NEW YORK — Big things came in twos this week as the MLS stretch run kicked into overdrive.
Two American players produced two-goal games, two more teams clinched playoff berths, two more were eliminated and two are battling for the eighth and final spot—with two weeks remaining.
Let’s double down for a closer look.
[inline_node:320506]Playoff Picture: Sun Setting In the East
Both Seattle and San Jose punched postseason tickets with impressive wins on the road, results that also eliminated Eastern Conference hopefuls Chicago and Toronto from playoff contention.
Kansas City are still alive, but their odds are longer than Stephane Auvray’s dreadlocks. To qualify, the East’s third-place team would need to win all three of their remaining games while hoping Colorado drop their last two.
The Rapids—who got two goals from the unlikely Jeff Larentowicz in an entertaining 2-2 draw at Dallas on Saturday—need one point from their final two matches to advance.
Yep, we are just one Colorado Rapids point away from having six Western Conference teams in the eight-team playoff field.
Simmering In Seattle
Potential playoff foes have surely noticed: The Sounders are hotter than Minka Kelly at the moment. They’re 9-1-2 in their last 12, won the US Open Cup lasr Tuesday and coach Sigi Schmid is pushing all the right buttons.
In Saturday’s 2-1 win at Kansas City, he substituted Nate Jaqua for Fredy Montero in the second half, and the lanky striker promptly set up the first goal, by Sanna Nyassi (who has four in his last three games).
Then Schmid brought on Uruguayan DP Alvaro Fernandez, and the 2010 World Cup vet sewed up the game with a slick move and finish in the box.
The Postgame will not be surprised if Seattle are playing on Nov. 21, with a chance to become the fourth MLS team in history to do the USOC–MLS Cup double, after DC (1996), Chicago (1998) and Los Angeles (2005).
Two weeks ago, we suggested that San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski would be a mortal lock for Most Improved Player, if MLS had such an award. Now we’d like to throw his hat in the ring for an award that actually does exist: the MVP.
Wondolowski scored both goals in the Quakes’ 2-0 win at DC on Saturday, the first one a cracking full volley into the top of the net. The win put San Jose in the playoffs for the first time since the franchise was reborn in 2008, and gave Wondo 14 goals on the season. An eye-catching eight of those goals are match-winners, and the Quakes are 9-1-1 when Wondo scores.
MVP credentials? MVP credentials.
Parity Is Dead, Long Live Parity
Each of the past two MLS Cup finals has featured a team with a sub .500 regular-season record (New York in 2008, RSL in 2009).
Week 28 ensured that no sub .500 clubs will even make the postseason this year, much less put together a run to MLS Cup.
The corollary there is that for the first time in recent memory—if not ever—there is a marked difference in quality between the contenders and the pretenders in MLS.
(Columbus may have suggested otherwise in their 2-0 loss to playoff outsiders Chicago on Friday night, but consider this: That was the Crew’s fifth game in two weeks, a compressed soccer odyssey that included stops in Boston, Guatemala City, Seattle and the Windy City.)
The league is no longer wide open from top to bottom—and that’s a good thing. But parity is still alive and well at the top of the table.
Put it this way: Would it shock you if any of the following six playoff teams—LA, RSL, NY, Columbus, FC Dallas, Seattle—went all the way?
The only genuine surprise packages would be Colorado (assuming they qualify) and San Jose, but even they wouldn’t be total shockers—they both have records comfortably above the break-even point, and they’re both playing well heading into the postseason.
Coach of the Year Credentials
Has there ever been a more crowded field for this honor? Here are six worthy candidates:
Hans Backe, New York—He’s on the verge of engineering one of the greatest worst-to-first turnarounds in league history. His team did break the bank for DP talent, but he’s done an admirable job uniting the group.
[inline_node:316257]Bruce Arena, Los Angeles—Juggled World Cup absences (Buddle, Donovan), injury absences (Berhalter, Beckham) and lineup discontinuity with aplomb. Also nurtured young talent (Stephens, Bowen) masterfully, and is on the brink of the Supporters’ Shield.
Schellas Hyndman, FC Dallas—His team has just two losses on the season. Enough said, perhaps, but here’s more: They’ve weathered recent injuries (Ihemelu, John, Hernandez, Hartman) and still gone a record 19 games—and counting—without a loss.
Sigi Schmid, Seattle—The Freddie Ljungberg Situation might have derailed a team with a lesser leader. This team is a legit threat to win it all.
Frank Yallop, San Jose—The Quakes could be charitably called “unheralded” at season’s kickoff. Yet here they are in the playoffs, with three games to spare. Seamlessly integrated late DP signing Geovanni.
Jason Kreis, Real Salt Lake—Expertly balanced ambitious goals in both the CONCACAF Champions League and MLS. His is arguably the most balanced—and best—team in the league, as it showed on Saturday by shutting down Thierry Henry and New York in a rugged road draw.
Not Giving Up the Ghost
Several teams took the field in Week 28 knowing they were eliminated from postseason contention, yet still played hard and put on a show for fans.
Chivas USA blanked Toronto FC 3-0 in a game that was much closer than the score line suggests. Chivas’ second and third goals came late, and Toronto missed several clear chances.
Expansion side Philadelphia hosted Los Angeles last Thursday, and nearly played spoiler in the Galaxy’s Supporters’ Shield quest, severely testing Donovan Ricketts twice before falling 1-0 on Edson Buddle’s header from a David Beckham corner kick.
New England downed Houston 2-1 on Sunday night—a rematch of the 2006 and 2007 MLS Cup finals—and both sides turned in a Cup-final level of intensity (or was that frustration?). Well played.