So much for the calm before the storm.
With playoff thunderheads massing on the horizon, MLS staged a surprisingly turbulent final week of the regular season. There were two hat tricks, a stunning charge in the Golden Boot race, goals from two MLS legends in the final games of their careers, and a resolution of the Supporters’ Shield and playoff picture in the very last game of the year.
So let’s put on our Wellingtons and jump in the puddles.
Los Angeles locked up the Supporters’ Shield and home-field advantage in the West playoffs, but not before some high drama and a low point for Colorado keeper Matt Pickens (and we're not talking about that beard).If the Rapids had beaten Real Salt Lake on Saturday, the Galaxy would have clinched the Shield before even kicking off against FC Dallas on Sunday. Colorado were on the verge of doing just that, getting goals from—who else?—Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, and leading 2-0 in stoppage time.
That was when Pickens made an uncharacteristic gaffe to hand a goal to Alvaro Saborío and then, moments later, Brian Mullan pulled down Jamison Olave in the box during a Salt Lake free kick and the referee pointed to the spot.
Saborío buried the penalty and just like that, RSL had tied the game, earned a point, and actually taken the lead in the race for the Supporters’ Shield, thanks to a superior goal differential with the Galaxy.
That meant LA needed at least a tie against Dallas in the regular-season finale. And they got it. They rallied from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 on goals by David Beckham and Juninho, claiming the Shield for the third time in franchise history.
Match highlights: LA 2, Dallas 1
Here are the official playoff pairings and first-leg schedules:
Los Angeles–Seattle (Sun, 8:00, ESPN2) New York–San Jose (Sat, 10:00, TeleFutura)
Real Salt Lake–FC Dallas (Sat, 5:00, FSC) Columbus–Colorado (Thurs, 9:00, ESPN2)
Golden Boot or Glass Slipper?
Chris Wondolowski took his storybook season to another level in Week 30, scoring a hat-trick in 50 minutes of action in San Jose’s 3-0 win over Chivas USA last Wednesday, then bagging the Quakes’ only goal in a 4-1 loss to Kansas City on Saturday. (Kansas City’s journeyman striker Birahim Diop scored three in the Wizards rout.)
The four-goal outburst gave Wondolowski 18 goals for the season, the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer, and pole position on the MVP award.
All this from a previously unheralded player who had never scored more than five goals in a season before.
Quakes fans are just hoping the clock doesn’t strike midnight in the first round of the playoffs.
Worst to First
San Jose’s countdown will start against the New York Red Bulls, who downed New England 2-0 on Thursday to clinch the Eastern Conference title and tie the MLS record (held by the 2000 New York team) for best single-year improvement (10 wins).
Highlights: NY 2, NE 0
It was an impressive accomplishment for first-year coach Hans Backe and his men, who got goals from Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere in the shutout.
Lindpere’s capper could not have been more appropriate: He scored the first regular-season goal at Red Bull Arena on March 27, and on Thursday, he bagged the last. In between, he was the most consistent and reliable performer on the team.
He also gets the Postgame’s vote for MLS Newcomer of the Year, edging out Real Salt Lake’s Saborío.
Still, things could be better in New York: Superstar Thierry Henry has missed two straight games with a knee injury, and star striker Juan Pablo Ángel’s future with the team is in serious doubt. Will these prove untimely distractions?
These playoffs are as wide open as the American West, which just happens to be home to six of the eight teams in the field.
Seriously, any of the eight playoff clubs seems capable of a magical run. But to pull it off, each one will need its good luck charm of a player—the guy who attracts W’s and wards off L’s—to be in full effect for that to happen.
Here are those players for each team:
- Los Angeles: Landon Donovan. A team’s talisman isn’t necessarily its best player, but in the Galaxy’s case, he is. Donovan leads the league with 15 assists. As he goes so go LA’s playoff hopes.
- Real Salt Lake: Alvaro Saborío. You want a good luck charm? How about two goals in stoppage time to salvage a last-gasp draw? He leads the team with 12 goals (not to mention what he did for RSL in the Champions League).
- Seattle: Steve Zakuani. Named player of the week for his goal-and-assist effort in a 2-1 win over Chivas USA last week, Zakuani has taken the mantle from Fredy Montero.
- FC Dallas: David Ferreira. See Donovan, Landon.
- New York: Dane Richards. Five goals in his last seven games have resolved the Dane Richards Paradox—in the speedy winger’s favor. He is New York’s most electrifying player.
- Columbus: Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Crew are 17-0-11 all-time when GBS scores. ’Nuff said. (But can they survive the playoffs without Hesmer, who is out after getting hurt on a corner kick collision during Columbus’s 3-1 win over Philly on Sunday?)
- Colorado: Omar Cummings. By a nose over his strike partner, Conor Casey. Cummings had 14 goals this season, scored on, seemingly, about 14 touches. A marvel of efficiency.
- San Jose: Chris Wondolowski. Wondo has scored the Quakes’ last 10 goals and 18 of their 34 for the season. No brainer.
Going in Style
DC United legend Jaime Moreno scored from the spot in the Red and Black’s 3-2 loss to Toronto on Saturday—the final game of his illustrious career.
The goal pushed Moreno’s career total to 133, one more than FC Dallas’s Jeff Cunningham (who was held scoreless on Sunday), and put him alone again atop the all-time MLS goals list.
Brian McBride also scored in his career curtain-closer, turning in Freddie Ljungberg’s cross with a nifty backheel during Chicago’s 4-1 rout of Chivas USA.Fire defender C.J. Brown, who spent his entire 13-year career with Chicago, hung ’em up as well after that one.
Finally, Los Angeles midfielders Chris Klein and Eddie Lewis—neither of whom will likely feature in the playoffs—came on for the final minutes of the Galaxy’s win over Dallas. A final hurrah before they both ride off into the sunset.