As MLS membership has increased, the league has smartly retained a playoff field of eight. While in 2009 that still represented, barely, more than one-half the teams, in the past two seasons the lowest-seeded qualifier has knocked off the defending champion. That aspect of parity cuts both ways, even though only nine points separated Columbus from Real Salt Lake this year, as compared to the 12-point gap between New York and Houston in 2008. Both the Crew and Dynamo were good enough to win their conference title the year after winning the title, but couldn't maintain that momentum in the playoffs.
Whether or not just getting to playoffs constitutes a successful season has to be measured by the club's track record, not simply where it finished on the league ladder. Here's how the four losing quarterfinalists in 2009 stack up:
New England (lost to Chicago, 3-2). Numerous Revs, especially Shalrie Joseph, were beat-down exhausted in the playoffs, yet had Edgaras Jankauskas' header hit the net instead of the crossbar early in the second leg, they would have been up, 3-1, on aggregate and just enough jazzed to maybe hold off the Fire. But the energy and technique displayed by Chicago in front of a roaring, sellout crowd clearly delineated the greater potency of the home team, which blotted out New England's sporadic efforts to get at a makeshift Fire back line.
Mere survival for this injury-ravaged team was a success, and a whole slew of newcomers - Darrius Barnes, Emmanuel Osei, Kevin Allston - reshaped the defense. Midfielder Pat Phelan played a lot of minutes in critical situations, and Kheli Dube doubled his rookie output to score eight goals. Dube, Phelan, and the young Gambians, Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, will be expected to contribute regularly next year, even if age doesn't catch up to veteran Steve Ralston, and Taylor Twellman somehow overcomes his long-term injuries.
Seattle (lost to Houston, 1-0). An amazing inaugural year produced league record attendances and a U.S. Open Cup trophy, revived the career of Freddie Ljungberg, brought native son Kasey Keller home after a 17-year career in Europe, and provided one of the league's best coaches, Sigi Schmid, a strong foundation for future success. It also sparked interest in a major city unlike anything before attained by an MLS team.
Yet to be resolved is the loan status of live-wire striker Fredy Montero and defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. Their departures would leave two huge holes to be filled, though defender Patrick Ianni did play in 17 games. A failure to score in 210 playoff minutes and the spotty performances of rookie Steve Zakuani are indicators of areas that can be improved.
Schmid added Costa Rican left back Leo Gonzalez in midseason to shore up that side, and used the Open Cup to build some depth, which Seattle will need next season when it plays in the Concacaf Champions' League. With an enthusiastic fan base, first-class management, a tricky home artificial surface, and solid defense, the Sounders only need to broaden their fleet of first-team candidates to manage the burdens of league and international commitments.
Chivas USA (lost to Los Angeles, 3-2). Coach Preki has taken Chivas USA to the playoffs three straight seasons after taking over from Bob Bradley, and all three times it has stumbled in the conference semifinals. Excellent seasons for goalkeeper Zach Thornton and defender Jonathan Bornstein were counterbalanced by the cases of striker Eduardo Lillingston and right back Mariano Trujillo, whose playing time dropped in the second half of the season. Still, Lillingston's eight goals led the low-scoring team (34 goals).
Injuries tore through Chivas USA, sidelining a half-dozen regulars, and the signing of three loan players - Yamith Cuesta, Jesus Padilla and Maicon Santos - revived it somewhat. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan sleep-walked through two-thirds of the season; was it the closing of the European transfer window, or the first whisperings that Preki might be headed elsewhere, that woke him up in early September? What will the team do with veterans like defender Claudio Suarez, midfielder Jesse Marsch, and forward Ante Razov? Chivas USA has come to a crossroads, and hard choices must be made prior to its sixth MLS season.
Columbus (lost to Real Salt Lake, 4-2). The defending champ couldn't gear up for postseason play after finishing sluggishly with a barren run of 1-0 defeats in three of its last four regular-season games. It also lost by that score at Rio Tinto Stadium in the conference semifinals first leg, and after jumping in front at home, 2-0, in the second leg, quickly conceded two goals before halftime and then a third to end the season in tatters.
The Crew started the season slowly with a slew of ties, played well on either side of the All-Star break, and lurched down the stretch to finish with eight fewer points than it did as the Supporters' Shield winner in 2008. And it looked downright mediocre in the playoffs aside from the first 35 minutes of the second leg.
Fatigue and attrition accrued by qualifying for the knockout phase of the Concacaf Champions' League may have manifested itself late in the season, when concentration and focus and cohesion simply fizzled out. A strong core of veterans - Chad Marshall, Brian Carroll, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers, Alejandro Moreno - is cause for optimism, assuming Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Coach Robert Warzycha put aside their rift regarding the benching of Schelotto for the first leg against RSL, and whether Schmid tries to acquire Moreno if Montero isn't signed to a permanent deal.