The international break is over and we’re back onto club soccer for the rest of the year. Amid the great games in Europe in which we will be watching, MLS is entering into the first leg of the Conference Finals this weekend. The second legs will be played next weekend.
MLS is halfway into the MLS Cup playoffs and six teams have already eliminated. Because of the international break, the playoffs had to be interrupted for a week but now it is back and we have two great matchups which should lead to an epic MLS Cup Final, no matter who wins. Here is what you need to know.
MLS couldn’t have planned this better. The final four teams in the playoffs consist of the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls. MLS has the three biggest media markets in the playoffs plus the most popular MLS team.
The only team out of the four who has won an MLS Cup is the Galaxy and they are going for a record fifth MLS Cup. They last won in back-to-back years in 2011-12 during David Beckham’s final two seasons in MLS.
The Seattle Sounders are trying to be the first MLS team to win an American soccer “treble.” The Sounders won the US Open Cup in September and the Supporters Shield in October. This is the only team out of the four who isn’t one of the original ten MLS teams from 1996 but they hit the ground running with a thriving dedicated fan base and a great business structure.
The New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls both are going through transitions. The Red Bulls have to adjust to likely being without superstars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill as well as a new MLS team who moves in right across the Hudson River next year. NYCFC enters MLS next year and with Manchester City ownership, has already taken over NYC and cast the Red Bulls off into their actual home in New Jersey.
The New England Revolution has had the reputation of being stuck in the past. They play in a cavernous NFL stadium that is hardly filled, there were no plans to build a soccer specific stadium and the ownership was hardly existent and hardly spent any money on new players. This year, the team went “MLS Cup or bust” and everyone has responded. The team picked up Jermaine Jones after the World Cup and the team has been exploring possibilities for a new stadium closer to Boston. An MLS Cup win will help with everything the team is going after and rewarding the lifetime fans who were there for the tough times.
These four teams are filled with a mix of legends, talented youngsters and the best overall soccer players in the United States. We have the retiring Landon Donovan, MVP finalist Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez from LA and Clint Dempsey, Tottenham bound DeAndre Yedlin and MVP finalist Obafemi Martins from Seattle out of the West. In the East, we have the rumored to be retiring Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips from New York and Charlie Davies, Jermaine Jones and MVP finalist Lee Nguyen from New England. You are definitely seeing the best of the best in MLS.
MLS definitely has its metaphorical “pick of the litter” in terms of players to market for the MLS Cup Playoffs. MLS could take the easy way out and focus on Donovan but the more effective long-term strategy is building up the young talented stars like Martins, Wright-Phillips and Nguyen as well as the legends like Donovan, Dempsey and Henry.
It’s been said that the winner that the Western Conference Finals is the unofficial MLS Cup Final. Records-wise, the West has been the better conference. Seattle and LA have the best records and New England and New York are 5th and 8th (2nd and 4th in East) overall respectively. One could say that the East is the weaker conference but another could say that the Eastern Conference teams are better overall and beat each other opposed to the West where a few teams dominate.
In the Western Conference Final, I have Seattle winning against LA and thereby ending Landon Donovan’s career. Both teams have been on top of their game recently but Seattle seems to be stronger and will escape with the win.
In terms of the Eastern Conference Final, I can’t possibly see the Red Bulls winning this. New England has only lost twice since July and look to be very tough. The Red Bulls just seem to inconsistent as of late to win.
In terms of who wins the MLS Cup Final on December 7, I have the Sounders beating the Revolution. As much as people trash the Eastern Conference, New England looks like the only team who can beat the top Western Conference teams. The only problem is that New England has to go west to Seattle and 67,000 fans will make sure Seattle takes the “treble.”
FYI: Feel free to go to Total MLS, Bloguin’s MLS blog, for all your MLS coverage. And in a little bit of self-promotion, follow @MLSTitleBelt on Twitter. The MLS Title Belt is a project I have been doing that started with MLS’ first game in 1996. After San Jose beat DC United in the inaugural game, the “Belt” gets defended in every MLS regular season and MLS playoff game. After 19 years, the 678th MLS Title Belt match will consist of the champs, New England Revolution against the New York Red Bulls. A draw means the champ keeps the Belt so New York must win.