MLS PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
The Major League Soccer playoffs often arrive and depart with little more than a whimper, yet the stories and subplots offered up by this year's version deserve more than just a passing interest.
Previous incarnations have been underwhelming to the extent that many fans have called upon the league to fly in the face of North American sports tradition and scrap the postseason while adopting a European-style single-table format. However, things are setting up for an intriguing November, offering proof that MLS is on the right track in its attempt to combine a product that appeals to a domestic market without compromising soccer's long-held traditions.
The resurgence of the Los Angeles Galaxy, helped by a revitalized David Beckham, adds some genuine star power to the playoffs. Seven other teams are also vying for a spot in the November 22 MLS Cup final, and the field is wide-open.
Here we take a look at the biggest points of interest as the MLS season boils down to the 11 games that will crown the 2009 champion.
1. Will the Beckham Experiment finally bear fruit?
Beckham's first two years in L.A. were utterly shambolic, a disaster that embarrassed both the England midfielder and his employer. The arrival of Bruce Arena as head coach led to a far more disciplined approach, and by the time Beckham was greeted upon returning from his loan spell in Italy with "The Beckham Experiment," Grant Wahl's book highlighting the problems at the club, things had already begun to turn.
With his differences with Landon Donovan quickly sorted out and the team clicking under Arena, Beckham found fresh motivation and has performed strongly toward the end of this campaign. If he can spark a charge to the championship, then suddenly, remarkably and against all the odds, the experiment will become a success.
2. Can the Sounders make some noise?
MLS commissioner Don Garber never stops raving about the "cultural phenomenon" going on in Seattle – and why not? The Sounders' organization may already be the greatest success story in MLS history, having won over the Emerald City with a forward-thinking marketing approach and an up-tempo, exciting team.
Experience will count against the first-year club in the playoffs, but Sigi Schmid's team has a bigger home advantage than any other side, with an average attendance of 30,897. With the final to be staged at Qwest Field, the Sounders have a chance to create some history.
3. Will the Clasico be classic?
The intra-city rivalry between the Galaxy and their underdog L.A. neighbor Chivas USA offers the most tantalizing first-round encounter. While Beckham's arrival generated big crowds and worldwide publicity, Chivas has quietly gone on with the business of building a successful team on a tiny budget.
As with any case of the haves and have nots, there is some bitterness and spice attached to this rivalry, and the two Home Depot Center contests on November 1 and 8 represent the biggest matches these teams have ever played against each other.
4. Can Blanco sign off in style?
Cuauhtemoc Blanco's time in MLS is coming to an end with the veteran Mexican superstar headed back to his homeland after three years. Blanco has brought skill and spirit to the league but has never been able to take the Chicago Fire past the conference finals. The Columbus Crew likely lies in wait again and Blanco will be determined to go all the way before bringing his time in Chitown to an end.
5. Will it be two for the Crew?
Columbus was written off before the start of the 2008 season, tipped by many to miss out on the playoffs and finish near the foot of the Eastern Conference. By the time the postseason rolled around, it was clear there was something special about this side, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto duly led the team to the title.
This year brought another march through the regular season, with Schelotto again outstanding and his supporting cast as reliable as ever. New coach Robert Warzycha has kept the core of Schmid's old squad together, and the Crew have a real chance to win back-to-back titles.
- Los Angeles Galaxy