MLS

MLS Playoff Final Four shows the best of the league

Now that the ill-timed FIFA International Date has passed, the MLS Cup Playoffs return Sunday. It’s easy to malign the playoff system, and I’ve done it plenty of times in the past. But if we take a look at what has departed and that which remains, it seems that everything has worked out according to common sense.

Old reliables, upstarts gone

We’ve been accustomed to Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City being fixtures in the Final Four in recent years.

While RSL continues to retool, augmenting the old guard (Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Alvaro Saborio) with young up-and-comers (Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez), it doesn’t seem to be happening soon enough. Sporting KC paid their big names this offseason, but they fell short as the season progressed and couldn’t find it again in the playoffs.

You also had some newer blood entering the early rounds in Vancouver, FC Dallas, and Columbus. These upstarts had a good year, all with new coaches. But when it came down to crunch time, they just were no match to the main tickets.

Finally, you had DC United. There is a poetic justice for a worst-to-first team flaming out of the playoffs. They added Eddie Johnson and Bobby Boswell, but still this was a team that looked as dull as they did in 2013. Ben Olsen figured out how to get them to the top of a weak Eastern Conference, but there they fell.

Big names, solid squads left

Rightly, the Western Conference Final is being lauded with the top billing. Between Landon Donovan’s final playoff run and Seattle’s run at a “treble,” these are the two powerhouses in MLS right now. You scrape below the Donovan/Dempsey storyline, and you also have Keane, Martins, Alonso, Gonzalez. A classic matchup for sure, with the Sounders being the MLS equivalent of Donovan McNabb’s Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid finally got the Eagles to the Super Bowl — can Sigi Schmid finally dial it up in an important playoff matchup?

The East finalists may not be as strong as the West, but the intrigue is no less present. The New York Red Bulls did get their Supporter’s Shield Trophy last year, but the Thierry Henry Era has to be viewed with disappointment if they fail to win MLS Cup. This year, they have the league’s leading scorer in Bradley Wright-Phillips, which should make any of the other three remaining teams worry.

Of course, the Red Bulls face New England, which presents its own strange scenario. Henry has never played at Gillette Stadium, a situation that is sure to make New York’s fans a bit worried. Certainly Henry will take the artificial pitch in Foxboro, right? If he doesn’t and the team falters, the fanbase may rewrite their memories of the French forward with all the concern he will call it a day after the playoffs.

And what about the Revolution? They are the lovable, entertaining team of castoffs. Lee Nguyen and Charlie Davies are great reclamation stories, and while Jermaine Jones is a stalwart for the USMNT, it was only because Europe was through with him. Jay Heaps has done a great job of bringing this team together and putting them on a path to potential glory, and may be playing the best soccer of all of the finalists.

Things couldn’t be much better as far as the teams set up with a chance for the 2014 MLS Cup. The only way it might have been better for the league would be if Toronto FC had found their way in. But Seattle, LA, New York, and New England represent four of the top five “stories” with on-the-field play MLS this year. That’s something to celebrate, as we head towards CBA negotiations and the debut of two expansion clubs.

4 Comments

  1. Been watching almost every game of the playoffs. I think L.A. is by far the best bet to win after watching them demolish RSL. My dark horse is New England, which I think can beat LA or Seattle if things fall their way.

  2. it’s the West’s if NY can take down NE. If NE go through to the final i think they’ll be a match for Seattle but crushed by LA.

    two very good series to watch. hope NE can pull it off.

  3. LA/SEA is going to be some of the best soccer this league has ever seen. I’m very excited.

    • Agree completely. It can be very easy to bash a Playoff system because it increases the odds of poorer teams at the expense of those who have proven stronger over the long haul. This year’s playoff tree has worked out for the better.

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