MLS Cup, the USA’s flagship football championship, is awarded not to the team which finishes with the most points after the regular season but to the team that prevails after a short knockout tournament played by Major League Soccer’s top eight clubs.
Now in its 14th season, MLS has been won no fewer than four times by DC United (1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004). Los Angeles Galaxy (2002 and 2005) and San Jose Earthquakes (2001 and 2003) have two titles under their respective belts, and Chicago Fire (1998), Kansas City Wizards (2000) and current holders Columbus Crew have each won once.
The Earthquakes moved to Houston before the 2006 season and Houston Dynamo came thundering out of the blocks to win MLS Cup twice on the bounce, defeating New England Revolution at Pizza Hut Park in ’06 and again at RFK Stadium in ’07. The Revs had also been beaten in the final in 2005, taking them to the unenviable record of four losing finals in just six years.
But it was New York Red Bulls who fell short last season, as Sigi Schmid led the Crew to a 3-1 MLS Cup final victory at the Home Depot Center. Schmid’s excellent coaching, now in evidence in Seattle, played a huge part as Columbus won the Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the team that would be “league” champions) and then successfully saw out the post-season. But much of the credit went to Argentine striker Guillermo Barros Schelotto – the current top scorer in MLS with ten so far in 2009 – who sealed his MLS Most Valuable Player accolade by creating all three cup winning goals.
2009: the story so far
The 2009 season has, in its first 14 weeks, been one of stumbling pace-setters. Everybody was impressed by the rampant start made by this season’s expansion club, Seattle Sounders FC. Boasting a menacing attack featuring former Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, burgeoning Colombian talent Fredy Montero and former Dynamo forward Nate Jaqua, Seattle demolished New York in their first ever MLS game and followed up by beating Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC. Despite defeat to Seattle, TFC were also an early form team and – initially at least – shrugged off the loss of coach John Carver to maintain a decent start. Both then fell away.
Chivas USA and Chicago Fire then took the baton. The Californian club, led by free-scoring Mexican Eduardo Lillingston, showed great early season promise and sit just one point off top spot despite becoming less prolific in recent weeks. Before the two met in Week 11, Chicago had for a time gone blow for blow with Preki’s men. Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s 96th minute penalty that night put an end to Chivas’ excellent run but the Fire haven’t fared much better since.
DC United currently sit atop the Eastern Standings after a run of form characteristically defined by determination, a never-say-die attitude and a fair slice of luck. The form of Josh Wicks in goal and rookie Chris Pontius in a variety of positions have, for me, been vital to United’s run of relative success. It all came unstuck for United on Saturday, suffering from tiredness and failing to adjust to altitude as Omar Cummings ran them ragged to help Colorado Rapids to a 3-0 win. United’s form has been overshadowed only by a fantastic winning run by the Dynamo, now leaders of MLS, during which they came from almost nowhere and rose to the summit thanks to Brian Ching, Andrew Hainault and, in particular, Stuart Holden.
The qualification process for MLS Cup playoffs is very simple. The top two teams from the East and the top two teams from the West qualify and are seeded one and two in their respective East and West playoff brackets. The remainder of the illustrious eight consists of the next four teams (on points scored) regardless of their conference. If this means more than four teams on either side of the playoff brackets, the lowest teams move over. These teams play two-legged conference-specific semi-finals and the winners play single game East and West conference finals. The Eastern winners then play the Western winners for MLS Cup.
So, with the MLS schedule haphazardly rolling its way to the mid-way point of the 2009 season, which teams will now be believing they have a realistic shot at glory?
DC United head a batch of hopefuls in the East. Tommy Soehn’s side benefit from a blend of youth and experience. Rookies Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius have surprised many with their excellent contributions, and the wiles of Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and the returning Ben Olsen have enabled United to pick up several late goals on their journey to the top of the standings. Chicago Fire and Toronto also have experienced frontmen in Brian McBride and Dwayne DeRosario, and have shown their ability to put together a run of results – a vital attribute for knockout football. Of the two, I’d say the Fire are more likely candidates.
Columbus Crew have quietly come up on the rails and now sit just four points behind DC United, though to qualify from the East it may be necessary to finish in the top three as a minimum given the higher tallies at the top of the West. Kansas City Wizards also have 19 points but have been somewhat less convincing. Josh Wolff, Davy Arnaud and Claudio Lopez have been putting in the goals for the Wizards to give them a decent chance of qualifying. Realistically the rest of the conference will now struggle to make it through to the post-season, though you can never rule teams out at this relatively early stage.
Given their breathtaking form, a third MLS Cup for Houston Dynamo must be considered a real possibility. So many of their players have stood up to be counted recently, not least new signing Cam Weaver. The teams at the top of the West have found it easier so far to pile on the points, and despite slipping over the last few weeks Chivas USA and Seattle Sounders only need a strong period each, say nine or ten games unbeaten, to guarantee playoff qualification.
Behind them, Colorado Rapids have two potent weapons in their arsenal. Conor Casey, spending a couple of happy weeks in South Africa at the moment with the US Men’s National Team, has netted an impressive eight goals from ten games this season and acts as a robust focal point for the Rapids attack. Omar Cummings, with six goals and six assists, combines lightning pace and a sharp football brain to great effect. This was best demonstrated last Saturday when he single-handedly tore apart the DC United defence, helping himself to two goals and setting up new national team recruit Colin Clark to kill the game off with a third.
Given the unpredictable nature of the game it would be churlish at this stage to make too bold a prediction, but I’d be staggered if Dynamo, Chivas and United didn’t walk into the playoffs long before the end of the season. It would be surprising too if Chicago and Seattle didn’t follow them into the last eight.
Even taking into account the apparent strength of Houston, it’s impossible at this stage to make a prediction as to which team will eventually come out on top. Knockout football is a strange beast, requiring momentum, character and luck. DC United fit that bill best at the moment, but lack the consistency of several other teams in the league. However, a Houston v DC final is not out of the question.