Between the spliced-up video and the new horriffically bad predictions, I have to fess up to my pre-season picks.
Mike's Predicted 2008 Eastern Conference Finish
DC United, New England, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, Toronto, Columbus
Actual Eastern Conference Finish
Columbus, Chicago, New England, Kansas City, New York, DC United, Toronto
Mike's Predicted 2008 Western Conference Finish
Houston, CD Chivas USA, Los Angeles, Colorado, FC Dallas, Salt Lake, San Jose
Actual 2008 Western Conference Finish
Houston, CD Chivas USA, Salt Lake, Colorado, FC Dallas, Los Angeles, San Jose
So in retrospect, my picks weren't TERRIBLE per se. I picked 7 out of 14 positions exactly and was off by one for three more. However, the shame of picking Columbus to finish in last, and then having them turn around and finish with the league's best record has a bit of a sting attached. I also picked 6 of the 8 playoff teams. Only Columbus and Salt Lake surprised.
So it's time once again for my annual horrifically wrong MLS Cup Playoff projections. Four quarterfinal series will kick off Thursday, with the marquee series being Chicago against New England. The first round is a two game, home and home total goals series. The away goals rule is not used, and if teams are level on goals after 180 minutes, they go to extra time. The higher-seeded team gets to host the second game (and any extra time or PKs that follow). The semifinals are a one-game playoff at the home of the higher-seeded team. The Final is in 4 weeks at the Home Depot Center just outside Los Angeles.
With that, let's try to break down this incredible crapshoot of a playoff system in order of my interest.
East #2 Chicago vs. East #3 New England
Game 1: Thursday at Gillette Stadium (Foxboro, MA)
Game 2: Next Thursday at Toyota Park (Bridgeview, IL)
For the 8th time in the past 9 seasons, the Fire and New England will end each others seasons. The Fire and Rev scum are meeting in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row (New England winning the prior 3 through a combination of dumb luck, bad officiating, and asinine coaching). What could be a game-changer here though is the Fire have home-field for the first time since 2003. In every Fire-Revs season-decider, the team with home-field advantage came out ahead. Likewise, the Fire have DOMINATED the Rev bastards this year, winning all three of their games by a combined score of 9-1. (4-0, 3-0, 2-1). Chicago seems like a team poised to make a Cup run, and their 5-2 thrashing of a desperate New York team last Thursday only seems to accentuate this. With Rolfe, Blanco, McBride, and Mapp all clicking at the same time, the Fire offense is back, having scored 7 goals in their last two games. One concern is the defense, who conceded most of their goals this season down the stretch. However, with a healthy backline and a Keeper-of-the-year and Comeback player of the year candidate in Jon Busch, the cards are all lined up for the Fire.
New England remains a formidable foe, being led by a solid returning core of Taylor Twellman, Matt Reis, and Shalrie Joseph. However, the Revs have been through a terrible run of form since leading the league for most of the first half of the season. The Revs have gone 2-7-4 since the All-Star break, and have dropped from 1st in the table to 4th after looking unbeatable before. The Revs are also without veteran midfielder Steve Ralston due to injury and boy does it show. One thing that remains to be seen how it will play out is how the Revs will line up without their speedy playmaker Bermudan International Khano Smith, who was inexplicably red-carded in a meaningless game over the weekend against Kansas City. Smith will be suspended for the first game of the playoffs and he had always given the Fire defense headaches. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to have the bastard on the bench. The Revs poor form + depleted roster from injury and suspension + home field for Chicago = Fire finally beat the scum in the playoffs.
Fire 4-2 on Aggregate.
West #2 Chivas USA vs. West #3 Real Salt Lake
Game 1: Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, UT)
Game 2: Next Saturday at Home Depot Center (Carson, CA)
Real Salt Lake are into the playoffs for the first time in the club's four-year history, and what a way to get in. On the last day of the season, playing rivals Colorado for the final playoff spot in the West, Colorado led late, untill a 90th minute equalizer gave RSL the 1-1 draw they needed to advance to the playoffs. Initially, RSL's big unknown was how they would adapt to their new stadium. RSL have only played two games on the grass at Rio Tinto after compiling one of the best home records in the league thanks to their notoriously bad artificial turf field at the University of Utah. RSL are undefeated so far (1-0-1) at Rio Tinto and the place should be electric for their first-ever playoff game. Now their big question mark is their relative inexperience. While Chivas USA is stacked with players who have played in big games before (Jesse Marsch, Alecko Eskandarian, Zach Thornton, Ante Razov, Sacha Kliejstan, and Jonathan Bornstein), RSL is leading a youth movement. Aside from wizened vet Clint Mathis, only Nick Rimando and Dema Kovalenko have been repeatedly tested in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Salt Lake is on a run of passable form to close the season. Having gone undefeated in their last 6 games to close the campaign (2-0-4).
Chivas is another team that will be affected by stupid red cards on the final day of the season. Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy was sent off and as such will be suspended. Aging veteran Zach Thornton will be between the sticks for the Leg 1 clash at the Rio Tinto. While Thornton's experience may come in handy, this is a Chivas team that doesn't really need more experience. It needs a faster goalkeeper than Zach Thornton to deal with RSL's multi-faceted attack. Thornton is still a passable keeper in MLS and a valuable backup, but he is far from the keeper who backed Chicago to MLS Cup '98. I would not trust him in a series where goals are at a premium. Chivas is on a great run of form right now. The Rojiblancos have gone 6-2-1 since getting knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League back in August. This one looks like RSL could pull off a win in the opener at the Rio Tinto, but if they don't win by more than 2, I'm picking the Goats to pull out the series at Victoria Street. Chivas won the season series from RSL 2-1, and I have no reason to doubt their ability to defeat them in the playoffs now. Chivas has enough good players and experience and are playing like a championship-calibre team poised to make a deep Cup run.
Chivas USA 3-1 on aggregate
East #1 Columbus vs. East #4 Kansas City
Leg 1: Saturday at CommunityAmerica Ballpark (Kansas City, KS)
Leg 2: Next Saturday at Columbus Crew Stadium (Columbus, OH)
Columbus was the class of the league this year, running away with Eastern Conference and winning the Supporters' Shield (best regular season record) for the second time in their history. Columbus is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, the last time they won the Supporters' Shield. However, as has been repeatedly shown, regular season success does not always translate into playoff success. Only 4 Supporters Shield winners have won MLS Cup (DC United '97 and '99, Kansas City '00, and LA Galaxy '02). Only 5 Shield winners have ever made it to the Final (throw in Chicago '03). Three of the last four seasons, the Shield winner lost in the first round. Columbus has a well-built team anchored around MVP candidate Guillermo Barros Schelloto and USA Youth International Robbie Rogers and Venezuelan International Alejandro Moreno. Columbus can score from a variety of attack points and it shows in the statlines (#2 in scoring, and tied for first in goal differential league-wide).
Kansas City answers with a veteran team enhanced by the addition of Claudio Lopez who has been playing better of late. Jimmy Conrad provides a veteran presence in the back, but too often is called upon to score goals. Kansas City's forwards and midfielders have not been getting the production they need to this campaign. However, anything can happen in a two-game series, especially on Kansas City's small pitch. Of the four playoff series, Kansas City appears to be the team most prone to play the upset. Columbus has been resting its starters for several weeks now, having clinched the Supporters' Shield several weeks ago. With nothing to play for, one wonders how this Columbus team will respond if Kansas City can get a goal or two in their First leg home game. Columbus has closed the season with two losses, a draw, and an unconvincing 1-0 win over DC United. Kansas City on the other hand has surged in recent weeks, finishing the season 5-1-1 after being left for dead in August. I'm going to buck all the pundits (and even my own rational opinion) and say Kansas City over Columbus in a low-scoring series for my first round upset special.
Kansas City 2-1 on aggregate
West #1 Houston vs. East #5 New York
Game 1: Saturday at Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, NJ)
Game 2: Next Saturday at Robertson Stadium (Houston, TX)
For the second year in a row, the 5th-placed East team was better than the 4th-placed West team, so they get to switch over to the Western Conference, despite their presence on the Eastern seaboard. Follow?
Before I analyze Houston I have to say that no MLS team has EVER won three MLS Cups in a row. DC United came the closest, winning in 1996, 1997, and 1999, and losing in the Final in 1998. Houston is closer to becoming that first 3-peat team than anyone has ever been. Houston started slow this year, only scrapping together a few ties while teams like New England and Columbus were racking up wins. But it was those ties that kept Houston in the game. The Dynamo have only lost 2 games since the All-Star Break across all competitions. Houston only lost 5 games all season, and finished second in the league overall behind Columbus. Even more so than their domination of MLS over the past three years, they have succeeded where others have failed abroad. Houston made it to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup and are presently looking to advance out of the Group Stages of the CONCACAF Champions League in a tough group that includes UNAM Pumas of Mexico, Luis Angel Firpo of El Salvador, and San Francisco of Panama. Houston has a deeper team than anyone else in the league. A number of players on their bench could start for lots of MLS teams.
Houston is battle-tested, and with Brian Ching and Dwayne DeRosario on form, little can stop them. Their opponent; New York scratched into the playoffs on the last day of the season with a sub-.500 record and that's no way to head into a series with the defending champions. Houston is healthy, they lead the league in goal difference, teams wishing to knock them off will have to come to Robertson, which at playoff time less resembles a college football stadium. It reminds me more of the Bombonera in Buenos Aires or the Azteca in Mexico, a pulsating Latin American stadium with the Championship juggernaut on the field to match.
New York closed the season weakly, getting thumped 5-2 by Chicago in a game where New York had everything to play for. They really began to crumble after Chicago went up 2-1, and a team that mentally weak isn't going anywhere. What's even more disturbing for Red Bull's playoff chances is that they have only won on the road ONCE all season. One road victory to show for 15 games, and half of this series is being played on the road. Were it not for DC United failing to get a win at Columbus, New York wouldn't even be here. Houston is winning this series and is on track to go to their third consecutive Final.
Houston 5-1 on aggregate
Tentative Semifinal Picks
Chicago over Kansas City
Houston over Chivas USA
Tentative MLS Cup Final Pick
Houston over Chicago