By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 31, 2012) US Soccer Players – Last season gave us the strong suggestion that the Play-In Round would bring an end to the plucky underdog battling through as a lower seed to make the MLS Cup. That began to border on the cliché in this League when it was still possible for a Western Conference team to qualify for an Eastern Conference wildcard. Now? Things might have changed in 2011 with both of the revamped Play-In Round winners exiting at the next opportunity, but given the caliber of clubs this season it doesn’t suggest a permanent change.
Los Angeles looms in the West, and an extra game added to their playoff schedule might benefit them. It gives them a game to get their top squad back together after injury, a chance to develop a rhythm should they be the ones to play San Jose in the next round.
Tonight’s Eastern Conference Play-In game (9pm ET – ESPN2) is arguably tougher than the Western Conference. I would certainly argue that point. Though Los Angeles is the best of the four teams to face the entry game, their matchup with Vancouver isn’t as tough as Chicago – Houston.
It’s hard to get a read on the Fire, a team that can play quality soccer one game and chase it with the kind of subpar performances that leaves points just out of grasp. In a knockout game setting, it’s difficult to determine which team takes the field. Chicago’s regular season hinged on two games against DC United.
On August 22nd, the two played out a tedious game at RFK Stadium betrayed by the score line. 4-2 sounds exciting unless you happened to be there. Both teams gave up the midfield and topped that by leaving players unmarked in the box. DC scored more goals, but Chicago looked like the squad capable of playing better soccer.
They met again in the final weekend of the regular season with Chicago needing a win to avoid the Play-In Round. What we got was a better game. Chicago waited too long for the kind of desperation attack that’s a roll of the dice rather than a planned effort, but the 1-1 draw was reflective of even teams. That’s a compliment for both DC and Chicago as well as the East as a whole.
Houston doesn’t have that direct comparison against a fellow playoff team. Their season slowed against the likes of Philadelphia and Montreal after a September 2nd loss to Chicago. That put them in the position of waiting for other results that didn’t move them up, but also didn’t move them out of the playoffs entirely.
That suggests a knockout game that favors Chicago. After all, the Fire play the better soccer right now, they’re hosting, and they’re coming off a competitive regular season finale. Unfortunately for the Fire, there’s still that risk of uninspired play showing up at the worst moment. They’re simply not a team that projects confidence, and Houston might be the team that handles Chicago’s desperation and moves on.
Both of the Eastern candidates to face Conference champions Kansas City should be wondering what happened for their chances to top the table. Both were in contention late, trying to end up in the top three in a scramble that was different than the Western Conference teams trying to climb the table.
Part of that is Sporting’s inability to put points between them and the rest of the table. Sporting remains the class of the Eastern Conference, but they never did enough to scare the rest of the division. That opens up the East in a way that doesn’t exist in the West. While San Jose looks like the team to pencil-in as the eventual Cup champion should you be filling out your bracket, Sporting Kansas City feels suspect.
Sporting should be concerned about the Play-In winner. This shouldn’t produce a Conference Semifinal series that favors the higher seed. Both Chicago and Houston are threats, both are teams that expected more from the 2012 regular season.
It’s the East that helps demonstrate the point that exiting at the Play-In Round shouldn’t cap a successful season any more than missing the playoffs entirely. Call it the Columbus exception. The Play-In loser should be reassessing their season just like the Crew, trying to figure out what needs to change to make them better in 2013. It’s the same discussion for the team that advances, should they end up unable to compete against Sporting.
MLS leaves their teams with little choice in the revamped playoffs. There’s now a middle tier in both conferences where we see teams that are close to being contenders, but can’t quite prove it on the field. That creates the kind of disparity that makes this League more interesting than the recent era of the wildcard contender.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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