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An Early Analysis of the MLS Eastern Conference Playoff Race

With a quarter of the season gone, we check out where things stand in the East and where they are likely to go as the season progresses.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Orlando City SC Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

With a quarter of the season gone and in the history books, it is only right that we look at the MLS playoff race, right?

Six spots are up for grabs in the Eastern Conference and with many more games still to play, there’s no doubt many questions can still be asked of many clubs. But rather than ask questions, lets look at what some clubs have already accomplished throughout this young season.

Our beloved Orlando City sits at top of the Eastern Conference standings as of now, so we’ll start with the Lions.

Orlando City

The Lions are no. 1 in the Eastern Conference due to being undefeated at home and capitalizing on a stellar defense. A few new faces around the team, a goal-scoring nightmare for opposing defenses, and a defense that is relentless have all helped Orlando City to the top of the table. Even with superstar Kaká on the shelf due to injury, Orlando City came together and managed to look like the best team in the league. One can only imagine that the Lions improve on this as Kaká has returned and helps to improve the midfield.

With what looks to be a tough month ahead for OCSC, the Lions are sure to be tested for the no. 1 spot. By the end of May, more questions will be answered about how good Orlando City really is — but through seven games the Lions are top of the table, and that is all that matter as of now.

Orlando sits at the top with a 6-1-0 record, with the lone loss coming on the road at Columbus. Orlando also has at least a game in hand on the rest of the East, as the Lions are the only team to have played seven games in the conference.

New York Red Bulls

The always reliable, always resilient Red Bulls team is still one of the best around, and yet again we find them in contention at the top of the Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls boast names like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan, and Luis Robles, all of whom have helped the team to a second-place standing. The Red Bulls have also played nine games so far, which is more than eight other Eastern clubs.

Wright-Phillips is always in contention for top goal scorer in the league and it will be interesting to see where he finishes this season at age 32.

The Red Bulls are 5-3-1 on the season. Currently the Red Bulls have scored only one more goal than conference leaders Orlando City, but the defense has allowed 10 in nine games and has been the ultimate cause of contribution to losses. A key injury to Mike Grella hasn’t helped.

The expectation of New York year in and year out is to make the playoffs, and this current team has the ability to do so again.

New York City FC

The not-so-surprising NYCFC is near the top of the table because the Sky Blues are just that good. In what looks like a tougher and tougher Eastern Conference, NYCFC finds itself in the mix for the second straight year. Big names stretch out across the club, but none are bigger than that of David Villa.

If you notice a trend between top clubs, it is simple — they have top players in the goal-scoring department.

Villa simply seems to be the best pure goal scorer in the league. His ability alone has taken NYCFC to incredible heights and after making the playoffs last season, Villa and NYCFC are only looking to improve on their accomplishments from a year ago.

In eight games, NYCFC is 4-3-1. If the defense finds a way to improve, the Sky Blue club can expect to move up the ladder. The offense is currently second-best in the conference and with Villa leading the way, you should not expect much to change.

Columbus Crew

So far, the Crew are the only team to beat Orlando City, and they did so in convincing fashion. The Crew are one of the most well-rounded teams in the entire league and are one of the toughest teams to beat, especially at Mapfre Stadium.

Ola Kamara is the man leading the front line for the Crew but others like Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp, Justin Meram, and Ethan Finlay help round out this solid roster. Sitting in fourth with a 4-4-1 mark, the Crew find themselves currently in the playoff hunt.

A team similar to the Red Bulls, the expectation of the Columbus Crew is to reach the playoffs. They are built very well for both the regular season and playoff time, and the expectation is that they stay within the top six of the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season.

Toronto FC

Toronto FC may have the most exciting offense in the league with both Jozy Altidore and 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco. Both men are dangerous going forward for any opposing defense as they give you exactly what most teams would love to have: strength, speed, smarts, athleticism, and finishing ability.

After making it to the MLS Cup final in the 2016 season, Toronto is looking to have an even better year in 2017. So far, the Reds are off to a slower start in the league than expected at 3-1-4, but they still sit fifth and ultimately above the playoff line. and are undefeated at home (2-0-2) ahead of tomorrow night’s clash with Orlando City.

It is hard to predict where exactly Toronto lands, but much like many of the others above, the Reds are very much expected to finish top six and are a team that is capable of winning MLS Cup with the offense they have and an underrated defense which has allowed only seven goals in eight games.

Atlanta United FC

The team that couldn't decide between the name United or Football Club and one of two newest teams in the league is finding a lot of success in MLS early on. As of now, they are owners of the most goals in the Eastern Conference and second-most in the league but again, they are another team that has struggled with defense despite the successes of the offense.

Atlanta has scored 18 times but has allowed 11 and owns the best goal differential in the conference (+7). Despite the goal differential, the team has not won as many games as it would have hoped. At 3-3-2, Atlanta sits in the final spot in the playoff table.

Out of the other five teams currently sitting in the top six, Atlanta United is the toughest to decide on going forward. A team unproven in the league can be scary in a good sense and a bad sense. Moving forward, they should be one of the most interesting to watch. If a first-year club is able to make the playoffs and have that type of success in Year 1, that would be a major accomplishment.

Out of the above six, who do you see dropping out by season’s end? For me, the easy pick is Atlanta United, but the offense does look really, really good, and if they keep up the scoring anything is possible for that club.

The outsiders’ pick may be our beloved Orlando City SC, but the truth of the matter is this: Orlando City has the best defense in the conference as of right now. Only five goals against in seven games is a true dream start when you consider the defensive showings in the last two years. The month ahead will give fans more detail on just how good the Lions are overall.

As far as breaking into the top six, that pick is very tough. The Chicago Fire seem like a club worthy of that honor, especially with how well Bastian Schweinsteiger is playing for the club. With Bastian you feel like the Fire are looking to achieve success now, but that may be much tougher than they thought, especially if they do not start piling up wins over the course of the next month.

D.C. United had a tough March but went 3-1-1 in April, so you can’t count out the Black and Red, especially with the way Luciano Acosta and Bill Hamid are playing. The New England Revolution show signs of being a very good team at times but haven’t quite but it all together. The Revs led Seattle 3-0 on the road without Kei Kamara but allowed the Sounders to rally for a draw. In fact, New England has drawn three straight and four of the last six, but still sit just one point behind Atlanta.

The Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union have both started the season slowly after playoff appearances in 2016. But neither is out of the race just yet. If they can find a run of form, both could challenge to get back on top of the red line.

The Eastern Conference looks more competitive than ever in 2017. Just eight points separate the top nine teams as we find ourselves about a quarter of the way through the season.

Any thoughts or opinions of the top six and where we might see them shift to in a month or at the end of the season? Don’t be afraid to leave a comment below and let us know.