10 things to know about MLS playoffs
After 306 regular-season games plus a slew of cup matches in other competitions, MLS can focus at last on the games that matter the most: the MLS Cup playoffs.
Granted, it borders on overkill to use that many games to eliminate less than half of the league's teams. Ten playoff teams also seem too many, but these are debates for another day. Every game means something, and every team, no matter how patchy its regular-season form might have been, has a shot to raise the MLS Cup. In fact, the past two champions -- Real Salt Lake in 2009 and the Colorado Rapids last year -- emerged victorious from the deepest recesses of the playoff bracket.
With that in mind, here are 10 things you need to know heading into the 2011 edition of the playoffs.
1. Curses, curses
The playoffs have usually not been kind to the Supporters' Shield winners. While the league's regular-season champion claimed four of the first seven MLS Cups, that team's fate has been tougher in recent campaigns. Since 2002, only one Supporters' Shield winner -- the 2008 Columbus Crew -- has managed to hoist the MLS Cup at season's end, hence the Supporters' Shield Curse.
But recent years have revealed a more virulent hex on the league's elite, that being the CONCACAF Champions League Curse. Since CONCACAF's premier club competition -- yes, that's hyping it just a bit -- went to a group stage in the 2008-09 edition to determine the quarterfinalists, not a single MLS participant has even reached the MLS Cup final. That seems likely to change this year given that four of the league's five participants are from the Western Conference, although Real Salt Lake could continue the trend. That said, it will be interesting to see if one of Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas or Colorado can rise above its CCL exertions and claim the title.
2. Momentum is overrated
One of the more oft-repeated articles of faith among coaches is, "You want to finish strong heading into the playoffs." It makes perfect sense. What coach wouldn't want his side to be playing well heading into the postseason? For that reason fans in places like L.A., Seattle, Houston and Kansas City will all be hoping to ride that form into a deep playoff run.
Except there's one problem. When it comes to the playoffs, regular-season form matters little. Last year, New York finished the season 6-2-2 only to get ambushed by San Jose in the first round. Real Salt Lake was riding a 14-game unbeaten streak heading into the playoffs and was upended by Dallas at the same stage. So those fans of teams that have been scuffling a bit of late -- that would be Dallas, Salt Lake and Columbus -- can take heart. The playoffs are the proverbial clean slate. Which leads us to
3. New York's second chance
Had the MLS Board of Governors decided not to expand the playoffs to 10 teams at its annual meeting last year, New York would be watching this year's postseason on television. Oh the humanity. No Thierry Henry. No Rafa Marquez. No Rafa Marquez interviews. Instead, the Red Bulls have an away date with FC Dallas in the wild-card round. Granted, the fact that N.Y. had to wait until the last game of the season to qualify for the playoffs shows it has plenty of problems. Its defense, Tim Ream in particular, has been prone to costly gaffes. Manager Hans Backe has had to determine exactly which position Marquez should play in order to inflict the least amount of damage on his own team. For now that's in the center of midfield, despite his lack of mobility.
But the Red Bulls certainly have the tools to go deep in the playoffs. Henry is back from suspension and scored 14 goals this season. Dane Richards is in good form and Joel Lindpere and Teemu Tainio have the kind of skill and work rate to cover up for Marquez's lack of pace. That's just the kind of team that the playoffs were made for.
4. The loaded Western Conference
Just how out of balance are the league's conferences? Eastern champ Sporting Kansas City would have finished in fifth place in the West, two points ahead of Colorado. As such, whoever emerges from that half of the bracket will be battle-tested, or battle-weary depending on how you look at it. Seattle and Real Salt Lake will slug it out in a first-round matchup that would make for a pretty fair MLS Cup final if one were to ignore conferences. If form holds in the wild-card matches, L.A. could wind up having to play Colorado, which would make for a tricky series given the changes in altitude between the two home venues. Although the home-field advantage L.A. will enjoy throughout the playoffs will help, history has shown that
5. Home-field advantage counts for little
This is probably because there isn't that much of a home-field advantage in a two-game series. From the 2005 season on, lower-seeded teams have beaten higher-seeded opponents as often as they've lost over two legs. But the data isn't that much more encouraging for home teams in a single-game playoff, either. In 12 conference finals over the same span, the home team's record is 7-5. And last year the Galaxy were upset by Dallas, denying the club its second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance.
6. Time for a Designated Player to raise the Cup
It has become almost a mantra in MLS circles: No team with a Designated Player has ever won the MLS Cup. Some hair-splitting is going on here. Columbus won the title in 2008 and the next year attacking maestro Guillermo Barros Schelotto was bumped into that category. But the fact remains that no player has tasted championship champagne while pegged with the DP label.
That looks set to change this year, however. Of the 10 playoff teams, seven have a DP, including the teams with the five highest point totals. That leaves one of Philadelphia, Houston or Colorado to keep the streak alive.
7. Philadelphia's maiden playoff voyage
Honor is due to Peter Nowak's side. Expansion teams are usually given a pass in their first year, but expectations are raised in the second. Yet reaching the postseason hasn't been easy for second-year sides, especially given how expansion has usually reduced the percentage of teams that qualify for the postseason. Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and the San Jose Earthquakes all failed to make the playoffs in their sophomore campaigns, while Philly joined Chivas USA and Seattle in making the step up.
Yet Nowak is not a manager who will take the happy-to-be-here approach. And Philly has enough wise old heads in the form of Faryd Mondragon, Brian Carroll and Danny Califf that it won't be overawed by the occasion. It will also be a treat to see how an attacking talent like Sebastien Le Toux fares in the playoff glare.
8. Seattle's barren playoff streak
The Sounders have accomplished much in their brief MLS existence. They have won three U.S. Open Cups and qualified for the postseason three years running. Yet there is a gaping hole in their résumé. They have yet to win a playoff series. Heck, they've scored just one playoff goal in 390 minutes, and that was a consolation strike by Steve Zakuani against Los Angeles last year with the Galaxy 3-0 up on aggregate. While two playoff series aren't the largest data sampling, Seattle's success in the regular season and the U.S. Open Cup has not translated into playoff glory.
Seattle's road will by no means be easy, given its aforementioned tilt against Real Salt Lake, which tied for the second-best defensive record in the league. But the Sounders will be hoping that a more varied attack -- five players who had at least five goals this season -- will be the ticket to moving into the Western Conference final for the first time in their history.
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9. Hopes ride on the walking wounded
Nearly every player is carrying some kind of injury this time of year, but some injuries are weighing heavier than others on the minds of coaches. New York forward Luke Rodgers is already out for Wednesday's wildcard match against Dallas, and if the Red Bulls survive, could miss the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal as well. The L.A. trio of Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane is dealing with quadriceps, back, and adductor injuries, respectively. Donovan and Beckham appear fit enough to play next weekend, but Keane is likely to miss the first leg of the Western Conference semi. Seattle midfielder Mauro Rosales is also an injury doubt with a recurrence of the sprained MCL he originally hurt three weeks ago. Then there's the season long wear and tear on players like Dallas' Brek Shea and teammate Daniel Hernandez. Suffice it to say that managing -- and recovering from -- such injuries will play a large part in a team's playoff success.
10. Speaking of Beckham ...
The Englishman is in the last year of his contract, and while a return to the Galaxy remains a distinct possibility, the midfielder would love to crown his stay in L.A. with a championship, assuming he doesn't have a testimonial already penciled in on his calendar. Jokes aside, Beckham has enjoyed his best season in MLS, notching 15 assists, and his long-range passing remains a pillar of the L.A. attack. The Galaxy have assembled plenty of championship-caliber pieces alongside him, among them Donovan and defender Omar Gonzalez. The soccer planets -- at least in MLS terms -- have never been so perfectly aligned for the league's first-ever DP.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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