All season long, teams in Major League Soccer duke it out in search of valuable points in the hunt for a playoff spot at year’s end. The coveted MLS Cup title is fought for in the winter months by the top 10 teams, five from each of the Eastern and Western Conferences. This year’s MLS playoff hunt is well underway, and already it has produced huge score lines, dramatic results and a pretty big upset.
Let’s take a look at the 2014 MLS playoff chase.
Where We Are
The Vancouver Whitecaps and Sporting Kansas City both saw their playoff hopes fade away quickly, losing their fifth-place seed match against FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls respectively. The Whitecaps will feel hard done by its particular loss, however, as a dubious handball call converted into a game-winning penalty goal summed up the evening. It was a somewhat harsh call that sent Vancouver packing prematurely and allowed FC Dallas to move into the next round of games.
As for Sporting KC, the former MLS Cup Champions will not be repeating next season, as the Red Bulls continued its dominant display of football. Thierry Henry, at 37 years old, has not lost a step, continuing to provide quality service to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied the all-time most goals scored in a single season (27 goals) in 2014.
Now, the remaining eight teams are entering Leg Two of a home-away series in the Conference Semi-finals. FC Dallas tied 1-1 with the Seattle Sounders in the first game, while the LA Galaxy – heavy favorites to take the title – stayed level with Real Salt Lake at 0-0. In that particular match, Los Angeles goalkeeper Jaime Penedo was, simply put, unstoppable; the Panamanian shot stopper kept LA level despite a barrage of shots from RSL, keeping the series wide open for the return leg.
The Eastern Conference semi-finals weren’t as tightly contested, however; the New England Revolution put four past Columbus, but the Crew responded with two of its own to keep the first leg somewhat interesting at 4-2. As for New York, Henry and co. scored twice against conference leaders D.C. United, so with a two-goal cushion between these two pairs, anything can still happen.
Barring any sort of insane, three-goal comebacks, the Conference finals in the East look set. That New England put four goals past Columbus and New York put two past D.C. might just prove to be enough, as the two teams can bunker down and defend against their opponents on the reverse leg. So, for the East, it’s not hard to imagine that New York and Columbus will meet each other to vie for a spot in the MLS Cup finals.
Still, a two-goal lead is considered one of the most dangerous in the world of soccer, so anything can happen. While New England has a sturdy defense to rely on, New York has been shaky at times this season, so that could be a match worth watching.
In the West, it’s still anybody’s game. FC Dallas will have to be wary of the away goal the team conceded to Seattle, and a reverse trip to the Sounders’ home stadium might prove too big a task for the Hoops. Seattle has been a very dangerous team throughout the year. With Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins combining together well up top, that kind of firepower might just prove to be the difference in this match up.
As for Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake, the advantage is actually in RSL’s favour, since the Rio Tinto Stadium encounter at their home ended 0-0. At the StubHub Center, all RSL has to do is score once and keep the lead or hold a 1-1 draw and they will advance on the away goals rule.
But, the LA Galaxy remains an incredible force to be reckoned with at home and it’s not hard to imagine Robbie Keane and co. to do the job against RSL and advance to take on Seattle in the Conference finals.
After that, it’s hard to imagine a final that doesn’t include New York. This has been such a strong year for the Red Bulls and it’s also Thierry Henry’s final year in MLS.
A New York – Los Angeles final would set the stage for two of the league’s biggest icons, Landon Donovan and Henry, to duke it out one last time before both step away from MLS. However, don’t rule Seattle out, either; the Sounders could very well pip the Galaxy in the Conference final should the two teams meet.
Whatever happens, in the end, this year’s playoffs promise to be just as exciting and dramatic as any. With plenty of motivated stars, on-fire strikers and in-form teams, the 2014 MLS Cup final might just be the hottest contested title in MLS history.