Oct 28, 2008

The MLS playoffs are upon us

Other than to poke fun of Major League Soccer or ponder (not always in jest) if Tottenham Hotspur could beat any of its teams, we really haven't written about MLS much this season. This is not to suggest we are in any way Eurosnobs; our light-hearted jabs at North America's leading professional league are exactly that--and we all know Spurs wouldn't stand a chance against most MLS sides anyway. In all seriousness, we see it as our duty to support MLS, but the truth is the level of play has improved dramatically in recent years. That was on full display again this past weekend, where dramatic games in Colorado and Columbus (both on natural grass! With no football yardlines!) decided the playoff fates of no fewer than four teams. It was great stuff and anybody still harboring doubts about the quality of play in MLS should check out video highlights of the Columbus match, particularly the winning goal by Brad Evans that ended the season for DC United.

Unfortunately, the league still has a lot wrong with it, starting with the very concept of the playoff system itself. This bogus tournament, which gives eight of the league's 14 teams an equal shot at glory, is of course driven more by economic necessity than anything else. The eight teams play home-and-away series against each other until it culminates with the only-in-America one game "MLS Cup" final. The seven month regular season is effectively rendered worthless. The league has, in its defense, done more in recent years to make the regular season worthwhile but it needs to do more still. We understand the (economic) need for a playoff but suggest perhaps introducing a wild card "liguilla" instead, with certain teams getting first round bys. More on that some other time. For now, this is what we got. So let's take a look at the field.

The regular season's best team, the Columbus Crew, face the Kansas City Wizards with Claudio Lopez in the first round (even though the Crew easily clinched the Supporters' Shield trophy for the best team in the regular season, they do not actually face the worst of the eight playoff teams, the New York Red Bulls. This due to another quirk in the system). The Wizards have been in this space before; just last season they upset the top seeded team in the Western Conference, Chivas USA, in the first round. Are there any chances of a repeat performance? Well, of course, but only because it's a two game series where neither team is at any advantage (okay, the Crew get to play the second game at home. That's it). The Wizards are likely to be at a disadvantage however, as late season acquisition Josh Wolff (one of their best players and arguably the reason they are even in the playoffs) is due to miss the postseason with injury. But again, it's two games. Anything can happen.

The other Eastern Conference semifinal is a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference final between New England and Chicago. Chicago has the home field advantage this time (or what passes for home field advantage; as just noted it doesn't make much of a difference) and are favored to advance. New England has been in a bit of a freefall lately with just one win in their last eight games and three losses in a row. Chicago is unbeaten in its last four games. Advantage Chicago? Yes. Even with all their postseason heroics in years past, we do not see how the Revs can win this series.

Over in the Western Conference the defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo face the New York Red Bulls, who snuck into the playoffs when DC United lost their game at Columbus. This is a team (New York) that won only once of its last six games and this season had more losses (11) than wins (10) and a -6 goal difference to boot--but somehow still made the playoffs. Only in MLS, folks. The New York franchise has been in a nearly perpetual state of chaos its entire existence. This year, two of its best players became the first in MLS history to be suspended for performance enhancing drugs. At one point the team showed some promise but the last month of the season has been a disaster. They gave up 20 goals their last six games. So figure Houston in a walk, right? Not so fast. The Red Bulls played the defending champs tough this season and thoroughly beat them by a 3-0 score in their last meeting (in arguably their best game of the season). But that was then, this is now. Houston should advance easily.

The final playoff match-up pits Chivas USA against Real Salt Lake. The Los Angeles side (Chivas) are coached by the outspoken Preki, whose real name is Предраг Радосављевић (honest! It means Predrag Radosavljević and is like Russian or something. But the guy emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-90s and even played for the U.S. national team at one point). English fans will know Chivas as the previous club of Brad Guzan, who is now the backup goalkeeper at Aston Villa. The team's best player is undoubtedly Sacha Kljestan, a 23-year old Orange County native who is in all likelihood just biding his time before he gets snapped up by a European club. The RSL player most likely to be transferred to a European side, however, is unlikely to leave the bench the entire series. We're talking about Chris Seitz, the backup goalkeeper (and U.S. Under-23 international). He's quite possibly the best American goalkeeper since Brad Friedel. RSL also have a guy called Yura Movsisyan, another former Eastern bloc native with U.S. passport, who has been scoring goals at a blistering pace. He got RSL's 90th minute equalizer against Colorado, which clinched the playoff birth and Rocky Mountain Cup. It should all make for great theater and you'll be sorry if you miss it!