CCL 2012-13 Qualifiers: MLS Semifinals

Posted on November 6, 2011 2:20 am

On Sunday, November 6, two matches will take place in Major League Soccer. The winners of each will move on to the MLS Cup Final, which (to the dismay of Supporter’s Shield purists) is the league’s championship game. So why would there be any controversy about this entry’s title?

As reader cwilke1 argues, the term “Conference finals” would be more appropriate: according to MLS’s regular-season table, the two best remaining teams will face each other now, leaving the winner to face a weaker opponent in the Final. Given the vast extension of the league, one could make the case that MLS needs conferences in order to minimize travel during the playoffs and maintain viewer interest across the country. I of all people would be hard-pressed to argue the second point; but if I am not mistaken, the LA Galaxy just racked up over 5,000 frequent flyer miles in their Western Conference semifinal series (fun fact: Los Angeles is closer to Guatemala City than to Harrison, NJ).

Nevertheless, the conferences do exist, and for the first time since 2007, both Conference finals are free of “outsiders” (e.g. the last two “Eastern Conference champions” Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids). Well, technically: the former Kansas City Wizards (sorry, Dan) moved to the East in 2005, while the Houston Dynamo only got transferred this year. But I hardly need contribute to the growing pile of playoff format complaints, so let’s move on.

Both MLS semifinals will take place as one-match affairs on Sunday – and given the end of Daylight Savings Time this morning, check and make sure of the time in your area (Public Service Announcement: if you reside in the US, turn your clocks an hour back, if they don’t do so automatically). The first one will kick off at 5:30 p.m. (all times EST), as Sporting Kansas City host the Houston Dynamo. Later, the LA Galaxy will take on Real Salt Lake at 9:00 p.m. in the Home Depot Center, the site of this year’s MLS Cup Final. Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Deportes will carry the first game in the US; I distinctly remember seeing MLS matches on Fox Sports when I studied abroad in Costa Rica two years ago, but I cannot find any confirmation that Sporting KC/Houston will be shown beyond US borders. LA’s 2009 MLS Cup rematch with Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, will be shown on TSN2 in Canada and ESPN in the US, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The difference in coverage, as well as the aforementioned regular-season standings, both suggest that the Western Conference final is the more important of the two. And even though LA and RSL have already qualified for the next Champions League, this game is still significant for our purposes: Real Salt Lake need their second Phil Anschutz trophy in order to avoid the preliminary round of the CCL, while Seattle need LA to win all their playoff games at home – kind of like a certain team in the US Open Cup – if the Sounders are to enter directly in the group stage.

But the day’s first game is, in and of itself, a CCL elimination match.

As the home side, and the highest-ranked team in the “Eastern” half of the MLS playoff bracket, Sporting Kansas City have every reason to consider themselves the favorites this afternoon. And although they have yet to reach the Champions League, their pre-CCL performances include a 3-2 aggregate win over Santos Laguna in the 2002 CONCACAF Champions Cup – to date, the only time an MLS team has knocked out a Mexican opponent in a two-game series.

The Houston Dynamo, on the other hand, will look to continue an eight-game unbeaten streak as they chase their third MLS title. They are also chomping at the bit to return to the continental stage, mainly because they have unfinished business: the last time they played in the CCL (2009-10), they simply needed to beat Isidro Metapan – a club that had suffered five straight shutout losses, with no fewer than 17 goals against – in order to reach the quarterfinals. Yes, New England and New York had blown easier assignments before, but the two-time MLS champion Houston Dynamo was far from what Trinis would call a “jokey” team. And yet…

The road to redemption is now simply one game away. Ironically, it will take place at the last venue where Houston tasted defeat: LiveStrong Sporting Park.

CCL 2012-13 Qualifiers

1. Seattle Sounders [USA2 or USA4]
2. LA Galaxy [USA1 or USA2]
3. Real Salt Lake [USA3 or USA4]
4. Houston Dynamo [USA1 or USA3]

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