The most exciting season in Major League Soccer history came to an end last Sunday. Every game in the final week had playoff implications on the line, whether it was teams fighting for higher seeds, or others simply trying to get into the dance.
Now the playoff brackets are set and are full of intriguing matchups. In the West, the hometown Houston Dynamo face Seattle Sounders FC, the first expansion side to qualify for the playoffs since the 1998 Chicago Fire. Then there's the Super Clásico in Los Angeles, between the Galaxy and Chivas USA. The Eastern Conference will see the New England Revolution, who qualified on the final day, take on the Chicago Fire. The Columbus Crew, who won the 2009 Supporters' Shield (team with highest points total), will play Real Salt Lake.
The first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs will be a "home and home" aggregate-goal series. That means that each team in the matchup will play a home game, with the higher seed getting the final game at home. The aggregate score, the combination of goals from both games, will determine the winner of the series.
Every series has the potential for an upset, so Hair Balls will seek guidance from our magic Eight Ball for predictions.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS
1. Los Angeles Galaxy vs. 4. Chivas USA
One of the biggest rivalries in MLS will take place in SoCal, with a spot in the Western Conference Finals on the line. The Galaxy are more of a complete team than the Goats, and have superstars in Landon Donovan and David Beckham who have a tendency to rise to the occasion in big games. The Galaxy come into this series with a better defense, midfield, and offense, which has mismatch written all over. The Galaxy do have an Achilles heel, which is their speed. Chivas USA has the players to expose that weekness, but haven't been able to in their three matches this season. The Galaxy won the season series with a record of 2-0-1. Prediction: Galaxy win on 2-0 aggregate.
2. Houston Dynamo vs. 3. Seattle Sounders FC
The Sounders look to become only the second expansion team in MLS history to win the MLS Cup. The final is going to be held in Seattle this year, so they'd have home-field advantage if they can make it out of the West. Standing in their way is the most experienced team in these playoffs. The Dynamo look to bounce back from their early exit last year, with a strong performance against the newbies. Both teams match up very well. They both have top-notch goalkeepers, the defenses were tied with the best goals-against average, and both midfields work very well to distribute the ball evenly. Seattle won the season series 1-0-1, and also eliminated the Dynamo from the US Open Cup. Both victories were in Seattle, however, and the Dynamo didn't field their A team in either game because of national team call-ups. Home-field advantage will be key in this series, and the second leg of the series will be played over on Cullen Blvd. Prediction: Dynamo win on 3-1 aggregate.
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1. Columbus Crew vs. 4. Real Salt Lake
MLS gives an automatic playoff bid to the top two teams in each conference. The remaining four spots go to the teams with the best points total in either conference, which is why the defending MLS Cup champions, the Crew, are taking on RSL. Statistically, the Crew are far superior than RSL in every category. This series should be a no-brainer, but every year there is a major upset in the playoffs (ask last year's Dynamo). Even though the Crew won the Supporter's Shield, they've limped into the playoffs, losing their last two games to finish the regular season. Plus, RSL has one major advantage, Rio Tinto Stadium. The first leg of the series is going to be in Salt Lake City, where the elevation is high and temperatures will be frigid. If RSL can win that first game, Columbus will have to open up in the second leg, leaving them vulnerable to RSL counter-attacks. Prediction: RSL win on 3-2 aggregate.
2. Chicago Fire vs. 3. New England Revolution
Both teams clinched their playoff berths on their final games. You cannot overlook what the Revs have done this season. Decimated by injuries, the Revs were able to overcome makeshift lineups all season long to make it this far. Leading the way for them is Shalrie Joseph, who should win the MVP award this season. Chicago has also had injury problems of late. They've missed their captain, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and other key players. Their win against Chivas USA last Thursday was their first in almost two months. New England also had trouble winning games. Before their victory last week against the Crew, they went a month without a W. Like the Galaxy, the Fire have too much star power for the Revs. Prediction: Chicago win on 2-1 aggregate.
The first game of the MLS Cup Playoffs is tonight, as the Dynamo visit Qwest Field in Seattle to take on the Sounders FC. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. locally and will be televised on ESPN 2.