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Western Conference Playoff teams relatively equal at the top of rosters. But, it's in the middle where they separate. Who steps up to push a team forward?
In other relatively tight cap leagues it isn't the performance of the top player in the league that determines success. Nor is it the bench or subs. Take the NBA where every team has enough space to have two great players, but need to convince their third best to take a major salary cut, or they drafted very well, or they use other cap techniques to even further weaken the bench. In many cases it can be this third best player that determines Playoff fortunes. There are of course exceptions, but the general rule is that the top two players will perform. Who steps up to fill those holes determines victory.
On some teams that third player varies from series to series. In others they are locked in for a few seasons. Their names become a bit of legend, not due to their overall quality, but because of performance. The most famous of these is probably Robert Horry. A man who only wins titles. In 16 years he won 7 titles. He was never a top two player, but his performance in the second season is legendary.
In MLS there are also tight caps. The top few players on a Playoff caliber team are roughly equal, though distributed between different roles. Where the teams are different is in the space in the 5th-7th best on the roster and the deep end of the roster past where players will get playing time in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Here is a rough estimate of the top five players on the other five Western Conference contenders. They are ordered by myself through my feelings as to who is most important to a team's success. The top three should have little argument. Debate will of course occur, but the details of who is 3rd or 4th are not necessarily important.
The talent differences in those top five are not significant if all players are on form. Dropping in the sixth and seventh on those teams it still isn't dramatically different, but you can see where teams like Dallas and Vancouver fade out and shouldn't be expected to advance far.
When looking at the Sounders based on their performance so far this year the top five is clear. But in the past few weeks there is a broad group that could appear from sixth to tenth. How that segment performs is the pivot point for the stretch run and the Playoffs. There's some good talents there, but there will be games where they can not fade. Each has in the past month plus.
Here are Seattle's top five;
And the next five;
Any of those can be in the realms of Dawkins, Baca, Juninho, Dunivant, Espindola, Borchers, de Guzman, Loyd, Robson and Koffie. Can Seattle's second five step up? Absolutely. Each has their own questions. Each has unique talents that can succeed in MLS. But the run against three of these teams to end the season and the five to six games needed to win the MLS Cup could rest on a former Bundesliga talent now DP, a one time USMNT callup, a man just outside the 23 for the USMNT, a Swedish regular, and a former #1 pick who could just be magic again soon.
There is a chance. But it will take consistent performances from the middle of the roster. A place where LA and RSL have had great success over the past 3+ years and San Jose is great this season.
With most rosters in MLS featuring fairly generic talents oustide of this seven does Seattle have depth or is the lack of consistency and argument over the tail of the XI an indication of weakness?