After seven months of football, eight battle-scarred teams are set to engage in the frenetic, wild-eyed joust that is the Major League Soccer play-offs. Star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls enter as nominal favourites, but with the ‘post season’ hinging as much on momentum, mistakes, pressure and luck as form and panache, anything can happen. FIFA.com takes and in-depth look at the first round of action as MLS’ 2010 title hunt hits fever pitch on 28 October with the stakes set squarely at all-or-nothing.
The big-money New York Red Bulls, bolstered this year by the high-profile signings of superstars Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, take on perennial strugglers San Jose Earthquakes. All the pressure will be on the men from the Big Apple, with the Northern California-based ‘Quakes relying almost solely on their top scorer Chris Wondolowski, who is responsible for virtually all of their attacking output this season. New York enter the tie as favourites, but with former Arsenal hero and France ace Henry having missed several games with a wonky knee, coach Hans Backe will have to wait and see if 2010 is finally the year an MLS crown comes to New York.
Another star, Argentina’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto, will be leading the lines as 2008 champions Columbus Crew take on Colorado Rapids. The Boca Juniors icon was crucial in leading the Ohio-based outfit to the play-offs and his big-game experience made him the driving force the last time the Crew put hands on silverware. “We have basically the same team that we had when we won MLS Cup three years ago,” Barros Schelotto told FIFA.com, knowing full well the team’s form heading into the play-offs is questionable, with three losses in their last four games and a serious injury to goalkeeper William Hesmer. “It’s the same players, the same team with the same ideas about how to play the game and win games. Our targets are simple and unchanged.”
Whereas the Crew are built around the orchestrations of their 37-year-old maestro, the men from the high Rockies will rely on an energetic, collective approach. The Rapids are always willing to pressure the ball and will be looking for attacking output from the experienced Conor Casey and speedy Omar Cummings, who have scored 27 goals between them this term.
Los Angeles Galaxy are heavy favourites to excel out west, having finished first on points in the league’s ‘regular season.’ With Landon Donovan and a now-fit David Beckham showing the way, the Southern Californian side will face off with defending Open Cup champions Seattle Sounders in their first round. “I believe we can win the league this year,” Beckham told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “When we play with passion and intensity, and when we keep focused, we are a very difficult team to beat,” he added as the Galaxy look to reach their second straight MLS Cup and claim their first title since 2005.
The Sounders, in only their second year as an MLS team, will have other ideas. The side from the Pacific Northwest have a fine balance of experience (Kasey Keller and Blaise Nkufo) and young enthusiasm (Sanna Nyassi) that has served them well in reaching the play-offs for the second straight season. “We have the kind of team that can do big things. We have all the things you need: talent, experience and depth. This is a dangerous combination,” said Gambian sensation Nyassi, whose two goals against the Crew earlier this month saw the Sounders pick up their second straight Open Cup (North America’s version of the FA Cup) for a timely boost in confidence.
The last of the first-round meetings pits Real Salt Lake against FC Dallas with Utah-based RSL keen to make lightning strike twice and win their second title on the trot after shocking LA in a penalty shoot-out last year. Finishing only three points off the Galaxy in this ‘regular season,’ the men from Mormon Country will be the slight favourites heading into the clash. They set a league record by conceding only 20 goals this term and are currently on the crest of a 14-game unbeaten streak. Regardless of current form and momentum, the Salt Lakers will need to beware the attacking threat of Jamaica-born USA international Jeff Cunningham, whose pace can undo any defence.
The first series of games will be played over two legs (home and away) with the winners moving on to the one-off conference finals. The champion of MLS will be decided by another one-off match between the two conference winners in Toronto, Canada on 21 November.