A strong case can be made that the just-concluded MLS regular season was the most compelling ever.
Granted, there were times when grinding through the campaign was like being asked to make 34 trips to an all-you-can-eat buffet, whether you wanted to or not. But there were moments of brilliance to be had, as well. The New York Red Bulls, under first-year manager Mike Petke, broke through for the first major trophy in their long and difficult history by winning the Supporters' Shield. Another rookie coach, Portland's Caleb Porter, led the Timbers to the top of the Western Conference, and with considerable style. The final weekend of the regular season then saw five different Eastern Conference teams slug it out for the three remaining playoffs spots. Alas, Chicago and MVP candidate Mike Magee were among those rendered to spectator status.
Yet the playoffs always manage to create their own dramatic moments. With these storylines set to be played out, that looks set to continue.
MLS playoff coverage:
- Labidou: Is this New York's year?
- Davis: Portland's wild, uncomfortable winning ride
- Team Previews: Western Conference
- Carlisle: Under-the-radar players to watch
- Lalas, Twellman: Can L.A. three-peat?
1. Will the Los Angeles Galaxy go for an MLS Cup three-peat?
After claiming the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cups, the Galaxy will attempt to go where no MLS club has gone before: a three-peat. It's a feat that only two teams have ever even attempted. The 1998 edition of D.C. United -- managed by one Bruce Arena -- fell just short, losing that year's MLS Cup final to the expansion Chicago Fire. Ten years later, the Houston Dynamo's bid for a third consecutive league title was scuttled by perhaps the biggest upset in MLS playoff history: A New York Red Bulls team backed its way into the playoffs and shocked the Dynamo 4-1 on aggregate in the Western Conference semifinals. (Don't even ask what New York was doing in the West semis. Just roll with it.)
As for the Galaxy, this edition isn't as deep as its championship forebears, with David Beckham having moved on and the May trade of Magee giving L.A. less firepower than it has had in the past. That said, any team with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan has the chance to go all the way, and with the midseason arrival of Jaime Penedo solving L.A.'s goalkeeping problems, the Galaxy is plenty capable of hoisting yet another MLS Cup.
2. Will New York be rewarded for its double-dog dare?
New York buried the "Curse of Caricola" by winning the Supporters' Shield last weekend. But manager Mike Petke struck the right chord when he spoke of celebrating the moment Sunday, and then re-calibrating emotions to begin focusing on the MLS playoffs the following day.
So can the Red Bulls do the double? Without question, New York has all the necessary ingredients. The back line, led by the always-imposing Jamison Olave, has been impressive over the final two months of the season. The midfield appears to have the right blend of graft and craft as Dax McCarty's recent pairing with Peguy Luyindula is paying considerable dividends. The front line tandem of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill looks to be completely in sync, as well.
And of course, Petke's astute management, combined with the easing of pressure that only a trophy can bring, has the Red Bulls in the right frame of mind to win the MLS Cup. The playoffs are a fickle beast, however, as New York proved last year when it was eliminated by D.C. United thanks to a series of unfortunate -- and unfathomable -- events.
3. Is momentum overrated? Seattle and Montreal sure hope so
There isn't a coach out there who doesn't want his team playing well heading into the postseason. But a strong finish is no guarantee of playoff success, as witnessed by the fact that only six of 17 Supporters' Shield winners have gone on to win the MLS Cup. Conversely, MLS playoff history is littered with sides that stumbled late in the regular season, only to right themselves once the playoffs started.
The 2003 San Jose Earthquakes entered the playoffs on a 0-2-2 streak, yet claimed that year's title. The 2005 L.A. Galaxy went a pedestrian 4-5-1 down the stretch, finishing fourth in a six-team conference, but went on to win the MLS Cup in overtime against the New England Revolution. Then there was the 2008 New York Red Bulls, who backed into the playoffs thanks to Columbus beating D.C. United 1-0 on the final day of the regular season, this after getting hammered by Chicago 5-2 in its regular-season finale. Given a reprieve, New York proceeded to make it all the way to that year's MLS Cup final, where it lost to a Columbus Crew side managed by none other than Sigi Schmid.
Schmid is likely thinking of that New York team as he prepares his Seattle side -- one in the throes of a seven-game winless streak -- for the playoffs. He'll also be hoping that a return to health will see his team return to the form of earlier this summer. Fans of the Montreal Impact will also be hoping their club can shed its tepid form of late and rediscover the play that saw it start the season with a 9-3-2 mark.
4. Attack of the playoff newbies?
Not since the inaugural campaign of 1996 has an MLS postseason witnessed so many coaches making their MLS playoff debuts. Granted, Montreal's Marco Schallibaum has been around the coaching block more than a few times. But Petke, Porter, New England's Jay Heaps and Colorado's Oscar Pareja are all making their initial forays into the postseason as managers.
Of course, by now all five of these head coaches are well-versed in their teams' idiosyncrasies. But just as it is for players, the pressure in the postseason is kicked up a few notches for the managers, with each decision examined with a Hubble telescope level of focus. It will be fascinating to see which one has the most success.
5. Will past frustrations lead a team to MLS Cup glory?
Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders all have some painful playoff memories that need to be confronted and overcome. SKC fell just one point short of winning the Supporters' Shield this season, even as it coped with a packed schedule and the loss of Kei Kamara. Yet each of the past two seasons has seen Kansas City unable to get past the Houston Dynamo. This time around, SKC won't face Houston until the conference final -- if at all -- and with its defense rounding into form, perhaps this is the season when Kansas City breaks through to the final.
RSL's recent history is fraught with missed opportunities, including this year's U.S. Open Cup final defeat to D.C. United. A retooled roster means a bit more reliance on youth, but Real has some major mental dragons to slay if it's to return to the MLS Cup final for the first time since winning it all in 2009. The return of Chris Schuler to the center of defense will certainly help in this regard.
Seattle finally won a playoff series last year for the first time in its history, only to be upended by the Galaxy in the Western Conference finals. The Sounders' recent form would suggest that it is dealing with more than just coping with its postseason history, however. Perhaps the goal Clint Dempsey scored last Sunday against L.A. will provide the spark going forward that the team has lacked.