All eyes on sweet-16 silverware
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The 2011 season has been proving nothing short of sweet for the adolescent Major League Soccer, with stunning crowds in the Pacific North-west and storylines of cross-country classics between Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls capturing the hearts of the budding football culture in North America.

With the regular season wrapped up at the weekend, excitement surrounds the looming play-offs, as ten sides – more than ever before – set their sights on clinching the MLS Cup. In campaigns past, the competition had implemented an eight-team post-season format, enlisting a quarter-final series prior to two single-game conference semi-finals. However, the 16-year-old MLS has tinkered with this traditional set-up to include two new wild card play-off slots. And while the introduction of these spots has endured its fair share of criticism as the league continues to iron out its post-season structure, the new format certainly provided for a nervy finish to the 34-match regular season schedule.

Red Bulls snatch place as Sporting shock
The new wild-card round will kick-off tomorrow when FC Dallas host New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew travel to reigning champions Colorado Rapids on Thursday. New York, who had a string of lacklustre results plague them at the tail end of summer, were the final team to complete the play-off picture. A 1-0 win over Philadelphia Union in their final match ensured their place, while simultaneously knocking newcomers Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire from contention with the result.

Despite enduring an eight-game winless run, the Red Bulls are propped up by heavyweight star power in Thierry Henry, who notably tallied 14 goals this season, and Mexico international Rafa Marquez.

But perhaps a more notable finish in the Eastern Conference was that of Sporting Kansas City, whose rise to a first-place finish in the pool was nothing short of a surprise given their start to the 2011 season. The club, formerly nicknamed Wizards, was reinvented in a rebranding scheme ahead of the opening of their new stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park.

After starting the season on the road prior to their stadium’s June unveiling with just one win, six losses, and three draws, Sporting racked up an impressive 12 victories – nine of which came at home. Losing only once to Real Salt Lake in the final two-month stretch, Sporting defeated DC United 1-0 to complete their fairytale climb up to first in the East.

Kansas, likely relishing their hard-fought advantage of playing the higher-seeded wild card winner, enter the play-off stage equipped with a dangerous trio up front that includes Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury, and Omar Bravo, who each boast a nine-goal haul.

Union edge through, Sounders delight the masses
Completing the post-season line-up in the East are Philadelphia Union, who, despite their loss to New York at the weekend, have bypassed the first round for an Eastern Conference semi-finals place where they will face Houston Dynamo in a two-legged tie. The in-form Sebastien Le Toux sparked Union’s final charge into the play-offs, scoring 11 times this season, with ten of those goals netted late on.

While Philadelphia are enjoying their first play-off berth since their MLS entrance last season, Seattle Sounders are setting the football scene ablaze on the other side of the country in the Pacific North-west. The Washington-based side finished second in the Western Conference, booking a semi-final tie with 2009 champions Real Salt Lake and what will be their third post-season appearance in as many seasons with the league.

Since their induction in 2009, Sounders have won the US Open Cup – the oldest knock-out tournament played in the USA – for three consecutive seasons. Seattle saw off Chicago Fire to seal those honours once again this season, but likely have greater triumphs in mind as they finished on an impressive 63 points, inspiring record attendances to gather at CenturyLink Field. An incredible third-largest crowd in MLS history of 64,140 turned out for Seattle’s final match at home as the organisation paid final tribute to retiring goalkeeper Kasey Keller.

Beckham stars as Galaxy cruise
Meanwhile, Seattle have been pegged as LA Galaxy's biggest obstacle in obtaining the title. Los Angeles, who claimed the Supporters’ Shield three weeks prior to the regular season’s end, boast the league’s best defence and added incentive lies within David Beckham as he still searches for a first championship with the Southern California-based side. And although it is Beckham’s final year of a five-year contract, it was arguably the English midfielder’s best all round showing to date. The 36-year-old playmaker proved a vital contributor for Galaxy, recording 15 assists this season – second only to Houston Dynamo’s Brad Davis with 16.

In addition, Los Angeles will welcome the return of Landon Donovan, who was struck by a hamstring injury in early October, when they take on the lower-seeded wild card winner from the first play-off round. But with history favouring the underdogs in the MLS post-season, Galaxy will have to overcome odds to march on to their first MLS Cup victory since 2005, with only five of 15 previous Supporters’ Shield winners having gone on to win the title.

With play-off chances aside, though, Galaxy have spearheaded what was a sparkling 16th season for MLS, with the addition of both Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps generating new-look support, remarkable revivals achieved by the likes of Sporting Kansas City and New York Red Bulls creating for an exciting finish, and the increase of rivalries spurring intrigue among a geographically-expansive league. 

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