The MLS playoffs are here, and they are quite an interesting beast indeed. There is very little symmetry between the rounds, and things don't really get started with the top clubs until the first round of play in games has gone through. However, there are always teams lurking in the middle portion of the table that have snuck into the playoffs and then got hot in the playoffs to win the whole thing, such as Real Salt Lake in 2009 and the Colorado Rapids just a year later. Since then we've seen a bit of dominance from the Galaxy (and recurring finals performances from the Houston Dynamo), but this year seems primed for a new set of finals participants.
The MLS playoffs use a strange structure. The top five teams in each conference (East and West) qualify for the playoffs, and the fourth and fifth best team square off against each other in these playoff games. The winners play two legged series against the first seed in each conference, while the second and third seeds play each other in a similar two legged series. The winners face off in two legged conference final. The conference finals winners, now equipped with berths in next year's CONCACAF Champion's League, face off in the finals. The finals pare down to a single leg, played at the venue of the team that had the better record in the regular season.
The two play in games will be Montreal at Houston in the East and Colorado at Seattle in the west. The winners of these games will join the six teams that have already qualified for the conference semifinals that will take place over the weekend. Below, I offer brief profiles of the four teams in the play-in games, with profiles of the other six coming later in the week.
Record: 14-11-9 (51 points) 4th in East
Key Players: LM Brad Davis, CM Ricardo Clark, GK Tally Hall
Form: Houston started off the season solidly but has struggled for most of the second half of the year. Part of this is due to the commitment of some of their top players to international duty (Davis & Garcia) and part of it is just that the team is in a funk at the moment.
Brief Description: The Houston Dynamo are known for three things: being nearly invincible at home, strong set piece taking and being defensively solid. While these continue to be their hallmarks this year, Houston has struggled at all three this year. Their record home field winning steak was snapped this year, and while Will Bruin has replaced Brian Ching as the team's target forward, the offense has not been that great this year. Bruin himself has struggled, but more importantly neither Giles Barnes nor Omar Cummings has truly stepped up as a speedy forward to pair alongside him. Defensively, they miss Geoff Cameron but are still above average (though not by all that much). They are unlikely to advance far in the playoffs, but with the play-in game at home, they have a good enough chance of getting to the Conference Semifinals.
Record: 14-13-7 (49 points) 5th in East
Form: Montreal started off this season really hot, but has since struggled and is largely limping in to the playoffs.
Brief Description: Montreal is defined by its two aging Italians: Marco DiVaio and Alessandro Nesta. Montreal's defense has been solid every game Nesta has played, but Nesta has struggled with fitness for much of the year and may not even be fit for the playoffs. Offensively, Montreal's offense benefits from the space created by the way DiVaio stretches the feild. He will position himself just onside of the last centerback, ready to receive a ball played over the top. This tactic both creates opportunities on goal for DiViao while stretching the field for Montreal's other attackers, a solid group that includes Felipe Martins and Justin Mapp. If Nesta plays, they could be a really difficult team to beat in the playoffs. If not, it is unlikely that they could make it to the conference finals even if they got by Houston.
Record: 15-12-7 (52 points) 4th in West
Key Players: DM Ozzie Alonso, F Eddie Johnson, GK Michael Gspurning
Form: This has been a season of extremes for Seattle. They started out poorly, looked like world beaters halfway through the season and then ended up going on a losing streak to close out the year. Personally, I think it's that they got a bit of the old Spurs stink on them after buying Clint Dempsey from Tottenham.
Brief Description: Seattle have struggled with injuries and international callups all season long so it is difficult to really know how good this team is. At their best, they are able to dominate possession and threaten with fast forwards like Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson, but when Ozzie Alonso struggles, so do the Sounders. Both Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have been struggling with fitness as have key members of the Sounders defense. Because of this, I really don't know what to expect from them. Any result between play in game elimination and MLS champions wouldn't surprise me. If pushed, I would lead towards play-in game elimination.
Record: 14-11-9 (51 points) 5th in West
Key Players: F Gabby Torres, LB Chris Klute, CB Drew Moor
Form: Colorado started out the season in a funk, but recovered. They went on a hot streak midway through the year that saw them near the top of the table in the West but have since regressed to the mean. They ended the season pretty much alternating wins and losses, a fair enough set of results for a midtable squad.
Brief Description: Defense is going to be one of the stronger aspects for Colorado. Colorado's centerback pairing remains unchanged from their 2010 squad, while fullback Chris Klute and goalkeeper Clint Irwin have been two of MLS' biggest surprises this year. Despite the squad having been hurt by injury for much of the year, Colorado still have only 38 goals scored against them, good enough for tied second in the West after Portland's 33. Offensively, they feature some dangerous attackers including speedy rookie DeShorn Brown and their fist designated player in club history Gabby Torres. The latter took a while to get accustomed to MLS, failing to record his first goal until October 5th. However, Torres has scored three goals in his last three games, so he is getting used to MLS right in time for the playoffs. If you wanted to make an underdog pick for MLS champions this year, you could do far worse than picking Colorado.
I'll have previews up for the rest of the playoff teams before the semifinals start this weekend. An aside, I'm a bit busy this week, so if any of you would like to help me out by writing a preview for one of the other six teams in the playoffs (I'll handle the rest), I'd love to take volunteers.