The MLS playoffs are here. After eight months, and 34 games, the regular season is done, and with barely a break, it’s on to the postseason.
Chicago and Houston get the ball rolling in the Windy City Wednesday night, as the fourth seeded Fire host number five Houston. Chicago are a good example of the volatility of MLS. Just over two weeks ago, after a solid 2-0 away win over New York, the Fire looked like a certain top three finisher. But a shock 1-0 loss at New England, and a 1-1 tie at home to DC United landed Chicago in the Russian roulette style 4/5 match.
Now Chicago face last season’s beaten MLS finalists, Houston Dynamo, for the poisoned chalice of facing Sporting Kansas City on November 4th. It really comes across as a toss up, with the Fire given the slight edge as the home side.
It seems an odd coincidence that the team that vanquished Houston in the 2011 MLS Cup, the L.A. Galaxy, find themselves in the Western Conference Knockout game this Thursday. The Galaxy remain loaded with talent, both big name and other, and should be too much for Vancouver to handle. Should Bruce Arena’s boys take care of business, it sets up a mouth watering showdown with Chris Wondolowski, and the rest of the Supporters Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes on November 4th.
Just as a reminder, here is a quick breakdown on how the MLS playoffs work. The fourth place team hosts the fifth place finisher in each conference in one game, to qualify to face the top points getter in their conference in the second round. Also in the second round, seeds two and three face off. The second round is a two game, total goals aggregate, with the higher seed hosting the second match.
The two winners advance to the Conference Final, which are run in the same two game format. The two conference finalists then meet on December 1 in the MLS Cup, with the higher seeded team hosting. This is the first year that the MLS Cup will not be held at a neutral site.
In the East, second seed DC United will battle New York Red Bulls. Dwayne De Rosario may or may not make it back from injury in time to go against his former employers. Surprisingly Ben Olsen’s United squad rallied when their talisman went down a few weeks ago. The Red Bulls are stacked with DP’s and firepower. Kenny Cooper has benefitted from playing alongside French legend Thierry Henry, and with Tim Cahill added to the mix, the attack is potent.
Until recently, it would have been fair to label DP Rafa Marquez, a bust for the Red Bulls. But in the last couple of games, playing at center back, the long time Mexican captain has stabilized the Bulls defense, and with that attack, New York could edge this series.
Sporting KC are tough, fit, and talented, and should be too much for the winner of the Houston, Chicago game.
Out West, Real Salt Lake have flown under the radar this season. Alvaro Saborio finished third in MLS with 17 goals. No other Salt Lake player reached double figures. RSL have done it with defense. Nick Rimando is top notch in the nets, and has led RSL to three straight shutouts. Seattle have that dynamic strike duo of Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson leading the way. Johnson is battling a hamstring problem and an MRI today will go some ways toward deciding Seattle immediate future. If Johnson is 100% I think Seattle will advance.
San Jose and L.A. is the one everyone will be waiting for. Just last week the two clubs provided a preview with a hard fought 2-2 draw. Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez stirred things up afterwards, calling San Jose’s robust style embarrassing. All season long, fans and pundits alike, have waited for the Galaxy to take off. If Beckham, Donovan, Keane, and company can get on a roll, the thinking goes, watch out. If this game comes off, San Jose will try to slow that roll.
San Jose and SKC, come in as the top seeds. Defending champions L.A. will try to win a second consecutive final, while fellow big spenders, New York, will go for their first ever. Chicago, Houston, DC, Vancouver, RSL, and Seattle, will all have their say, as the 2012 MLS playoffs begin.
It has taken eight months and 34 games, to get to this point. It will take just three, or for four, more games, and just over one more month to crown a champion. So here we go.