The Major League Soccer playoffs have yet again thrown a wrench into the spokes of all thought and belief supporters and fans have in the MLS regular season.
Sporting KC, whose points total was the second best in the league and some believed was the best team overall, was knocked out of the playoffs at the hands of the Houston Dynamo Wednesday night. Only to be outdone by San Jose Earthquakes, the league’s best team in the regular season, who was dismissed by LA Galaxy.
Houston is the fifth seed in the league’s Eastern Conference half of the playoff bracket. Meaning, the club was the fifth best team entering the playoffs in the east. Going one step further, while Sporting KC finished second in overall points to Supporters’ Shield winner San Jose, the Dynamo finished 13-points and nine places behind the Earthquakes.
However, in the playoffs those places mean very little as the league has shown fans throughout the years.
Regardless if you love the playoffs or hate them, MLS continues to be an interesting league – and exciting this time of the year – for fans and neutrals alike. While many in the US and abroad enjoy lamenting the league for its ability to crown a champion that isn’t truly the best team throughout the year, the league championship is still seen as being winnable by all in MLS.
Though many pundits believe just making the playoffs is good enough, the regular season and playoff structure makes it possible for almost any team to win the MLS Cup at the beginning of each season. Well, almost any team.
This season San Jose won the Supporters’ Shield following a seventh place Western Conference finish in 2011, completely missing the playoffs. Since returning to MLS play in 2008, San Jose had not finished higher than sixth in the Western Conference and had only made the playoffs once prior to this season.
In 2012, Earthquakes’ supporters just hoped the team could make the postseason and some even wondered whether Frank Yallop was capable of leading the team any further. However, MLS once again showed us anything can happen during the regular season; and as both Sporting KC and San Jose found out, anything can happen in the playoffs.
This year marked the second consecutive year Houston knocked the top team in the Eastern Conference out of the playoffs. In both years that top team was Sporting KC.
The Dynamo had already played the Chicago Fire in the first round of the playoffs. While Sporting KC received a bye thanks to their top of the Eastern Conference finish. The win against Chicago and Sporting KC showed the importance of momentum at this time of year.
Similarly, San Jose’s elimination at the hands of LA showed the MLS Cup Champions return to form when it truly mattered.
The Galaxy capped off a fantastic 2011 by winning the MLS Cup in front of their home supporters. However, the regular season, CONCACAF Champions League, age of the squad and injuries all took their toll on the club in 2012. However, in their Western Conference semifinal win over the Earthquakes, the Galaxy showed the form that made them runaway Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winners a year ago.
Regardless of whoever wins the MLS Cup Final, the team will have the fortune or misfortune of enduring a similarly grueling season as the Galaxy did in 2012. As no matter how talented the team is, the amount of games and travel are the true opponents. The Galaxy treaded water during much of the season – finishing fourth in the west – and just like Houston, used the first round of the playoffs to build momentum.
Both teams have now used that momentum to carry themselves into their respective conference finals. This year’s playoffs have, once again, shown the relative importance of not winning the Supporters’ Shield. With San Jose’s loss, the Supporters’ Shield winner has only done the double six times in 17 chances.
Other than DC United’s three MLS Cup wins in four years, and Houston’s back-to-back wins in 2006 and 2007, MLS has lacked a dominant team; though LA can make a case for that title. The club has featured in seven finals – most by any team – winning three – second most to DC United.
MLS is unique in the fact that in any given season, the MLS Cup could end up in any of the 18 cities that make up the league. Though in reality, teams like Toronto, Portland, New England or Chivas USA would be happy just to get into the playoffs.
Now with the two best teams according to points out of the playoffs, many fans will once again clamor for the end of the postseason. However, no regular season in MLS could make supporters care quite as much as the playoffs have already. This year is a victory for the MLS postseason.
Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @CalcioFarmer and read Drew’s work at MLSTalk and Forzaitalianfootball.com, where he covers Italy’s Genoa CFC. Drew also hosts the Forzaitalianfootball.com weekly Club Focus podcast and writes his own personal football and travel blog at Excellent Adventure/Bogus Journey.