November 12, 2009

Predicting the MLS Cup playoffs is like trying to guess Kanye West's next publicity stunt: It's nearly impossible. And just when you think you've seen everything, he interrupts Taylor Swift's speech and Real Salt Lake wins a road playoff game.

Every year, the MLS playoffs are splendidly compelling. This year was no different: We've come to expect the unexpected. The lowest seed with the worst record knocks off the best team in the league? Yawn. Defenders gift-wrap three goals in one game with inexcusable back-line giveaways? Been there. A 56-yard free kick bounces harmlessly in the box and then into the goal? Why not? In fact, the only series that didn't surprise was the sumptuous Seattle-Houston dogfight that yielded but a single goal in 210 masterfully defended minutes of soccer.

After round one, the biggest story was Real Salt Lake, duly unimpressed by the defending champion and Supporters' Shield-winning Columbus Crew, capturing a convincing 4-2 aggregate victory. Cinderella Real advanced to Saturday's Eastern Conference championship (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Español) to face Chicago, which ended New England's inspiring campaign. Salt Lake's underdog success was a surprise, but it was far from unprecedented.

Since 2003, when MLS adopted the current playoff format, fourth-seeded teams have advanced out of the first round against first seeds exactly as many times as the top seeds have against them (seven each, counting this year). Now that's parity. Indeed, teams with losing records in the regular season have made the playoffs and even advanced to the MLS Cup (remember New York last year?), and Los Angeles won it in '05 with as many regular-season wins as losses.

This year's madness, too, has seemed devoid of any discernible method. Perhaps because of de facto parity, perhaps because it's still a young league, the MLS playoffs, compared to other sports, have not been deeply analyzed, nor have their results or trends been explored.

Basketball prognosticators swear defense wins championships, but in MLS, it's certainly not a prerequisite for getting there. New York was the league's 12th-ranked defense last season and L.A. conceded the seventh-most goals per game in '05. That would seem to let Salt Lake and Chicago breathe more easily, since both were middle-of-the-pack defenses. But New York and L.A. were exceptions to the rule. A strong defense still often punches a team's ticket to MLS Cup -- since '03, the two finalists have averaged the fourth-best regular-season defense.

Airtight defense is always crucial in the playoffs, when scoring dips as teams play conservatively, hoping to avoid season-ending mistakes. But this weekend, defenses will be even stingier -- bad news for the casual sports fan who loathes soccer's low scoring. In the past four years, goals shriveled by 30 percent to fewer than two a game in the conference finals (down from 2.54 in the regular season).

Houston, a perennial top unit that tied for the lowest goals-against average this season, should benefit most from the scoring constriction in Friday's Western Conference final vs. the Galaxy (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2). In the East, Real Salt Lake surrendered just one more goal than Chicago in the regular season, so it's hardly an impact issue.

Home-field advantage, however, is an issue now. While the home-and-away format of the first round and the predetermined, neutral MLS Cup site render little advantage to the highly seeded teams, the single-game, winner-take-all configuration of the conference finals hugely benefits those home teams. And historically, they've capitalized on it, winning nine of the past 12 conference championships.

What does this mean now? The Fire, maddening at Toyota Park, posted the poorest regular-season home record of any of the playoff teams. Yet, historically, they've been virtually invincible in Chicago in the postseason, going 17-2-2. RSL has been equally puzzling: A reprehensibly bad road team all year, it won at Columbus in the first round. Can it duplicate the feat Saturday?

The Western final is at Home Depot Center, where the Galaxy get a real home-field advantage after having to share their stadium with fans of co-tenant Chivas USA in the first round. The Galaxy aren't a dominant home team, with a goal differential of just plus-one at HDC, but they did beat Houston there in June. The Dynamo's stellar defense, though, is well adapted to playing on the road, having ceded the second-fewest away goals all year.

And what of that confoundingly unquantifiable element that is momentum? If you think good form at the right time doesn't matter, just look at the Crew. In '08, they lost just once in their last eight regular-season games, paving the way to their championship. Compare that to this year, when Columbus imploded late in the season and became the only team to drop both legs in the playoffs. Their collapse, coupled with RSL peaking at the right time (2-0-1 in October with a plus-four goal differential), helps explain the biggest upset of this postseason.

"Maybe a team improves over the course of a season facing a lot of disappointing situations," Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said after his team eliminated the defending champs last week. "At some point, it clicks in their minds about all the little things they have to do in order to win."

Ultimately, though, winning always boils down to impact players and coaches, and having the best ones remains the surest recipe for victory. Galaxy stars Landon Donovan and David Beckham combined beautifully on what led to a penalty-kick goal in L.A.'s second leg against Chivas USA, and are arguably the most dangerous players in the league. Houston's triplet of U.S. national-teamers (Brian Ching, Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark) is also in sync. They created numerous chances against Seattle, with Ching ultimately scoring the winning, highlight-reel goal in overtime.

In the East, RSL's blazing-fast Robbie Findley appears to have broken out as a bona fide scorer. Meanwhile, Cuauhtémoc Blanco's savvy and skill more than make up for diminished pace -- he orchestrates everything Chicago does through the midfield. The Mexican national-team legend scored the clinching goal in the first round against New England with flair the Fire only dream he'd have with the media.

And don't forget the men on the sidelines. Standing headset-less with their arms folded impassively across their chests, the perception is that soccer coaches are little more than spectators. The Crew's Robert Warzycha debunked that myth in the first round, as his multiple head-scratching decisions (benching Guillermo Barros Schelotto and removing Frankie Hejduk) backfired and revealed how valuable a good coach can be in the playoffs.

The four remaining coaches have made an impact for the better -- they have five MLS Cup titles between them (counting Chicago's Denis Hamlett, who won as a Fire assistant in '98). Houston's Dominic Kinnear and L.A.'s Bruce Arena are two of the most successful in MLS history, and boast a combined three MLS Coach of the Year Awards. Their vast tactical knowledge -- who to sub, when to press or fall back -- will be put to the test, as will the aptitude of the relatively inexperienced Hamlett and Kreis.

"It will be interesting," Kreis said, "to see if all those people who were saying, '[Real's] got no chance,' are suddenly saying, 'They've got a chance.' "

The league's parity and unpredictability have supplied the drama, suspense and surprise MLS wants. Past playoffs, and this one, have proved that every favorite is vulnerable and no team can be counted out. The only certainty is that, come Nov. 22 in Seattle, the only person hoisting the MLS Cup will be the champion team's captain. That is, unless Kanye gets through security.

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