The Major League Soccer regular season began in early March. Eight months later and the business end of the season has arrived. The MLS Cup is on the line, and in a little more than a month, the 2018 champion will lift the trophy.
In the MLS, the playoffs follow an interesting format. First of all, the conferences in the MLS do not have the same number of teams — the Eastern Conference has eleven teams, while the Western Conference has twelve. The top six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, so the teams in the Eastern Conference have better odds of reaching the postseason. Here’s where it gets interesting. Since there are six teams that qualify from each conference, traditional brackets won’t work from the outset — there needs to be a way to reduce this to four teams from each conference. To achieve this, there is the knockout round, also known as the play-in round. Of the six playoff teams from each conference, the teams that finished in positions three to six compete in this round, while the top two teams get a bye to the next round. The third seed plays the sixth seed, and the fourth seed plays the fifth seed. In the knockout round, games are single-elimination.
In each conference, the two teams that advance from the knockout round then face the top two seeds in the conference semifinals. The first seed plays the lower of the qualifying seeds from the knockout round, while the second plays the higher seed. Just like the NBA playoffs, the conference semifinals are followed by the conference finals. Then, the final two remaining teams compete in the MLS Cup to determine the winner of the trophy. While the conference semifinals and finals are contested over two games with the aggregate winner advancing, the MLS Cup final is only a single game.
The knockout round has already been played — now we are into the conference semifinals. In fact, the first game of each semifinal matchup has already been played, with the second legs being played on November 8 and 11. In the East, New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United FC, New York City FC, and Columbus Crew SC remain, while Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, and Real Salt Lake are left in the West.
Two franchises that have generated a lot of interest this season are Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C. United. This is because both teams signed star strikers who both had great careers in Europe — the Galaxy signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while D.C. signed Wayne Rooney. This has naturally increased interest in the MLS among European fans, particularly Manchester United supporters, since the two players were together at MUFC before coming to the MLS.
Ibrahimovic played for many of the best clubs in Europe in his glittering career — Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, and Manchester United to name a few. On the other hand, Rooney stayed in England, starting at Everton before spending thirteen fruitful seasons at Manchester United — the most successful club in English soccer. He is the England national team record goalscorer, as well as Manchester United’s record goalscorer, and has won every trophy available at the club level in England. Ibrahimovic has also amassed countless major honors — he has won the league title in Spain, Italy, and France, as well as many domestic cups.
These two players haven’t just joined the MLS — they’ve led their teams. Ibrahimovic scored 22 goals, enough to earn him second place on the goalscoring charts. He also provided ten assists, which is a very impressive return from a striker. When Rooney joined D.C. in the middle of the season, they were dead last in the East. In only twenty games, he notched twelve goals and seven assists, dragging them into the playoffs with the help of teammate Luciano Acosta, who also performed superbly. Sadly, both these teams are out of MLS Cup contention. The Galaxy didn’t even qualify for the playoffs — they had to win their final game of the regular season to do so, and were 2-0 up at half-time, only to let the game slip in the second half. D.C. qualified for the playoffs by finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. However, they lost on penalty kicks to Columbus Crew in the knockout round in front of their home crowd. Having finished the regular season superbly to reach the knockout round, it was a bitterly disappointing end to their season.
Before the penalty shootout against Columbus began, Rooney told his teammates: “whatever happens, we can be proud of what we’ve achieved.” Following the loss, he remained upbeat. He told the Washington Post: “we had no right to make the playoffs. To do that, we’ve brought belief back to the fans, we’ve brought belief back to the team — and we have to build on that now.” Coach Ben Olsen echoed his captain’s sentiments. “It was a hell of a run. Don’t let this spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation for Audi Field and the next generation of D.C. United, and who we are and what we’re about. They got this city interested again in soccer and our team.”
The Galaxy camp wasn’t so positive following their second-half collapse that cost them a playoffs berth. “A bit empty right now,” Galaxy interim head coach Dominic Kinnear told Goal.com of his feelings after the match. “Even at the half I knew the game wasn’t over. We needed to keep on playing, because they have some players playing forward that can hurt you. And, like I said, our possession in the first half kept them away from our goal, and then our lack of possession the second half brought them a little bit closer to our goal.”
Romain Alessandrini, one of the Galaxy’s best players alongside Ibrahimovic, was equally dejected. “We just have to blame ourselves,” he said. “Now we just have to move forward. It’s hard to say that for the fans because a club like LA Galaxy has to make the playoffs every year, and two years in a row without playoffs is tough.”
Luckily, there is still plenty of exciting talent left in the playoffs. Atlanta United FC are one of the favorites to go all the way. Although they missed out on first place in the Eastern Conference on the final day of the regular season, their forward line is too powerful and dynamic for opposition defences. They have the MLS’s top goalscorer in Josef Martinez — he has scored 31 goals this season, nine more than his nearest challenger — and another huge attacking threat in playmaker Miguel Almiron. Together, they have combined for a ridiculous 43 goals and 20 assists. Furthermore, their defense is the second best in their conference based on goals conceded.
Another MLS Cup contender is the New York Red Bulls. Like Atlanta, the Red Bulls have the devastating pairing of a clinical striker and creative midfielder in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Alejandro Gamarra respectively. While Martinez is a relatively new addition to the league, joining in 2017, Bradley-Wright Phillips has played for New York for five-and-a-half years. Barring the 2013 season, in which he only played seven games, Wright-Phillips has averaged more than twenty goals a season in his last five seasons. He has also proven he can deliver in the playoffs, having scored nine goals and provided two assists in his sixteen postseason appearances. On the other hand, Gamarra is in his rookie season. In just twenty games, he has fourteen assists and six goals, helping the team to the top of the conference alongside Wright-Phillips. However, the Red Bulls lost 0-1 at home to Columbus Crew in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. This was a shock result, seeing as Crew were the fifth seed. Nevertheless, with their greater technical abilities, New York should be able to bounce back and move on to the conference finals.
Having reached the MLS Cup in 2016 and 2017 — winning it in 2016 — the Seattle Sounders have the opportunity to extend their streak. To do so, they too will have to overturn a first leg home defeat. They lost 1-2 to the Portland Timbers, their bitter Northwest rivals. Seattle’s best player is 32-year-old Panama international Román Torres, who scored the winning penalty kick in their 2016 title win.
His physicality intimidates attackers. MLS.com aptly describes him as being “built like a freight train.” Furthermore, “Torres has been a key defensive cog in Panama’s machine for over a decade.” He will need to demonstrate his defensive prowess if Seattle are to claw their way back against the Timbers and advance to the next round.
While Atlanta, Red Bulls, and Seattle are probably the favorites, with only eight teams left, nobody can be written off entirely. Nine games are left — that is a lot of soccer yet to be played. No matter who wins, more Americans than ever will be tuning in to watch. This sport is here to stay.