It's not too late to take the Quakes
or three, as it was in 2000 and 2001 - regular-season conference or division champions has come home with the Cup five times, while one of the second-place clubs has triumphed the other three times. The last team to turn the trick was San Jose in 2001 when it finished two points behind L.A. in the Western Division.
With a 9-10-11 record this year, San Jose would also be the first team with a losing record to ever win it all. Only that Bruce Arena-coached D.C. United side with a 16-16 mark in the regular season during that first season in 1996 ever went all the way without a winning record.
There were times this year when San Jose didn't give you any sort of title-contender vibe. Those were the games when you felt bad for Pat Onstad, as he gave death stares to some of the young defenders in front of him. There were moments when the Earthquakes looked, for the lack of a better term, lazy. The runs were just not there. The hard-nosed, gritty defending -- something that has defined the team ever since Jeff Agoos came along in 2001 -- seemed soft. You felt as though they were coasting.
Of course, there were also glimpses of the wrecking crew that head coach Frank Yallop led to two MLS Cup titles over a three-year span. There was that unforgettable night in July when the Quakes rallied to tie the Revolution with two goals in stoppage time after playing with 10 men for most of the second half after Troy Dayak was sent off for elbowing Shalrie Joseph. That was the sort of comeback that championship teams -- no matter what sport you are talking about -- make possible.
There was also the statement-making victory on the road in Kansas City in mid-August. In that 2-0 triumph at Arrowhead, Landon Donovan scored both goals and gave Wizards fans a taste of what they might expect to see in the postseason.
Now that we've mentioned Donovan, is there any other player in the USA performing at his level right now? The answer is a resounding, "NO." The 22-year-old playmaker is coming off a brilliant three-month run where he's scored three goals and set up three other strikes in World Cup qualifying as the team's undisputed most valuable player. In between national team stints, he helped the Earthquakes qualify for the playoffs with his stellar play, which included an assist in the playoff-clinching 2-2 draw with Dallas last weekend.
The Wizards know all about Donovan's exploits, as the Redlands, Calif., native has scored six goals and registered two assists in 12 career regular season games against Bob Gansler's side. Kansas City faithful are still probably having nightmares about his game-winning goal in the 117th minute of the Western Conference Championship last year. Since entering the league in 2001, the playoffs have been his personal playpen, as Donovan has scored an astounding 10 goals to go with five assists in a mere 12 playoff contests.
And I'm supposed to bet against that?
If Reggie Jackson was baseball's Mr. October, then Landon Donovan is soccer's Mr. November.
While Donovan will wreak havoc throughout the playoffs, the real reason I'm going with the Earthquakes is for his supporting cast and the experience factor. On-field leaders like Richard Mulrooney and Jeff Agoos are priceless this time of the year, as are players such as Ramiro Corrales, Brian Mullan and Dwayne De Rosario, who always seem to come up big when they need to. Brian Ching didn't get the chance to experience the playoffs last year since he tore his Achilles midway through the season, but his experience with the U.S. national team the past few months has him battle-tested and ready to shine in the glare of the postseason lights.
Kinnear hasn't had his full squad together very often the past few months. With injuries to Agoos and Troy Dayak, and national team call-ups for Pat Onstad, De Rosario, Donovan and Ching, he's been forced to play with the lineup time and time again. Though Ronnie Ekelund (left hamstring strain) is likely out for at least this weekend's match, Kinnear has finally had his side together for a full week of training for the first time in several weeks. And they are rested.
The most trouble the Earthquakes will experience in the playoffs will be in this first-round matchup with Kansas City. Bob Gansler's team is very organized in the back, experienced in the middle of the park, and lethal up front with the striker combo of Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud. In this case, though, Kansas City isn't really getting any advantage for winning the No. 1 seed.
If I were Gansler, the last thing I'd want to do is fly over 1,000 miles to start the playoffs on that postage stamp of a field in San Jose. The No. 3 and 4 seeds have an advantage, especially if they are veteran sides like the one in San Jose, as getting a result at home puts all the pressure on the higher seed for the second match.
In 2001, San Jose was dominant. In 2003, it needed a little Frankie Yallop magic and an unlikely hero in Jamil Walker. This time around, the odds are stacked against them more than ever before.
After a crazy regular season where it seemed as though any team could win on any given day in the parity-riddled MLS, that's all the more reason to pick the Earthquakes to go all the way.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.