Finally, that boring, pointless preseason is over, and the real competition can begin. Oops, sorry, channeling Bruce Arena there for a minute.
This regular season was way fun, let's keep doing this. As in, let's not play in the snow, or split the season in two like some sort of pitiful minor league, or anything dumb like that. I end up saying this every year, and every time there's a fight or a brawl or a particularly great play…but golly, the players sure don't act like the regular season is meaningless. I mean, maybe it is meaningless. And maybe life is meaningless, depending on how often you sit around asking who all those bells are tolling for.
And I still maintain that the non-neutral site MLS Cup has given the Supporters Shield added meaning. There are now two rounds where home field advantage actually matters – the play-in games this week, and MLS Cup. Yes, I too believe that the other rounds should be one and done, but I also believe that the league doesn't really make these decisions to annoy me. For example, Seattle, should they survive the Rapids, will get at least one more lucrative home playoff game. If we're not careful, they may make the play-in game home and home, come to think of it.
But even if they do, the highest seed that survives the Conference Cuisinart gets a pearl of great price. Home field advantage in MLS, as in most leagues, as in most sports, is monstrously useful. Red Bull fans may literally have seen nothing yet.
And if Red Bull fails – which, gosh, when has that ever happened – Kansas City will have their chance. And if Kansas City stumbles, then a bunch of Western Conference teams can start thinking about buying streamers and party favors. The standings, which used to be so trivial, now can make or break a season. I for one love it.
I don't love trying to pick winners in the playoffs this year, though. And neither does anyone else, it seems. Parity at least has made sure there's no consensus favorite or annoyingly trendy pick. About the only teams that no one believes in are New England and Montreal.
Oh, I take it back. New England is "your dark horse pick," says Matt Doyle on Major League Soccer Soccer. And it doesn't even sound that crazy when Matt says it. Although I still think that particular horse is so dark, I can't see it getting past the first round.
Here are my seemingly rational reasons for my picks. When teams are this evenly matched, the big intangible that isn't an intangible is coaching. Yeah, sometimes the less respected coach's team wins, but that's usually when there's a significant talent advantage (1999, arguably 2005) or when the game is effectively a draw (2009, 2010).
What usually doesn't happen is a first-year coach winning the title. Not counting Arena (because you shouldn't, everyone was new in 1996, you pedant), Bob Bradley, Frank Yallop and Peter Nowak are the only ones who have so far. And you can tell how long it's been since that's happened based on where Nowak and his team are today.
Which means yeah, I'm writing off the division winners. Look, I like the Timbers too, and they're a critic's darling right now, and Porter's done a wonderful job in giving that fan base something to cheer for. That team simply needs more time in the oven. And Portland will face a significant challenge in the first round, no matter who wins the play-in game. And then, if they survive Colorado or Seattle, then they get to deal with either Salt Lake or Los Angeles. Porter and the Timbers simply haven't been through that kind of gauntlet yet. This experience will do them a world of good, and they'll truly be something to look out for next year. Their time will come, but their time is not now.
I think Colorado will make it to the semfinal, because Seattle hasn't won a game since adding…oh, God, what's his name, the white guy who likes to rap. Bulworth. I see the Rapids getting to the semifinals, where they will lose.
As far as Petke's Red Bulls? Kinnear's going to beat Houston's arch-rival, Montreal, and….
Okay, how cool is it that Houston and Montreal still hate each other? I mean, this is the only sport where Houston and Montreal can have a rivalry at all – and they've made the most of it. Well done. Nice that the Impact will be fired up, I suppose – the spirit of Jesse Marsch lives on. But, in the words of John Milton via Warren Zevon, they're not getting out of east Texas alive.
Anyway, Kinnear's going to beat the reeling Impact, and then he's going to out-coach Petke. I'm not saying Mike Petke will never be an elite coach, but you get to elite status through experience, and "experience" is a nice way of saying "getting your ass kicked." I think Kinnear makes the adjustments necessary to beat a team that's better on paper.
But only one. Peter Vermes and Kansas City are probably rather tired of losing to Houston every October, and this Dynamo team isn't nearly as powerful as the ones who beat the Sportingers in years past. I'm also tired of Kansas City making me look stupid when I pick them to win the East every year, so, a little help, guys?
This is the part of the preview where I realize I've done something I'm not comfortable with – in this case, I'm picking the home team to lose MLS Cup. This is where you can stop listening to me if you want, assuming you ever were, because I'm not quite as confident now as I was when sneering at the idea of Portland or New York playing as well as their records.
If Salt Lake beats the Galaxy, they should get their second star. It's a shame that this matchup comes so early, because I think it's the two best teams in the league, and nothing as silly as statistics or facts or reason will make me see otherwise. The only reason I'm not straight up picking Salt Lake to win outright, apart from my perhaps overstated faith in past performance predicting future results, is that this should be the time that Salt Lake realizes they might have tried harder to keep Olave and Espindola. It worked out for them well enough, I suppose, but I think the Galaxy reap the benefits of managing their cap – excuse me, budget – a little better.
So why would I think that the same Salt Lake Royals that couldn't beat DC United at home for a trophy will beat Kansas City on the road and win the biggest one? And by the way, Kansas City won in Salt Lake earlier in the season, so why would I imagine Salt Lake can return the favor?
Good questions. And, since I don't think Salt Lake will get that far, I don't have to answer them.
I think the most talented team also has the best coach – and so I'm picking Team Evil to make it three in a row.
One of the most annoying things people can do is what I call "Predicting Last Year" – it's safe, lazy, and very comfortable. So, naturally, I'm predicting what happened last year to happen again this year.
The Galaxy have a blueprint of going into the playoffs as healthy as possible, at the expense of other trophies, in order to make a run at MLS Cup. I haven't seen anything that suggests everything isn't going exactly to plan. They don't have much in the way of weaknesses, unless you think the Metapan lineup is going to start against Salt Lake, or that the team is going to try to send Carlo Cudicini out on a high note.
If you don't think the Galaxy are that impressive on paper, that's entirely understandable. They're better in the standings this year, though, and they've improved at goalkeeper.
If you think the regular season, the Supporters Shield, the Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League are important trophies, and should be treated as such, I agree with you. But I also agree with Bruce Arena that MLS Cup trumps them all, and it's better to win that one than the others.
Or, perhaps more precisely, to focus on winning MLS Cup rather than trying to win the others. The cost of losing MLS Cup is fairly minimal, but losing one of the other trophies AND not having enough to make it to MLS Cup – well, that's a good team's bad season.
So, yes, I'm predicting that the most even and equal season in MLS history will end up with its most enduring dynasty. Look, if it made sense it wouldn't be MLS.