When David Beckham finally won the MLS Cup last November, took a little too much champagne and partied into the night with will.i.am, it was easy to feel that the English soccer icon had reached the end of his American adventure, and perhaps even the end of his career.
Yet there he was a couple of months later announcing he would be back with the Los Angeles Galaxy for two years, and there he still was on the pages of the tabloids, hanging out in Beverly Hills on his motorbike, or in his beanie, or at a coffee shop, or (if the paparazzi are really lucky) all three at the same time.
And here he is back in the MLS playoffs and, despite the Galaxy's abysmal beginning to a campaign they started as overwhelming favorites, with a realistic shot at going back-to-back. L.A. is in action Thursday night, hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps in a one-off elimination game that carries the prize of facing regular-season table toppers the San Jose Earthquakes in a home-and-home series.
Still, while Beckham is as coveted as ever among celebrity photographers, his soccer profile has considerably diminished. Whereas once any Galaxy media briefing was filled with questions about the 37-year-old, the team's head coach Bruce Arena did not have to field a single query about him earlier this week.
But Beckham has been written off before and having missed (like Landon Donovan) much of September through injury he may be determined to prove a point. The Galaxy's greatly improved form during the latter part of the season was not tempered by his absence, though it would be foolish to think Beckham's guile and experience could not be of enhanced use during the more tense moments of the playoffs.
With Beckham, Donovan and Robbie Keane giving it three of the league's most accomplished players, and youngster Omar Gonzalez continuing to blossom as a defensive star, the Galaxy will not fear anyone, even if it moves through to take on a San Jose club that dominated their regular-season series.
However, whatever team comes out of the Western Conference will have done it the hard way, with battle-hardened rivals the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake set to square off in one semifinal. Real Salt Lake still has the nucleus of its 2009 championship side in place, while Seattle's wonderfully-boisterous home crowd affords it a significant advantage – especially with more than 50,000 expected at Qwest Field for its playoff opener.
The East looks a little more friendly, with the third-seeded New York Red Bulls providing most of the star power, spurred by the evergreen excellence of French striker Thierry Henry.
Sporting Kansas City was the outstanding team in the conference during the regular season and may have more consistency and closer teamwork than any other MLS team. After missing out in the Conference final last year, it will be looking to raise its game to new levels this time around.
Here we take a look at the playoff match-ups, and, as ever, embark upon the lottery of a prediction process that is always fraught with danger of embarrassment in this unpredictable league.
Los Angeles Galaxy beats Vancouver Whitecaps
Los Angeles Galaxy beats San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders beat Real Salt Lake
Los Angeles Galaxy beats Seattle Sounders
Chicago Fire beats Houston Dynamo
Sporting Kansas City beats Chicago Fire
New York Red Bulls beat DC United
New York Red Bulls beat Sporting Kansas City
New York Red Bulls beat Los Angeles Galaxy
Such a final, between the two highest-profile and biggest-spending teams in the league, would certainly be welcomed in MLS headquarters and would draw higher television ratings than any other match-up.
With the playoffs this year operating a system whereby the final is staged at the home of the finalist with the better regular-season record, the Red Bulls would have a major advantage as it went in search of its first title in franchise history.
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