Friday November 4th, 2011

Five thoughts on the MLS Cup playoffs as we head into Sunday's league semis: Kansas City vs. Houston (5:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer) and Los Angeles-Salt Lake (9 p.m. ET, ESPN):

L.A.-Salt Lake is the de facto MLS title game. Don't take this the wrong way, Kansas City and Houston fans, but the Game of the Year is taking place in L.A. on Sunday, not in November 20's final. L.A., Salt Lake and Seattle were far and away the three best teams in MLS this season, and whoever wins this showdown should seal the deal in the title game. Salt Lake showed in its opening-leg win against Seattle that it was back to its early-season best, with stars Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman and Álvaro Saborío all clicking in the attack. As for L.A., the Galaxy is exuding the confidence that it can do what it needs to win on a home field where L.A. hasn't been beaten all season. The big question is injuries: Salt Lake center backs Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers and L.A.'s David Beckham (who played through a back injury on Thursday). I expect all three will try to get on the field in what could be a classic.

Kansas City's soccer ambitions could get a huge lift by reaching the final. While Kansas City won an MLS Cup in 2000, the team's ambitions to be truly major league took a quantum leap with the unveiling of the $200 million Livestrong Sporting Park this year. If you build a stadium that fancy, you have to put a good team in it, and reaching the MLS Cup final would make a major statement for Sporting's quality on the field. The big battle in this game may take place on set-pieces: Houston's Brad Davis and Kansas City's Graham Zusi can serve it up on dead balls, and (a reborn) Brian Ching and CJ Sapong know how to finish in the air. Neither team can afford to commit fouls in dangerous spots for that reason. This game is evenly matched, but if I'm going to give an edge it's to Kansas City, due in part to its team speed (K.C. is the league's fastest) and in part to the fantastic home crowd in LSP.

Seattle's exit is yet another example of the need for a better playoff format. Yes, Seattle dug itself a big hole by going down 3-0 in the opening leg, and yes, Sigi Schmid (my MLS Coach of the Year choice) had a rough end to the season, getting burned on a few things: Starting Mauro Rosales in the meaningless regular-season finale (and watching him get hurt), starting Sammy Ochoa instead of Mike Fucito in Salt Lake, and pushing for a goal in the latter part of the first leg before Ned Grabavoy made the Sounders pay with a third goal. But what's the point of the regular season if the league's second-best team (Seattle) has to face to the third-best team (RSL) in the league quarterfinals? You've seen my proposal for a new playoff format, in which one bad group-stage game doesn't sink a team and Seattle would have been rewarded for its regular season by playing two of its three group games at home.

New York was still a huge disappointment. The Red Bulls snuck into the playoffs as the 10th and final team, staged a mild upset of fellow wild-card Dallas and even got a surprise early goal from Luke Rodgers to even the series for a bit in L.A., but let's be clear: New York's season was a monster flop, the second-biggest in league history after the 2008 L.A. Galaxy. Despite having the league's second-highest payroll and being the consensus choice to win the East going away, the Red Bulls won just two out of 20 league games in one stretch and saw their central defense pairing of Tim Ream and Rafa Márquez unravel in stunning ways. By the end of the season, Márquez made for a classic case of addition by subtraction, since the team clearly played better when he wasn't on the field. A team that has still never won a meaningful trophy finished 2011 with far more questions than answers about what lies ahead. Will coach Hans Backe and sporting director Erik Solér return? And will the team find some way to offload the albatross that Márquez has become despite his long-term guaranteed contract?

Am I going to run the table or what? I've been wrong on a lot of picks over the years, none more than my NCAA basketball tournament brackets for SI magazine. So I have no idea what went right this year, but I'm now 6 for 6 in my MLS Cup playoff picks heading into the weekend. That's right: If L.A. beats K.C. in the final, I'll run the table� and you might never hear the end of it. This weekend's picks: L.A. over Salt Lake (hard to see the Galaxy flopping at home in the MLS semi two years in a row) and K.C. over Houston (see above). Let's hope for some good games!

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