A thrilling weekend of MLS matches ended Sunday evening with the New England Revolution claiming the final playoff spot after their 1-0 win at the Columbus Crew. Needing only a draw to advance, given the string of events that took place on Saturday, the Revs made sure they would advance when Jeff Larentowicz hammered home a spectacular and unstoppable 79th minute free kick that is sure to garner significant Goal-of-the-Week consideration. If New England had somehow faltered at Crew Stadium last night, the Colorado Rapids were poised to claim the last available playoff spot. Instead, the Western Conference has to settle for 3 of 4 wildcard slots – with Real Salt Lake moving over into the Eastern Conference bracket as the fourth seed.
Five teams from the West and three teams from the East – the opposite of what we saw in last season’s MLS Cup playoffs. The consensus in 2008 was that the Eastern Conference was clearly superior to their western counterpart, an opinion backed up by the stunning run of the New York Red Bulls to the Cup Finals out of the Western Conference bracket. (They also claimed a small piece of silverware as the “Western Conference Champions” – explain that one to the casual soccer fan!) This season, momentum has swung out West, where undoubtedly 4 of the best 5 teams in MLS reside. Apologies to the Chicago Fire, but only the Columbus Crew can stand toe-to-toe with the West’s Big Four. So while I expect the Crew will be flying into Seattle later in November to defend their MLS Cup win of a year ago, three weeks of mouth-watering matches out west will determine their opponent.
Top seed LA Galaxy faces their intercity rival CD Chivas USA; the Houston Dynamo takes on the expansion darlings Seattle Sounders FC. What fan of MLS doesn’t want to see these intriguing and fascinating pairings. Some of the league’s biggest stars will be on display in these matches – including the biggest one of all, David Beckham. But let’s not forget Ljungberg, Donovan, Holden, Kljestan, Keller, Ching, Bornstein, Clark, and Montero – the faces of Major League Soccer doing battle in a quest for the Cup. Two straight Superclassico matches at the Home Depot Center – two straight chances to watch Beckham and Donovan avoid the hardest tackling team in MLS. Two standing-room-only crowds urging on their clubs, with all the noise, chants, drums, banners, and taunts a soccer fan could ask for. Up north at Qwest Field, the Sounders fans will put on their own brand of frenzied support – c’mon Houston, time to rally around your club and fill up Robertson Stadium for the return leg. There is no doubt we are in for an exciting time watching the Western Conference bracket draw down to one.
How about this scenario: by the end of the second weekend in November, the dust will have settled on the Western Conference playoffs, and for the third time in four years, the Houston Dynamo will be poised to win the MLS Championship. After exacting their revenge on Seattle in the second leg of their first round tie, the Dynamo will travel to Carson, California and methodically break down the defense of the Galaxy in a 3-1 triumph. The class of the Western Conference in this decade – including their years in San Jose – will cap off 2009 with another MLS Cup.
Of course the regular season matters – congratulations to the Columbus Crew on winning the Supporters Shield for the second season in a row – but the playoffs are where memories are made. This past weekend gave us a taste of that win-or-go-home sensation across the Week #32 schedule – the perfect appetizer for the MLS Final Eight. However, the regular season is behind us, and the playoffs begin this Thursday. While I’ll have an eye on what is happening out east, my focus will be squarely on the battles in the west. For the teams involved in the 2009 edition of the MLS Cup playoffs, the West is surely the best.