MLS Cup Final Preview

San Jose vs. Colorado? Of course that makes sense for an Eastern Conference final! At least this year, though, justice was served as the Western Conference was clearly dominant and all four wild card playoff berths were claimed by Western Conference teams. The Power Rank shows the fairness of this result as the top seven ranked teams ending the season all made it. Only Kansas City, having edged San Jose by a fraction for the 8th spot, can feel a bit cheated. Fortunately, the ‘Quakes represented their conference well with a 3-1 thumping of New York, guaranteeing the final 2010 The Power Rank top 8 will have filled out all the playoff spots. What will be interesting to see is if this continues in the future.

MLS differs from nearly every soccer league in the world, not only in having conferences, but also by letting a playoff determine the ultimate champion. Other leagues have every team play every other, home and away, for a perfectly balanced season with the top squad decided by point total. This year, the MLS sides also played each other home and away, and this balance is why the final regular season rankings aligned so closely with goal differential. LA can be aggrieved that, in any other country, they would be considered the top team after earning the most points over a balanced season.

However, part of the American sports culture is based on titles being earned on the field. Personally, I like it for the unmatched drama and excitement (are you listening, BCS?) but I’m glad MLS at least recognizes the significant achievement of being the best regular season team. What I don’t like is the split into conferences that doesn’t serve any useful function except having #1 Real Salt Lake and #3 FC Dallas meet in the first round of the playoffs! The current system would even allow for a potentially stronger Western Conference team to miss out in favor of a weaker Eastern Conference one. Also, referring to the games as “conference” championships is totally meaningless, as we saw this week. It seems fairer to take the top 8 teams, seeded by point total, and have a normal playoff.

In defense of the conference system, MLS commissioner Don Garber has noted the long travel distances involved in a country the size of America. Considering the drain that long air travel can have on endurance, this is reasonable enough. In addition, he notes that the MLS season is restricted to avoid playing cold weather games, again reasonable after the freezing temperatures in Colorado this past weekend. The problem with these arguments is that they’re invalid this year, and likely next, when MLS gains two expansion teams and adds four games. While the schedule hasn’t been released, another balanced season is likely. Will this change in 2012 when the league expands to 20 teams? We’ll see, but unless they’re going to be segregated by conference in the playoffs, at least seed teams in some meaningful way. It shouldn’t be a reward to earn fewer points: Seattle could be in the title game if they’d lost one more game and gone to the “east.”

Now, on to the matches. In Colorado, freezing temperatures probably took a bit of energy out of both sides but the Rapids were able to take the lead at the stroke of half-time. After pressing for an equalizer at the start of the second half, the altitude began to take a toll on the Earthquakes and they weren’t able to sustain pressure in the last twenty minutes and force overtime. Still, the game provided an interesting contrast between San Jose, who run their attack out the midfield, and the Rapids, whose forwards Conor Casey and Omar Cummings run the show.

Meanwhile at the Home Depot Center, the stars aligned for FC Dallas who demolished a very tired looking LA Galaxy. Perhaps injuries, age, and international duty finally took a toll, as during the regular season the Galaxy had handed Dallas their only home loss and defeated them 2-1 in LA. Of all the teams in the Conference Finals, only FC Dallas looked on their best form, playing impressive team defense throughout the midfield and back lines. Particularly in the middle of the field, the pressure they exerted when LA gained possession denied the Galaxy of easy attacking chances. Dallas only looked vulnerable on a couple of brilliant switches from David Beckham.

Looking forward to the MLS cup final, FC Dallas separated themselves from the Galaxy with their 3-0 road win after the two teams had been tightly packed for most of the season in The Power Rank. In their last two regular season matches, FC Dallas had a combined 4-1 goal disadvantage on the road against the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. In their away playoff games against both sides, they reversed this figure with a 4-1 goal advantage to trail only RSL in The Power Rank. As such they are quarter goal favorites to win their first MLS Cup. However, when Colorado can’t get the ball up top to their talented playmakers, the Rapids run out of ideas quickly. If Dallas’ midfield can keep up the kind of defensive pressure they’ve been applying thus far, expect it to be a long night for Colorado.

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