The 17th MLS Cup final is now upon us, and with it, another postseason is about to reach its conclusion. And what a playoff season it has been. Not for the first time, the postseason form book was basically incinerated. Lower-seeded teams reigned supreme in six out of eight playoff matchups and the final will feature the eighth- and ninth-best teams based on regular-season points.
An interesting mix of playoff heroes also emerged. Not only did some of the old guard reassert themselves in the form of L.A. duo Robbie Keane and Mike Magee, but newbies such as D.C. United's Nick DeLeon and Houston's Will Bruin also stepped up to lead their respective teams deep into the playoffs.
With those memories in mind, here are five more thoughts on what has so far transpired during the MLS playoffs.
1. Robbie Keane for the MLS Golden Ball
Granted, there is no such award at present. MLS has its MVP award to reflect excellence during the regular season, while the MLS Cup final has a similar award to highlight the best player in that one match. But if the league was to ever shift gears and give a trophy to the most outstanding performer throughout the playoffs, Keane (with an appreciative nod toward Bruin) would be the clear winner. Not only did he play a massive part in turning around the conference semifinal series with San Jose by scoring twice in the second leg, but his three goals in the conference finals against Seattle proved critical, as well.
And there has been more to Keane's game than just goals. The defensive effort he turned in during last Sunday's second leg against the Sounders bordered on the superhuman, as he dropped back into midfield to help stem Seattle's onslaught. All told Keane's postseason performance has been worth every penny of his DP-level salary.
2. The playoff schedule needs to be tweaked
One notable element of these playoffs has been the number of key injuries to key players. Landon Donovan, Juninho, Ricardo Clark, Chris Pontius and Mauro Rosales are just a few of the players who were sidelined at times, and while some of these performers carried ailments into the postseason, the condensed schedule shortened recovery time and added to the overall fatigue level, making it the perfect breeding ground for injuries. It wasn't until the run-up to the second leg that teams were given a full week to prepare for a playoff game. L.A. played five games in 18 days. Houston's path was nearly identical, with five games in 19 days.
Granted, the league's schedule has more moving parts than a Rube Goldberg machine, but the playoffs are supposed to be the time to see the league's best players go up against one another. A week in between games during both the conference semifinal round and the conference finals would help insure that was the case.
3. Can anything be done to provide more of a home-field advantage?
Since MLS adopted a two-game format for playoff series instead of a three-game approach back in 2003, the concept of home-field advantage has been practically nonexistent. The team hosting the second leg has triumphed 22 times in 42 series. The presumed benefit of hosting the second leg is that if the series is tied after 180 minutes, the higher seed gets to play the 30 minutes of extra time at home. But that has come into play only five times since the start of the 2003 season, with two of those series being decided by penalties.
So what, if anything, can be done to make regular-season success count for more? Not much, given the unwieldy nature of a three-game series. About the only option is to follow the lead of the Liga MX, which in the case of a tie after 180 minutes allows the higher-seeded team to advance. That wouldn't have changed the outcome in any of this year's series, but in the future it might alter the psychology of the teams involved. A higher-seeded team would possess a tiebreaker advantage from the outset, as opposed to counting on a scenario that might never come to pass.
4. With Davis and Garcia on the field, Houston has closed talent gap with L.A.
When Brad Davis went down with a thigh injury in the 2011 Eastern Conference final against Sporting Kansas City, it left Houston with almost no chance of upsetting L.A. in the MLS Cup final a week later. There just weren't enough creative elements on the field for the Dynamo to really threaten the Galaxy defense.
But as the two teams head into this year's cup final, things have changed considerably. Not only is Davis healthy, but the addition of Oscar Boniek Garcia has given the Dynamo much greater balance between attack and defense. And given the maturation of Bruin, whose four playoff goals are second to Keane, Houston now has the kind of attack that will do plenty to test L.A.'s backline.
Some will counter that this is mitigated by the loss of defender Geoff Cameron due to his midseason move to Stoke City. But Jermaine Taylor has hit the kind of form that Houston's coaches predicted for him last season, and the return of Ricardo Clark to the Houston midfield provides a bit more protection, as well.
All of this should make for a compelling MLS Cup final.
5. Whither the losing conference finalists?
One aspect of the conference finals was the striking difference in attitude of the beaten finalists. D.C. United was upbeat, while Seattle appeared deflated. Some of that is down to the manner of the defeats. An injury glut saw United manager Ben Olsen drag his side about as far as it could go, while the controversial nature of Keane's goal in the second leg had the Sounders muttering to themselves.
But some of the difference in attitude can also be put down to the respective futures of the clubs. United has put together an impressive core of young players with Bill Hamid, Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen and Andy Najar all under the age of 23. Leading scorer Chris Pontius is just 25. Time will tell how tough United finds it to keep this group together, as Mexican teams are already believed to be inquiring as to Najar's availability. DCU must make better use of the international market, which has borne precious little fruit in recent years. That said, the future still looks bright.
As for the Sounders, on the one hand they can be encouraged given that they finally made a playoff breakthrough of sorts in getting past the conference semifinal stage for the first time in their MLS history. But questions abound over some of the team's key pieces. Mauro Rosales' body betrayed him in the postseason for the second year running, and his inclusion in the 18-man roster came only after repeated inquiries from manager Sigi Schmid, leaving one to wonder just how much trust Schmid will place in the Argentine next season. Fredy Montero, who despite looking energetic at times in the second leg against L.A., was subbed out with the team trailing and remains scoreless in 10 postseason appearances. Is he really the player to get Seattle over the playoff finish line? Given how proactive Seattle is as an organization, you can bet that Adrian Hanauer & Co. will look for alternatives.