With New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids emerging from the wildcard round, the final eight teams are in place and the 2011 MLS Playoffs are ready to take off. As usual, the regular season provided a refreshing mix of widely anticipated events – such as Los Angeles Galaxy’s table-topping form – and mind-boggling surprises – New York’s rapid drop down the table and Sporting Kansas City’s surge from last to first. But, as previous post-seasons have confirmed, all that counts for nothing now – the post-season is a whole new ball game.
Upsets have become the norm in the MLS playoffs but that has not deterred the bookmakers from installing Los Angeles Galaxy as favourites. After all, among the many intriguing storylines set to play out over the next fortnight is, of course, the likelihood that David Beckham will be bidding farewell to the MLS. Yet there is little to choose between the sides that make up the chasing pack, ensuring that numerous pulsating clashes await before the latter rounds even arrive.
Inside Futbol assesses each of the Conference semi-finals:
Colorado Rapids v Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City’s resurgence has been remarkable after a tough start that saw the team struggle playing their first ten games on the road before Livestrong Sporting Park opened. Just three losses in their final 24 games was enough to complete the turnaround and secure top spot in the East. The momentum is with them and, though Colorado Rapids are the defending champions and have pace and power in abundance up front, it is hard to see Sporting Kansas City being derailed this early. This should be the most one-sided tie of the round.
Key Men: Sanna Nyassi (Colorado); Teal Bunbury (Sporting KC)
Prediction: Sporting Kansas City to progress
Philadelphia Union v Houston Dynamo
Philadelphia took four points from the regular season tussles, including a 1-0 win back on the opening weekend of the season, but Houston are unbeaten in their last six games and have the more potent attack. The Union, who have made impressive progress since joining the league in 2010, must grab a lead at home in the first leg to stand any chance in Houston.
Key Men: Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia); Brad Davis (Houston)
Prediction: Houston to progress
Real Salt Lake v Seattle Sounders FC
If the formbook has any value, Seattle should be overwhelming favourites. The Sounders, led by striker Fredy Montero, have won five of their last six games while Real Salt Lake are on a six-match winless streak. Ten points separated Seattle (2nd) from Real Salt Lake (3rd) in the Western Conference standings. But this will be a lot closer than those statistics suggest, particularly as they split the two regular season meetings. Get ready for a fight to the finish and plenty of goals.
Key Men: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake); Fredy Montero (Seattle)
Prediction: Seattle to progress
New York Red Bulls v Los Angeles Galaxy
This time last year, the Galaxy entered the post-season as Supporters’ Shield winners and favourites to go all the way, but failed to make it to the MLS Cup. This season, it could be different. Their first round clash with Thierry Henry’s New York Red Bulls is the tie of the round simply for the immense star power on display. New York’s fall from top spot in the East to borderline playoff qualifiers was shocking, but their unpredictability will worry Los Angeles. In a one-off game, the Red Bulls might pull off an upset but over two legs Galaxy’s strength will be decisive.
Key Men: Thierry Henry (New York); David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
Prediction: Los Angeles Galaxy to progress
The Conference semi-finals drama begins on Saturday and there are sure to be some major talking points. So, who should the smart money be on? Well, the underdogs have prevailed so frequently in recent years that picking highly-rated Los Angeles Galaxy as MLS Cup winners almost seems a risky choice but, given the firepower of the Beckham-Landon Donovan-Robbie Keane trio, this could be the year that the favourites finally come through on their promise. And, if Los Angeles prevail, it would give Beckham the chance to walk away from his MLS adventure with his head held high.