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MLS Playoffs 2009: Preview

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Anybody casually tuning in to Major League Soccer’s Week 32 action and teetering over the great lake of MLS fandom will have jumped right in. The final week of the regular season began with a cluster of teams fighting it out to take up the final three playoff spots. The results and their impact on the playoff bracket were hugely surprising and entirely unpredictable as slip-ups and upsets allowed an unfancied team to leap into the post-season from outside everyone’s assumed candidates.

Chicago Fire confirmed their spot in midweek, defeating Chivas USA in a match which in turn confirmed Columbus Crew as winners of the Supporters Shield. Toronto FC somehow contrived to throw away their strong pre-game position by getting beaten 5-0 by New York Red Bulls. The result was a great send-off for Giants Stadium as the clubs prepares to kick off next season at the newly-built Red Bull Arena.

DC United and FC Dallas failed to take advantage. Tom Soehn’s men were 2-1 up at Kansas City and heading for the post-season when Fred handled the ball on the line, getting himself sent off and conceding the penalty which – when all the confusing permutations had been played out – ultimately doomed DC’s quest to failure. Dallas were beaten in Seattle to end their fantastic run through the second half of the season, while New England went to Crew Stadium, held their nerve, and booked a date with Chicago in the playoffs.

The chokers of the weekend were Colorado Rapids, who missed out on a very favourable opportunity by slumping to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Real Salt Lake, the weekend’s main beneficiaries. Thanks to Toronto, DC and Dallas all failing, RSL’s win sent them into a playoff spot which as recently as last week seemed almost impossible. Just goes to show – when you’re mathematically still alive, keep going until you’re not.

With the regular season done and dusted, it’s time for the top eight to get down to business. The playoffs begin tonight (Thursday) in Seattle and ending in the same stadium with MLS Cup Final on 22nd November. Here is your Soccerlens preview.

West: LA Galaxy v Chivas USA

This is exactly the kind of match MLS needs to continue to raise its profile. LA Galaxy are the highest profile team in the league, at least overseas, and the Superclasico is quickly developing into a worthy derby. This is surely helped by the fact that the two teams both play at Home Depot Center, a superb soccer-specific facility, and have been known to trade players across the lobby. Chivas is a young club which has defied the doubters to become a solid MLS concern, playing superbly in the early part of the 2009 season and improving late on to make a last-ditch push for the top of the table.

The Galaxy have taken the league by storm. A draw-riddled unbeaten streak characterised the first half of the season but by the time David Beckham returned from AC Milan the wins were beginning to flow. Folding Beckham back into the side and introducing Chris Birchall has given the side an extra creative edge, relieving some of the burden on the in-form Landon Donovan and allowing him to thrive alongside his English colleague. Their relationship, so fractious in the wake of 19 Entertainment’s alleged shadow takeover of the Galaxy and Grant Wahl’s book, The Beckham Experiment, appears to have developed into something much more productive.

The same appears to be true of Beckham’s relationship with the Galaxy supporters, who will no doubt appreciate the team’s first playoff qualification since Beckham’s arrival in 2007 and finishing first in the West.

West: Houston Dynamo v Seattle Sounders FC

For much of the 2009 season, Seattle have dominated the headlines. Large crowds have accentuated the feeling that the city was a market ready to adopt a top-level football club. Other sports have been suffering in Seattle and the Sounders name has plenty of history behind it.

The club has been marketed well all year and Drew Carey’s habit of appearing on national television draped in rave green can do no harm at all. On the field, Kasey Keller has been a solid backstop for a team which has for several months now struggled to score at home. Despite this, Fredy Montero is the most naturally gifted player in the league and is ably supported by designated player Freddie Ljungberg, former Arsenal youth player Steve Zakuani and target man Nate Jaqua.

However, Houston Dynamo are very reliable. A consistent team coached by Dominic Kinnear, possibly Major League Soccer’s finest, the Dynamo’s efficiency is the club’s biggest advantage. They are superb from set pieces and play confident, clever football on the floor too. The team’s superstar is Stuart Holden, an effervescent Scottish-born US international whose superb box-to-box midfield play has been a highlight for both the Dynamo and the US Men’s National Team this season. A big move surely awaits.

In Andrew Hainault, Juan Luis Landin, Ricardo Clark, Brian Ching, Geoff Cameron and others, the Dynamo have enough quality to make things very difficult for Seattle. Injuries to Landin and Clark could slow their progress but Houston should be consistent enough to see off the Sounders, though you just never know in football.

East: Columbus Crew v Real Salt Lake

In the East, Columbus Crew already have a 2009 title to their name. The Supporters Shield winners were crowned thanks to Chicago’s win over Chivas and go into the playoffs brimming with confidence. They know how to win MLS Cup (reigning champions, no less) and have looked unstoppable for large chunks of the 2009 season. Their squad depth is remarkable for MLS, demonstrated by Steven Lenhart and Jason Garey chipping in with crucial goals while Guillermo Barros Schelotto was out with an injury. Their excellent home record and depth of quality will make them many pundits’ favourites for a second consecutive win.

Their semi-final opponents Real Salt Lake did the business on the final day, defeating Colorado to take advantage of teams collapsing elsewhere. They grabbed an unexpected wildcard slot and will face a very difficult challenge against the Crew. Yura Movsisyan will want to sign off on a high before moving to Randers in Denmark, Robbie Findley has a sharp eye for goal and Kyle Beckerman is one of the finest midfielders in MLS. On their day, they can give anyone a run for their money.

East: Chicago Fire v New England Revolution

Also in the East, New England Revolution pounced on DC and FCD’s last-gasp inadequacy to grab a berth by winning the last game of the regular season. Having qualified in the absence of Taylor Twellman, the Revs are likely to be high on confidence despite one or two notable injuries. Shalrie Joseph, as ever this season, could be the key man. Kheli Dube must also be firing for the Revolution to succeed.

Their opponents may be hamstrung by their lack of consistency and questionable home form. Chicago Fire draw too many matches on their own pitch and the Revs’ gritty football may give the Fire some problems breaking them down. They will be relying on Blanco to unlock the Revs, and he is certainly capable of doing so. The two sides have been inseparable in league play in 2009, but the Fire triumphed in a Superliga tie in July.

The two winners from each Conference will play in the Conference finals in the middle of November before the final showdown in Seattle. So which team will be crowned champions? Columbus Crew’s squad depth is a huge asset because it provides options and flexibility, both ideal for cup football. Houston are also solid and are excellent from set pieces, which could help them dominate the key moments against Seattle. For their part the Sounders will have fantastic support and the confidence of a successful first season. I fancy them to upset the Dynamo.

But for me the favourites are LA Galaxy. It is said by English football supporters that momentum is essential for a playoff campaign, and if that holds true then the Galaxy hold the cards. They have big name players in David Beckham and Landon Donovan, both of whom possess immense quality, a winning attitude and, it appears, a new-found respect for one another. The pair are on form and, with a reliable defence behind them and worthy support acts elsewhere, they could lead LA to a title win before the former England captain heads back to Milan.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts the twofootedtackle Podcast.

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