Monday Postgame: MLS' most wide-open postseason ever?
Hear that “beep … beep … beep” sound?
That’s Vancouver backing into the postseason as the 10th and final team of the field — and first-ever Canadian entrant — despite losing to Portland on Sunday.
There were several other landmark developments in the bustling second-to-last week of the 2012 regular season and, thankfully, they weren’t all so anticlimactic.
The San Jose Earthquakes wrapped up the Supporters’ Shield and their star striker Chris Wondolowski pulled to within a goal of Roy Lassiter’s single-season MLS scoring record. Portland sawed off a slab of consolation in an otherwise dismal season, downing Vancouver to win the Cascadia Cup and D.C. United clinched their first playoff berth in five years with a thrilling 3-2 win over Columbus.
The playoff field is complete, but the positions in the rush-hour crowded East have yet to be determined.
Out of these busy developments, we’re tackling two questions for this week’s Monday Postgame. First, is this the most wide-open postseason in MLS history? And second, if Chris Wondolowski tops Roy Lassiter’s 27 goals in a season, should the new record come with an asterisk?
Wide Open West
There have been plenty of up-for-grabs postseasons in MLS’ 17-year history, but we didn’t always know, going in, that they were so wide-open. In other words, when 11-12-7 Real Salt Lake marched to the 2009 title, or when 10-11-9 New York reached the MLS Cup 2008 final, they were upstarts. No one saw them coming.
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This year, you could argue that every playoff team save Vancouver is capable of winning it all. The Whitecaps have won just one match in their past nine, and only made the playoffs because Seattle eliminated FC Dallas with a 3-1 win on Sunday night.
They’ll enter the Knockout Round as heavy underdogs, on the road, against the defending champion LA Galaxy.
If the Galaxy get past them as expected, they’ll take on archrivals San Jose in a juicy conference semifinal. Sure, the Quakes have the best record in the league at 19-6-8, but they lived dangerously all season, pulling off a string of narrow, last-gasp wins. With the home-field advantage, they’d be favorites against LA, but only slight ones — especially if the Galaxy have a healthy Landon Donovan and David Beckham.
The 2-3 matchup in the West is already set, and it could hardly be closer: Seattle and Real Salt Lake have played three times this season, with a single goal separating them. In May, the RSL edged the Sounders 1-0, and then the teams played to two scoreless ties, including a hard-fought one this past Wednesday. They’re both in form, too, riding four-game unbeaten streaks into the final week of the season.
With seven points separating first-place Kansas City from fifth-place Houston, the Eastern Conference playoff positions are currently suspended in midair, and could tumble back down in an array of different spots. Second-place D.C. United could finish atop the conference or finish fourth depending on how results break in Week 33. New York and Houston could finish third, fourth or fifth, and Chicago could end up anywhere from second to fifth.
Sporting Kansas City, who haven’t lost since July, look like the favorites, but any one of the five could catch fire in the postseason and make a run.
After surveying the previous 16 MLS postseasons, we’re hard-pressed to find one as up-for-grabs as this one. The years that come closest are 1996 — when only two playoff teams had winning records, and 15-16-1 D.C. United hit their stride for a run to the title — and 2001, when the league’s three-division setup yielded six legitimate title contenders.
This year, well, is there any team beside Vancouver who would shock you by winning it all?
Asterisk for Wondo?
As Wondolowski heads into next Saturday’s season finale at Portland needing one goal to equal Lassiter’s single-season scoring record of 27, some observers have pointed out that Lassiter set his mark in a 32-game season, while Wondo will have 34 games to try to surpass it.
GOAL: Wondolowski heads home goal No. 26
If the San Jose striker does break the record, should that difference be noted in the official record?
Wondolowski has already played 143 more minutes this year than Lassiter did in his record-breaking season. He’ll get 90 more next week (and, you can bet, first dibs on any penalties, or free kicks around the box).
Wondo on record chase: "Just got to keep plugging away"
But MLS is more competitive now than it was in 1996, and Wondolowski would be overcoming long odds and immense pressure to get the record. (Also, no offense to Wondo’s teammates, but Lassiter had dominant midfield maestro Carlos Valderrama springing him behind MLS defenses with his precision passes in 1996. El Pibe had 20 assists that season.)
We’d say what former New York Yankee Roger Maris said in 1961 when baseball commissioner Ford Frick suggested his single-season home run record should come with an asterisk since he had 162 games to set it, compared with Babe Ruth’s 154:
“A season’s a season.”