MLS playoffs — What to watch & why

Philadelphia Union’s season is over, but Major League Soccer goes on without them. The playoffs start tonight, and unlike in some past seasons, there are some damn good teams out there who are pretty fun to watch. Then again, there are some not worth your time. So for those who haven’t yet fully abandoned American soccer for the European leagues now that the Union’s season is over, here’s a guide for the Philly fan on the upcoming playoffs.

Playoffs — How they work

We didn’t spend much time explaining this earlier because we knew the Union weren’t going to make it. But the way it works in MLS is pretty convoluted, which makes sense because that’s often how much of the league seems. The simple part is that the first round consists of two-legged home-and-away matches. Winners advance to a one-off conference final, with the winners of that going onto the MLS Cup final.

Where it gets convoluted is the seedings. The top two teams from each conference make the playoffs, each in their own conference bracket. Then, the four teams with the next best records are divvied up between the east and west brackets. This year, because only two Eastern Conference teams — New York and Columbus — made the playoffs, the 7th and 8th teams (Colorado and San Jose) were thrown into the eastern bracket as the third and fourth seeds there. That’s why you have the overall second place team (Real Salt Lake) playing the overall fifth place team (FC Dallas) in the first round. RSL is the second seed in the west, while FCD is third. Likewise, the top seeded Los Angeles Galaxy get the red hot Seattle Sounders, who are 6th overall but 4th in the west.

Slightly bizarre, yes, but it makes for some terrific first round matches that are absolutely worth watching. On the other hand, it pits the two least interesting teams in the playoffs against each other in a pairing not worth your time. Here’s the rundown.

First round matchups

Columbus vs. Colorado — Thursday, 9 p.m.

Skip this match-up. The two last teams the Union lost to are also the least interesting of the bunch. Both limped into the postseason, although each got reprieves from that wounded retreat by pounding the Union at home. Columbus just lost its starting goalkeeper for the year, while Colorado is … well, they’re Colorado. Omar Cummings is on fire for the Rapids, but really, if you’re going to skip one of the playoff pairings, this is the one. Boring. The second leg takes place on … oh, who cares.

Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas, Saturday, 5 p.m.

Definitely watch this one. The pairing is great, and the game time is convenient. You finish watching the late EPL games or playing your amateur league game, and boom, this comes on. You don’t even need to move.

Real Salt Lake plays perhaps the most attractive soccer in MLS. Forget that they’re the defending champion. Don’t take Robbie Findley’s place on their team as a reason not to watch them. (OK, so it is one, but his impact on this team has been minimal this year.) This is a pass-and-move team whose sum of their parts is far more talented than the individual components on their own. They’re unselfish, and while they have good players (Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Jamison Olave, Kyle Beckerman), none is a superstar (or designated player). Their coach, Jason Kreis, may be a future USMNT coach. The on-field product is what the Union should want to replicate. They could win the CONCACAF Champions League. Even absent superstars, this team could beat a good number of EPL and La Liga teams.

On the other side, FC Dallas had a record unbeaten streak this year and looked like they might be the team to beat with the league MVP (playmaker David Ferreira), some young, budding U.S. internationals (Brek Shea, Dax McCarthy and Heath Pearce, if you like Heath Pearce), and the league’s hottest goalkeeper in Kevin Hartman (aka the guy the Union passed on in the expansion draft). But injuries wrecked McCarthy’s form and sidelined Hartman, and they finally hit the lost column as the season wound down. They could be a team in trouble, but if healthy, they’re as good as any in the league.

Unfortunately, the second leg is next Saturday at 10 p.m. Yeah, awesome. Why does MLS not want us to watch?

New York vs. San Jose, Saturday, 10 p.m.

Watch this one if you’re up late Saturday with no attractive person of the opposite sex around and aren’t playing soccer the next morning. Otherwise, forget it. It’s potentially a great matchup and has the Red Bulls to root against, but it’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. Yeah, Pacific time zone, blah blah blah — Translated to my East Coastese, it simply sounds to me like “WTF?”

New York should be one of the title favorites, but coach Hans Backe says Thierry Henry likely won’t play in the first leg. Of course, that’s probably a load of gamesmanship crap, but even if he doesn’t play, the replacement is Juan Pablo Angel, who could be a target of the Union next season but more likely will head to New England or somewhere like that since the Union actually have four players on their current roster who should be filling the striker/winger positions (Mwanga, Le Toux, Salinas and Mapp). New York has so many good players (Dane Richards, Joel Lindpere, Tim Ream, Rafa Marquez, Mehdi Ballouchy) that, given another season and a big center midfield signing, they could be the league’s best.

San Jose has some great attackers. Philly native Bobby Convey resurrected his career after knee problems, and Geovanni has been the best designated player this signing this year. Chris Wondolowski went from bench warmer to Golden Boot winner for his hometown team in one season. I’d totally be watching this match — if it wasn’t on at 10 p.m. on Saturday. Wait for the second leg at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 4 on ESPN, and then root for Convey to represent for Philly.

Los Angeles vs. Seattle, Sunday, 8 p.m. EST

Watch this if you hate American football. This great match-up happens the same time as the equally good Pittsburgh Steelers – New Orleans Saints game Sunday night. I’d take MLS, but the Saints are fun to watch.

On one side of this matchup, you have the Galaxy. Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Former USMNT coach Bruce Arena. Future USMNT starting center back Omar Gonzalez. And a bunch of other guys. They have talent, but Donovan needs a break and they seem old and slow of late.

Then you have the Sounders, who were the hottest team in the league with eight straight wins till a meaningless  Champions League match sent them to Costa Rica and wiped them out enough that they finished the regular season by crapping the bed and losing to a weak Houston team. Still, Seattle’s good and fast. Watch burner Steve Zakuani, who could join Danny Mwanga on the Congo national team if the two pass on the USMNT. (Zakuani is likely to.) Uruguayan national team starter Alvaro Fernandez might be the year’s most important designated player signing (just 25 years old, yet to peak), and Fredy Montero played out of his mind for half the season. Either team could win this series. The second leg is on the following Sunday night on ESPN, so if you want to pick a playoff match where you can watch both legs easily, go with this one.

If you’re betting …

Put your money on RSL to take it all. If they do, each game will be a bit more fun to watch. They got a real tough first round draw, but then so did L.A. The top four western teams, along with the Red Bulls, are probably the class of the league. MLS top brass would probably love to see L.A. and New York make it. But, you know, if you’re putting money on it — and since this isn’t eastern Europe, chances are no one’s throwing the game for cash — RSL.

(Cover photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *