TORONTO - It’s that time of the year when Toronto FC is finished playing and the real soccer begins. But this year, Torontonians have more reason to watch Major League Soccer’s playoffs with the MLS Cup game being staged at BMO Field, Nov. 21.
Eight teams remain, and to say the road to the MLS Cup is a crap-shoot would be an understatement. Last year, the eighth and final team to qualify, Real Salt Lake, went on to win it all, defeating the L.A. Galaxy in a shoot-out in Seattle.
This year’s playoff crop features four teams that missed the playoffs last year, including the worst three teams from the Western Conference a year ago, and the New York Red Bulls going from worst to first in the Eastern Conference. The first playoff round is a home and away aggregate set-up, with the winners moving on to a one-game knock-out in the Conference finals.
Here’s a break-down of the MLS Cup quarter-final match-ups:
Colorado (12-10-8) v Columbus (14-8-8).
The streaking Colorado Rapids crossover to the East to take on a struggling Columbus Crew side (1-3-3 in last seven in MLS), dealing with fitness issues stemming from an arduous schedule. The Crew have played eight more games in all competitions than their playoff opponents and have more questions heading into their home and home than the lesser seed.
Columbus will be without starting goalkeeper Will Hesmer, out with a shoulder injury. Andy Gruenebaum makes his MLS debut, although the keeper started in CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup play. The Crew defensive line, aside from the continued stellar play of Chad Marshall hardly looks the part either. A balanced attack is the team’s strength, but lacks cutting edge behind the aging legs of Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Colorado is an extremely difficult place to play and is a team hitting on all cylinders; a context resembling that of the Real Salt Lake side that upset Columbus in the playoffs last year. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey were the best goal-scoring duo in MLS this season (27 goals) and can punish a Crew backline that’s become uncharacteristically sloppy.
The Rapids scored three goals or more in five of their last 10 MLS games, only losing twice in that stretch. The veteran presences of Brian Mullan and Pablo Mastroeni give Gary Smith’s side requisite experience to legitimately be thinking upset.
PICK: If you’re going to take one underdog, make it Colorado.
San Jose (13-7-10) v New York (15-6-9)
The two worst teams in MLS a year ago are both well-deserved of their playoff berths. San Jose qualified as the final playoff team, and faces a difficult crossover, cross-country match-up against the star-laden Red Bulls.
The Earthquakes are led by Canadian head coach Frank Yallop; a two-time MLS Cup winner, although he hasn’t managed a playoff game since 2003.
The Earthquakes play a well organized 4-4-2 system and received a much needed injection of offensive creativity through Geovanni mid-season. The former Barcelona and Hull City man has fit right in and has opened things up in attack, directly coinciding with the monstrous finish to the season by MLS Golden Boot Winner Chris Wondolowski.
On paper, the Red Bulls are the better side, but Thierry Henry’s knee issues are off-putting. Henry will miss the first game at San Jose, and is anything but a sure thing to play in the return leg. The heavy work up front will once again be given to longtime Designated Player Juan Pablo Angel, who is leaving the club at the end of the season.
Behind Angel, Rafa Marquez’ post World Cup arrival has brought a calming influence, providing consistency in distribution and organization in the midfield.
The rest of the team, although unheralded, are a solid group, committed to playing sound, defensive soccer.
Rookie centre-back Tim Ream played every minute of the season and can be relied upon much like the Galaxy leaned on Omar Gonzalez last year.
PICK: New York is far too good at home and San Jose’s meager +1 goal differential on the year does little to inspire. Take the consistent and talented Red Bulls.
Dallas (12-14-4) v Real Salt Lake (15-11-4)
Dallas and RSL were the two toughest teams to play all season. Unbelievably, they only lost a combined eight games between them, had the fewest goals against and were the stoutest sides on home turf.
Dallas had a record-setting year; a 19-game unbeaten streak, tops in MLS history. Ironically enough, that streak was ended by a 2-0 loss to RSL. On the flip side, RSL is currently on a 14-game unbeaten streak and their last loss came against Dallas.
The match also features two MLS MVP candidates in Dallas midfielder David Ferreira and RSL midfielder Javier Morales. Ferreira has the ability to put his team on his back and win a game by himself, but will be in tough against MLS best midfield and a side that gave up only 20 goals on the year; the best goals against in MLS history.
The reigning champs have no Designated Player but the team is as talented as they come. Head coach Jason Kreis rotates his deep squad masterfully, and his hit a goldmine in striker Alvaro Soborio. Jamison Olave is a beast at the back and goalkeeper Nick Rimando is as solid as they come. RSL has not lost a game at home all year.
PICK - Look for a draw in Dallas and RSL to pick up the home victory in the return leg to advance. They are out to prove last year’s title was no fluke.
Seattle (14-6-10) v LA Galaxy (18-5-7)
The Supporters Shield-winning Galaxy and head coach Bruce Arena proved again this season the team is much more than just David Beckham.
The Galaxy started the season 10-2-1 before the World Cup. The team struggled down the stretch, but with Beckham returning to full fitness Los Angeles will consider anything less than hoisting the MLS Cup a disappointment.
The problem is, Los Angeles has been handed the most difficult of first round match-ups. Seattle has all the makings to spoil the party; speed down the wings (Zakuani and Nyassi), a crafty centre-midfielder (Alonso), a proven veteran goalkeeper (Keller) and a natural goal-scorer (Montero).
Add two late-season additions with International pedigree (Nkufo and Fernandez), and the Sounders are scary as they come.
Seattle’s weakness is their backline, giving up a playoff-worst 35 goals on the year.
The Galaxy attack, featuring the speedy Landon Donovan and advantageous Edson Buddle should prove too stiff a task for Sigi Schmid’s reinforced defensive unit. In two games in MLS play, the Galaxy dominated the Sounders to the tune of a combined 7-1 score-line.
PICK: The Sounders are a trendy pick based on current form. They are 12-2-2 against MLS competition since the World Cup. But the Galaxy have shown similar signs to their sterling early season form as of late, giving reason to believe they will advance. With absolutely no confidence whatsoever, I lean Galaxy.