jose Earthquakes. The newly signed designated player was supposed to thrive with Chris Wondolowski. However, the Earthquakes have scored seven goals in four games without Perez Garcia.

    On the other hand, the defense has been a mess. Clarence Goodson's absence has arguably had a bigger impact than Perez Garcia. Goodson suffered a toe injury and has been out since July.

    Still, that shouldn't affect the back line as much as it has the last few matches. Victor Bernardez is a notoriously slow defender, and having Jason Hernandez as his center-back partner isn't helping combat that lack of speed.

    Left-back Jordan Stewart is another big, commanding defender who isn't quick. In fact, he was at fault for a couple of the goals San Jose conceded against the Portland Timbers in their last game.

    San Jose have an opportunity to steal the last playoff spot. The Quakes are eight points behind fifth place but have two games in hand. 

    With matches against Vancouver and L.A. coming up, the defenders have to stay back and get some help from the midfield in closing down the likes of Pedro Morales. If San Jose can play more conservatively at the back, they might be able to nick some points.

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