After a marathon regular season that stretched from March 2 to Oct. 27, the MLS Cup playoffs have finally arrived. The playoffs won’t exactly be a sprint though. The MLS Cup won’t be awarded until Dec. 7
Here are five things to watch over the next month.
1. The Cup race is wide open
Who is the favorite? That would be the New York Red Bulls, winners of the Supporters’ Shield. But the high-powered Red Bulls (with forwards Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill) didn’t exactly run away with the league: They finished the season with just 10 more points (59) than the last playoff qualifier, Montreal (49).
Sporting Kansas City, the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake all finished within three points of New York and should be considered favorites as well. But, if history is any lesson, the favorites will have a hard time reaching the MLS Cup finals.
• Since 2002, the Supporters’ Shield winner has won the MLS Cup just three times (Los Angeles in 2002 and 2011, Columbus in 2008).
• The top seeds from the Eastern and Western conferences haven’t met in the Cup finals since 2003.
• And, in four of the last five MLS Cups, at least one representative has come from the last two teams to qualify for the playoffs. In 2009, Real Salt Lake won the Cup despite being the worst seed in the playoffs. Last year, Houston and Los Angeles reached the finals despite playing in the play-in game.
So, any takers on Colorado for the Cup?
2. Will this be Sporting KC’s year?
The last two seasons, Kansas City entered the playoffs as a Cup favorite. Both years saw heartbreak at the hands of the Dynamo. This year, Houston isn’t on the immediate horizon (though, the conference finals could see a rematch). Also, Kansas City has a good record against the rest of the conference (4-3-3, with two losses of those losses to Montreal), not to mention the league’s best defense (30 goals allowed) and best road record this season (8-5-4, including wins in New York and Houston).
Why won’t this be Kansas City’s year? It will be hard to advance too far if Kansas City can’t figure out how to score goals again. Over the last six games, the offense has sputtered with just six goals. Absent during that span has been Kansas City’s leading scorer and designated player Claudio Bieler. He has played just 12 minutes in the month of October.
3. The playoffs will be televised
Unlike years past, fans across the country will have a chance to watch both play-in games and at least the first leg of the conference semifinals. (TV schedules and times for the second leg have yet to be announced.)
The NBC Sports Network will air four of the six matches — locally, Sporting KC vs. New England will air on KSMO (Channel 62), but NBC Sports will air it nationally. NBC and ESPN will both air matches on Sunday.
4. Los Angeles vs. Salt Lake
This is easily the highlight of the semifinal round, as both teams are legitimate title contenders. Salt Lake was in contention most the year and was hampered during the season by the loss of its star forward Alvaro Saborio, captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando for a month during the Gold Cup. Los Angeles is chasing its third-straight MLS Cup and is led by a revived Landon Donovan, lethal Robbie Keane and a young core of exciting prospects.
Since 2009 — when Salt Lake beat Los Angeles in the finals — these are the only two teams to qualify for the playoffs every year.
5. A potential Cascadia grudge match
The potential is very high for hipster-on-hipster taunting this weekend as rivals Seattle and Portland could very well meet in the Western semifinals. The high-powered Sounders need to beat the Colorado Rapids in the play-in game first.
If it happens, this would be a dream come true for MLS and NBC Sports, as each venue will be packed to the rafters with very passionate fans.
MLS and NBC would also probably love if Seattle can get that far, as both will want to see U.S. national team captain (and the league’s highest-paid player) Clint Dempsey for as long as possible.