It was only a year ago that MLS HQ execs rubbed their hands in glee that Los Angeles and New York were the top seeds in the MLS Cup playoffs and on a collision course to meet in a star-studded, TV-ratings-boosted MLS Cup final. Both teams spit the bit, though, failing to make the title game.
One year later we're getting that LA-NY playoff matchup, albeit earlier in the postseason. The teams with the league's richest payrolls and biggest names (David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Rafa Márquez) will meet in a two-game Western Conference semifinal starting Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2, ESPN3.com), thanks to New York's 2-0 takedown of Dallas on Wednesday.
I'll save my playoff picks until Friday since we're still awaiting the result of Thursday's wild-card game between Colorado and Columbus (10 p.m. ET, DirectKick, free on MLS website) to know all the quarterfinal matchups. But what we do know is this: The West side of the playoff bracket probably has the four most dangerous teams in the postseason. If L.A. players were being honest, the Supporters Shield winners would probably say they'd prefer to meet any team from the Eastern side over any team from the Western half in the next two rounds.
Such is the maddening nature of the MLS playoff format (which I'll address later in this column with how this year's postseason would work with my own solution). That said, I'm fired up for 11 more playoff games in the next 11 days, including six straight hours of action on Sunday. For now, I want to give my MLS awards after a memorable 2011 regular-season campaign. Let's dive in:
I know the league calls it "Most Valuable Player," but these are my awards, and the constant debate over the term "valuable" takes away from the point of this award, which is simple: Who was the best player this season? As astute Twitter follower
If I were choosing an MVP, I'd pick Houston's Brad Davis, who led the league in assists (16) and chances created and happened to proportionally help his team the most as it made a late-season run to the playoffs.
But my award is Player of the Year, not MVP, and if I'm asking a simple question -- Who was the league's best player? -- the answer is easy: D.C. United's De Rosario. He tied for the league lead in goals (16) and was the only player to have double-digit goals and assists (12). He created some of the lasting memories of this season, led by his fastest hat trick in MLS history against Salt Lake, three strikes of surpassing quality. No, his team didn't make the playoffs, and most years the PoY winner will be from a playoff team, but this was a strange year: De Ro, the league's best player, was a member of three different teams, after all.
Lots of candidates for this award, too, so I had to split hairs to make the final decision. Los Angeles gave up the fewest goals in the league, but neither of its keepers (Josh Saunders and Donovan Ricketts) played enough games to deserve serious consideration. For me, the final call came down to two groups: keepers who didn't allow many goals (Seattle's Keller, Salt Lake's Nick Rimando, Dallas's Kevin Hartman) and guys who allowed a lot of goals but kept things from being a lot worse (Chivas USA's Dan Kennedy and San Jose's Jon Busch).
Some of my decision is based on the eye test (who played the best?), while some is based on stats. I'd argue the most useful stat for keepers is save percentage, and here Keller (76 percent) has a distinct advantage over Rimando (71 percent), Busch (71 percent), Kennedy (70 percent) and Hartman (69 percent). Seattle allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the league despite scoring more than anyone else, an approach that left the Sounders defense vulnerable: Keller faced more shots than any keeper other than Busch, New England's Matt Reis and Toronto's Stefan Frei. Keller also played in every MLS game, unlike any other candidate, and he won 18 games, three more than anyone else. Did he have a howler own-goal in Seattle's loss to Salt Lake? Yes, he did. But that was an aberration in an otherwise stellar year.
The Los Angeles Galaxy gave up 28 goals, nine fewer than any other team in the league, and the rock of MLS's best defense was González, 23, a 6-foot-5 center back who's growing as a player each year. L.A.'s No. 1-ranked defense made this call fairly easy, in fact. Among other contenders, Salt Lake's Jamison Olave played in only 24 games and picked up a red card in one of them, while partner Nat Borchers drew two red cards. (Dallas' George John had a red also.) Big Omar had no reds and pitched in with two goals to boot. He gets the nod over Galaxy teammate Todd Dunivant, the league's top left back.
This one wasn't all that close, either. Would anyone have predicted that Sapong would play up front in all 34 games for a K.C. team that had Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara (who scored nine goals each)? Granted, Kansas City was an attack-minded outfit, but Sapong's five goals, five assists and big-time durability made him the league's standout rookie. The guy can do more than just
Kansas City's Peter Vermes, Houston's Dominic Kinnear and Philadelphia's Peter Nowak all deserve credit for making their teams significantly better this season, but for me this is a two-horse race between Seattle's Schmid and L.A.'s Bruce Arena. Splitting hairs here, but I'm going with Schmid for a few reasons. One, he managed to survive the season-long loss of two important attackers in Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White and still guide the Sounders to the league's second-best record. Both Arena and Schmid have built remarkable depth, but even here Seattle has a slight advantage. Finally, Schmid had to rotate his lineups in MLS games even more than Arena did due to so many games in the U.S. Open Cup and CCL (which L.A. had as well). It's just a shame that Seattle and L.A. can't meet in the MLS Cup final.
GK: Kasey Keller (Seattle).
D: Nat Borchers (Salt Lake), Omar González (Los Angeles), Todd Dunivant (Los Angeles).
DMF: Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle).
MF: Brek Shea (Dallas), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles), David Beckham (Los Angeles), Brad Davis (Houston).
F: Thierry Henry (New York), Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United).
1) Los Angeles (W1)
2) Houston (E2)
3) Philadelphia (E3)
4) Dallas/Colorado (W4)
1) Kansas City (E1)
2) Seattle (W2)
3) Salt Lake (W3)
4) Columbus/New York (E4)
Dallas hosts Colorado
Columbus hosts New York
Los Angeles hosts Philadelphia
Houston hosts Dallas/Colorado
Kansas City hosts Salt Lake
Seattle hosts Columbus/New York
Los Angeles hosts Houston
Philadelphia hosts Dallas/Colorado
Kansas City hosts Seattle
Salt Lake hosts Columbus/New York
Los Angeles hosts Dallas/Colorado
Houston hosts Philadelphia
Kansas City hosts Columbus/New York
Seattle hosts Salt Lake
A1 hosts B2
B1 hosts A2
A few comments:
• I understand why MLS owners voted to increase the number of playoff teams from eight to 10 this season: Without relegation, you need some way to make games matter in the latter parts of the regular season, especially as the league grows in size. That's why I've made this system a 10-team format as well, with the caveat that regular-season success is rewarded much more in this playoff structure.
• I've come around to having one-game league semifinals hosted by the group winners. What does that mean? It means this system uses the exact same number of matchdays as the current system.
• In the group stage, the No. 1 seeds don't meet the No. 4 seeds until the last group game. That decreases the chances of teams being eliminated before the third game, and if it does happen then at least the No. 1 seed will have earned the advantage of playing the No. 4 team -- the most likely to be eliminated -- last. (The league should enforce that eliminated teams put out a competitive lineup in a dead-rubber situation.)
• The two best teams from the regular season can always meet in the MLS Cup final. This year there is zero chance for that to happen.
• There's no geographical nonsense of a team from the Eastern Conference winning the Western Conference title. If it's important to give out conference trophies, give them to the teams with the best regular-season records in the East and the West.
• The MLS Cup final can take place at a neutral site or at the home stadium of the team with the higher group finish (or, if those are equal, the team with the better regular-season record). Is it possible that a team could win the title without having to play a single road game? Yes, but once again: That would be earned on the field during the regular season, and there's nothing wrong with that.
• This format actually works better when there isn't a balanced regular-season schedule, as there won't be in MLS moving forward. With a balanced schedule (as there is this year), it's unfortunate that Kansas City (fifth-best league record) would be seeded higher than Seattle and Salt Lake (second- and third-best league records on the same schedule). With an unbalanced schedule that wouldn't matter so much.
Enjoy Thursday night's game, and come back Friday for my MLS Cup playoff picks.