Know your MLS -- five things we learned from Round 30, with playoffs set to begin Thursday:
1. Playoff format tweaking ahead? -- There's a lot of playoff talk right now, which certainly is no surprise. But here's the twist: Not all of the postseason blabber concerns this year's playoffs. Sentiment to amend the postseason structure seems to be running high.
RSL co-owner Dave Checketts, whose experience in other major U.S. sports means he is always front and center in these conversations, says he hasn't seen the official agenda for upcoming board of directors meetings in Toronto around the MLS Cup, but he feels strongly that the playoff structure will be addressed.
"The good news is that we have an enormously creative and together group of owners, so we will have an opportunity to revisit the whole playoff system and pairings and the way we go about it all," Checketts said by phone Friday.
While he hasn't heard much sentiment for expanding the playoff field (from eight, where it's been since MLS Day 1), he said everything else could be up for discussion.
One element surely to be examined is the format change that takes place between the first and second rounds; the opening matchup is a home-and-away, aggregate goals series while the conference final is a one-match, winner-take-all. Should the conference final be home-and-away as well? That could further undermine the importance of the regular season (subtracting some of the advantage of finishing higher in the standings), and that's something nobody likes to see. Plus, it would add another week to a season that already stretches eight months.
"The season is already so long, so you're getting into some really cold weather in many of these cities," Checketts said. "So it's complicated to make it any longer. We're already playing to Thanksgiving now, and I can't imagine going past that."
MLS commissioner Don Garber says the league's regular-season scheduling structure could be tweaked, so that could affect the playoff structure. For instance, if next year's 18-team league is split into three divisions rather than the current two, that will influence the elements of which teams qualify for the postseason.
And there are other considerations, such as the difficulties of selling a midweek playoff match on short notice. Just ask Colorado. The Rapids are one of the weaker teams in MLS attendance as it is, and they get just four days to sell Thursday's match against Columbus. Don't be surprised to see empty seats on national TV in a match that opens the MLS playoffs -- and you can bet that will be mentioned during those upcoming discussions, too.
2. Who had Chris Wondolowski in the Golden Boot pool? -- It's Wondolowski's world -- the rest of us are just hoping to keep an accurate tally of all of the goals he's scoring.
The San Jose man punctuated his late-season assault on league awards by claiming MLS' Golden Boot with four goals over the final week. He hit for three in midweek against Chivas USA and then finished another wonderful arrangement from teammate Geovanni for the Earthquakes' only goal in a season-ending, weekend loss at Kansas City.
The hat trick against Chivas USA came over just 50 minutes as "Wondo" had been given the night off -- but had to report for duty because of injury. The career backup -- he had just 11 career starts and only four goals over five MLS seasons coming into 2010 -- finished with a stunning 18 goals. That left him one ahead of the Galaxy's Edson Buddle, who couldn't find the goal Sunday night against Dallas that would let him share the prize.
Another factor in Wondolowski's implausible rise is that most of his goals came out of the midfield. Cobi Jones was the last MLS man to hit for as many while playing primarily as a midfielder; he scored 19 times in 1998. (Landon Donovan led the league with 20 goals in 2008, but team officials say he played about two-thirds of the season as a forward and only about a third as a midfielder.)
As for Wondolowski and his "you couldn't write this stuff into a Hollywood script" season, another individual award could still punctuate all this: a league MVP. He would be the most unlikely choice yet to claim the top individual honor.
Dallas' David Ferreira, Donovan and others have bodies of work that stretched over more of the full season. But Wondolowski's storybook tale, most of which was written over the season's final third, will be fresh in voters' minds. And that means something come balloting time.
3. Colorado's stunning collapse -- Suffice to say, this is not the way Colorado wants to go into the playoffs.
The Rapids have looked extra crisp lately, mostly in good form over September and October. Omar Cummings and Conor Casey both struck over the weekend, giving the pair 51 combined goals over the last two years. Lesser MLS striking partnerships could toil for five seasons and not turn up that many goals.
Everything was looking tight and right at Dicks Sports Goods Park on Saturday, when Gary Smith's Rapids were making life difficult for a motivated Real Salt Lake side, one still hunting a Supporters Shield. The Rapids applied high pressure to great effect and held a 2-0 lead in the 90th minute. To the west, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was already making calls, he admitted later, informing certain players that they wouldn't be needed in Sunday's finale, since the RSL loss would clinch the Supporters Shield for L.A.
Then it all unraveled spectacularly for Colorado. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens, solid all year, got sloppy and allowed RSL striker Alvaro Saborio to block a clearance, turning a routine moment in a seemingly decided game into a howler. It was still 2-1 Rapids in stoppage time.
Then came the equalizer. Kudos to referee Ricardo Salazar for having the courage to whistle Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan for a blatant, late foul in the penalty area. Yes, it was blatant, but that doesn't make it a sure-thing call. Not in MLS, where the weekend's final round was pockmarked by the usual number of mind-boggling decisions from the league's men in the middle. Yes, referee Mark Geiger should certainly have called a foul as L.A's Donovan pushed Dallas defender Jackson just before L.A's first goal Sunday. But that wasn't even the weekend's worst, most meaningful choice near goal. That would go to Kevin Stott, who blundered when he cautioned Seattle's Steve Zakuani for being taken down inside the Houston penalty area.
Back to Colorado: Mullan's combativeness and famous desire are always commendable and usually serve his teams well, but he does perennially walk a fine line regarding the laws of the game. In this case he gambled and lost, clearly pulling down RSL's Jamison Olave as Javier Morales directed a free kick into Colorado's penalty area. Saborio converted the spot shot for his 12th goal this year and RSL kept the Rocky Mountain Cup.
In L.A., Arena pushed on with plans to field his first-choice lineup. (The Galaxy would win 2-1 to finish with the best record.) Meanwhile, Smith was left to make sense of it all.
"I couldn't have asked for any more from any of those players up until the last three minutes, which was a farce," the Rapids' coach said. "I'm delighted with how they played; I'm just disappointed with the farcical ending."
4. The best chance for a first-round upset is ... -- On the other hand, by losing two points with the tie (instead of gathering all three points for the win), the Rapids unintentionally did themselves a favor.
By dropping the points, the Rapids finished fifth in the West. In the convoluted playoff structure, that means they face the second seed from the East, Columbus.
Make no mistake, this is not the team that won an MLS Cup two years ago, even if so many of the names are the same. Veterans Frankie Hejduk and Guillermo Barros Schelotto aren't what they were. Goalkeeper William Hesmer is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Left back Gino Padula has started only 13 games because of injury. The side also desperately lacks a striker who can create something on his own.
Mostly, the Crew just didn't navigate a ridiculously busy stretch as well as Seattle or Real Salt Lake, two sides that did OK despite a calendar every bit as crowded as Columbus'. The Crew were just 6-6-4 in all competitions to finish.
Columbus is in the playoffs, and good for coach Robert Warzycha and his men for that. But do know this: If you applied a little magic truth serum and asked the other seven playoff sides who they would choose as a first-round foe, they'd probably all tell you "Columbus."
On the other hand, the Crew have ample playoff experience. The Rapids fall to the other end of the spectrum, with no postseason appearances since 2006. So, don't be the house on the Rapids just yet -- maybe only a couple of rooms.
5. It's high season for retirements -- Jaime Moreno was properly feted during his D.C. United curtain call, as a healthy crowd of 18,000-plus at RFK Stadium saw the Bolivian maestro score career goal No. 133. (It was important, too, as he will retain the title of MLS goals king through the offseason, although Dallas' Jeff Cunningham will likely return in 2011 to lap the United legend.)
Former D.C. standouts Marco Etcheverry, Eddie Pope and John Harkes were present for the emotional night, which ended with a choked-up Moreno fighting through the emotion of it all. "When I left the field and I saw my children crying, that's when it hit me. I realized it's now over and I also realize how much they care and suffer in every game," he said. "I broke down when I saw that."
Brian McBride's farewell tribute came last week, but the Chicago Fire had one more game to go, a contest at Chivas USA. McBride struck for MLS career goal No. 80 on a wonderful little back heel off Freddie Ljungberg's cross. (Chicago won the match 4-1. So, seriously, guys, where was all this a month ago? If they had played a little more often as they did in October, and a little less often as they did through a miserable September, McBride might have still have some playoff soccer ahead.)
Somewhat lost in all this hubbub is another retirement (besides McBride) from that breakthrough U.S. 2002 World Cup side: L.A.'s Eddie Lewis. Also departing are longtime MLS staples Chris Klein and C.J. Brown, two men who represented the league as well as anyone ever will.
The foursome of first-round playoff series are set. Here is how they rank in buzz factor:
1. Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Seattle -- Seattle has won six of seven in MLS since mid-September. The Galaxy have won three of four since September. Seattle's speed will unsettle the Galaxy, who open the playoffs by returning to the site of their MLS Cup final loss a year ago. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid will be psyched to eliminate the team that once fired him -- when he had them in first place. All that plus David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Game on!
2. New York vs. San Jose -- Quick, who has been this year's highest quality designated player signing? If you say the Red Bulls' Thierry Henry or Rafa Marquez, then you haven't seen Geovanni play for San Jose. Nothing against any of New York's three DP dandies; Geovanni has been that good for the Earthquakes. And is there yet another chapter to be written in Wondolowski's amazing season?
3. Real Salt Lake vs. Dallas -- The champs more or less backed into the playoffs last year before boldly surging to the title. That's hardly the case in 2010 as RSL, braced by a record-setting defense, has been the league's best team overall since May. Both sides love to possess the ball, although Dallas hasn't done it as well lately without Daniel Hernandez to orchestrate. Still, stylistically, this could be one of the best series MLS has seen in years.
4. Columbus vs. Colorado -- What does momentum mean going into the postseason? We'll soon find out. The Rapids were a presentable 5-2-3 over the season's final third, but will be dealing with any lingering trauma from Saturday's stunning collapse. Columbus is just the opposite, having limped to the finish line -- but having recorded a nice win to cap the regular season.