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Posted Oct 26, 2011, 8:43 am
The Major League Soccer regular season ended Sunday with the Los Angeles Galaxy's Jack McBean scoring his team's lone goal in a losing effort against the Houston Dynamo. With that, 10 of the league's teams found out who they'll play in the post-season.
The teams are playing for a chance to face off on Nov. 20 at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles for the MLS Cup. The MLS post-season is shorter than in other American sports, and has a few quirks.
The league is split into two conferences: West and East. The top three teams in each conference earned a spot in the playoffs.
Los Angeles, Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake represent the Western Conference; Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo and the Philadelphia Union represent the Eastern Conference. Add to this four wild-card teams: runners up that didn't get to the top spots in their conference. The wild cards are last year's runner up FC Dallas, current champions Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew and New York Redbulls.
East not always East; West might not be West
In 2010, the league faced something hard to explain: the Eastern Conference champion was Western team Colorado. It wasn't the first time it happened: Real Salt Lake was the "East" champion in 2009, and New York was the "West" champion in 2008. So, at the beginning of the season, the league announced some changes in the playoff format that, well, can produce the exact same results.
This year, the wild-card teams will play each other first, and the two winners will face the top team from each conference. Which champion they face depends on where they were in the standings.
OK, are you ready?
The lower seeded of the wild-card teams that makes it past the first game will face Los Angeles, who ended the season with a better record than Kansas City. This means, if Dallas beats New York, they will play Kansas City. If New York wins, they will play Los Angeles.
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If Colorado beats Columbus, they will play Los Angeles, but only if New York loses, otherwise they will play Kansas City. If Columbus wins, they only have to face Los Angeles if New York loses.
When Che Guevara said that it's a simple game, it was because he hadn't looked at the playoff format.
And did I mention that the conference semi-finals are on aggregate goals?
Who is going to win this thing?
Even though both Kansas City and Los Angeles still have a few matches to play, the two conference champions are being touted as the finalists already.
Kyle McCarthy of the Boston Herald and Goal.com still wants to see how the wild-card matches shake out, but is reasonably confident about a KC-LA match up
"They are the hottest team in the East, but if FC Dallas comes out of the wild card, it could make things difficult."
"Hottest team in the East," isn't the strongest praise this season: Kansas City's 51 points would have placed them in fifth place had they been competing in the stronger Western Conference.
But, as Big Soccer's Dan Loney points out, the numbers don't tell Kansas City's whole story.
"That .500 record is deceiving because of that road stretch at the beginning of the season."
Kansas City's owners were building a new stadium, and they spent the first months of the season barnstorming. Out of those twelve games on the road, they only won two.
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Both Loney and McCarthy point out that Kansas City is on a good streak right now: they haven't lost a game since mid-September.
On the other side of the bracket is Los Angeles. McCarthy sees some possible land mines for the Galaxy on the way to the final.
"The road they have to take the Western Conference is far more difficult to get through. They'll be playing the games at home, but they have the weight of expectations."
Of course, the reason that those expectations are so weighty is because the team has been so good. The tandem of David Beckham and Landon Donovan was already strong enough, and the team added Irish national team captain Robbie Keane this year.
Loney points out that despite LA's quality, the team can easily falter.
"Los Angeles is good at phoning it in. They get easily distracted." Loney pointed out that bottom feeding teams got the best of them at times.
"Heck, New England tied LA, Toronto tied LA."
Loney and McCarthy disagree on whether or not a wild card team could beat Los Angeles. "Nobody in that wild card round beats Los Angeles," says Loney, but McCarthy feels that New York with it's star studded, albeit chaotic, line-up could pull it off.
"There is a history of teams rising for the playoffs and New York has the talent," McCarthy notes, although today's news says that New York's blunderbuss Luke Rogers will be out for the Wednesday match.
Oh, and those other teams
Kansas City, should they beat whatever wild card team they draw, will face the winner of the Houston Dynamo — Philadelphia Union match. Houston's coach, Dominic Kinnear, has a history of pulling out victories in the playoffs. Philadelphia is talented, but still a new team without an awful lot of depth, and not a good track record in the playoffs.
"(Philly coach) Peter Nowak whips his teams into the Supporters' Shield (the award given to the team with the best overall record) and they run out of gas," says Loney.
The other two teams in the Western Conference are Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake. Despite McCarthy feeling that LA is a favorite, he thinks the Sounders have a great chance.
"They haven't had post-season success, but their form is good. You could make an argument for them to be the favorites."
An interesting back story for Seattle: the playoffs will be the last games for the Sounders' Kasey Keller, who had been the U.S. national team goalkeeper since 1990.
Loney is looking at RSL.
"Salt Lake is the best team top to bottom if Javier Morales is healthy." Morales is the team's Argentine midfielder who scored two goals and an assist in his first game, but was lost to the team for over four months due to injury.
Where to watch
The first wild-card match is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. local time. The Dallas and New York contest will be shown on Fox Soccer Channel.
Thursday's match between Colorado and Columbus does not have a national broadcaster, but the league will be streaming the match on their website at MLSSoccer.com. Kick off will be at 7 p.m.