THE MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER play-offs get underway this evening and everything will be upped a notch.
The regular season proved to be highly entertaining while it conjured a few surprises too. Some high-profile players like Didier Drogba stepped up and delivered while others, namely Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, failed to really gel with their new surroundings.
The three Canadian clubs – Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact have all enjoyed impressive campaigns while former champions Houston Dynamo, Real Salt Lake and San Jose Earthquakes all struggled badly.
So, here’s why you should keep an eye on things in North America in the coming weeks.
As per other sports, the MLS season is divided into two conferences – East and West. The top six teams in both qualify for the play-offs and are seeded accordingly. The top two in each conference qualify automatically for their respective semi-finals.
This season, the Western conference was slightly more competitive with the top six separated by just nine points. FC Dallas and Vancouver topped proceedings while New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew did so in the East.
Those four teams don’t have to worry about much until next week as the knockout round dominates over the next few days. And it’s conjured some very juicy fixtures.
Seattle Sounders v LA Galaxy, October 28th
The two heavyweights of the Western Conference. The reigning champions versus the best-supported side in the league. Seattle don’t possess the same star quality as the Galaxy but their main goal threat is ex-Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins while Clint Dempsey is a constant menace. Another familiar name is defender Tyrone Mears, formerly of Burnley, who joined the Sounders at the start of the campaign. Meanwhile, Lamar Neagle is a tricky winger with an Irish passport.
LA have Robbie Keane – who will go down as one of the finest MLS signings of all time. Again this term, he’s managed to hit 20 goals in the regular season, despite starting less games due to injury. Last year’s MLS MVP (Player of the Year), he’s won three championships since arriving in 2011. And despite Steven Gerrard’s signing, Keane remains the crucial element in the Galaxy’s game.
The winner of this will face FC Dallas in the Western Conference semi-final.
DC United v New England Revolution, October 28th
Both teams have been in MLS right from the start though DC have a much more illustrious history – winning the championship on four occasions. Still, they haven’t reached a final in over a decade and this match-up is delicately poised considering just a single point separated them in the regular season standings.
Neither side have much in the way of stardust though the Revs can rely on former Blackburn midfielder and USA international Jermaine Jones for plenty of heart and determination in the middle of the park. Juan Agudelo spent time at Stoke but never really got an opportunity to impress while they also have arguably the best-named player in the league: goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. Charlie Davies is their top scorer while Lee Nguyen is always a threat.
Former Fulham and Cardiff player Eddie Johnson is now with the side from the capital while Fabian Espindola is a clever midfielder. Their biggest goal threat is Chris Rolfe though neither team have a hugely prolific presence in attack.
The winner of this will face the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semi-final.
Portland Timbers v Sporting Kansas City, October 29th
For only the second time in their history, Portland have made it to the post-season. There’s a caveat though – they’ve only been around since 2011 (with former Chelsea and Scotland striker John Spencer then in charge). Still, the club exists in the hot-bed of North American soccer – the Pacific Northwest area – and between them, near-neighbours Seattle and Vancouver, there’s a terrific local rivalry. There aren’t many familiar faces in the Timbers’ lineup, with the notable exception of former Aston Villa and West Brom defender Liam Ridgewell. But Darlington Nagbe usually pops up with a spectacular strike while the Nigerian Fanendo Adi has been their star attacker this term.
Sporting KC were champions in 2013 and this is their fifth successive play-off finish. They rely heavily on a core group of American players. Their captain is centre-back Matt Besler who was a rock for the US side at the 2014 World Cup. A persistent danger man is Graham Zusi, probably best-known for his abilities from dead balls. Their two main attacking threats are English-born Dom Dwyer and Hungarian international (and former Liverpool prospect) Krisztián Németh and the club has enjoyed some success already this season – crowned US Open Cup champions after beating the Philadelphia Union.
The winner of this will face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference semi-final.
Montreal Impact v Toronto FC, October 29th
What a tasty treat this is. Really, it comes down to a straight shootout between the two best signings in MLS this season: Didier Drogba and Sebastian Giovinco.
The veteran striker has single-handedly propelled the Impact to the post-season. It gets better, though. Montreal were the worst side in MLS last season but this term has been quite a strange one. Somehow, despite their struggles, they made history and reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League only to suffer defeat to Mexican side Club America.
Then, Drogba arrived in the summer and Montreal have never looked back. From nine starts, he’s managed 11 goals. From those nine games, Montreal have lost just once. And on Sunday, he grabbed a brace as Montreal beat Toronto in their final regular-season fixture.
They’ll do it all again on Thursday, when TFC will hope their star man – Giovinco – can produce the goods once more. The diminutive Italian has already been crowned the Golden Boot winner, finishing the regular season with 22 goals but he’s added an incredible 16 assists too. The combined total is the highest ever in MLS history.
The winner of this will face Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference semi-final.
This article was originally published on 27th October and has been updated