By Ridge Mahoney
The last MLS playoff piece fell into place just after 8 p.m. Pacific Time Sunday night, when the final whistle blew on a 1-0 Galaxy defeat of the Sounders at Home Depot Center that also ended the regular season.
Had the Sounders won, they would have claimed second place and thus played the second game of their Western Conference semifinal series against Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field next week. A tie would have knotted the teams with 58 points and by virtue of the first tiebreaker, most goals scored, Seattle would have also claimed the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed.
Instead, Seattle finishes a point back in third and thus hosts the first game with RSL Friday.
Final placing was a concern for Coach Sigi Schmid and his players, but of greater importance was an apparently tweaked hamstring that forced striker Eddie Johnson out of the game in the first half. His status, unknown after the game, greatly affects the playoff picture.
At least Schmid doesn’t have to worry about playing midweek, which the Galaxy must do as the fourth-place finisher. It will host Vancouver Thursday and if it prevails, stay home to meet San Jose Sunday in the first leg of its conference semifinal series. With the second leg scheduled for a week from Wednesday, the Galaxy is facing three pressure games over a span of just seven days.
MLS designed its wild-card round to reward the top three finishers in each conference by granting them byes into the conference semifinals, with the other two slots filled by wild-card teams thatmust play all of their games on short rest. It’s harsh but effective.
The Eastern Conference wild-card teams, Houston (2011 MLS Cup finalist) and Chicago, completed their seasons Saturday and meet at Toyota Park Wednesday.
So a conservative approach by the teams -- a tie was good enough for Seattle, the Galaxy was on a short turnaround -- wouldn’t have been surprising. Yet the opposite prevailed. Each team took 18 shots, and former U.S. international forward/ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman -- who knows something about attacking play -- said given the number of chances, a 3-3 score would have been plausible.
Fredy Montero smacked the goalpost with a powerful header and negated an apparent Seattle goal by handling the ball in the goal area. If Coach Bruce Arena had told the Galaxy to take it easy, the message didn’t get through to Robbie Keane. He led all players with eight shots -- one of which he put into the side netting and another he looped against the bar – and set up the only goal with a fabulous layoff that Mike Magee, last year’s hero with three playoff goals, steered first-time along the ground just inside the post.
The regular-season finale had been billed as a possible playoff preview. Both teams face high hurdles to make that happen. But the allure of that prospect just serves to enhance how enticing are the postseason possibilities.
If the Galaxy survives the wild-card round, it faces Supporters’ Shield winner San Jose, just as it did en route to 2005 MLS Cup title. Seattle must contend not only with RSL, in a vengeful mood after failing to advance out of Concacaf Champions League group play, but also its failure to advance out of the first round in each of its first three seasons.
The Quakes hope to repeat the Galaxy’s feat of last year, capturing MLS Cup as Supporters’ Shield winners. The Eastern Conference is also loaded with intrigue: fourth-place Chicago narrowly missed the playoffs last year, as did runner-up D.C. United, yet nobody would be stunned if one of them knocked off top dog Sporting Kansas City to reach the title game.
And New York regularly stuns people, one way or another, which adds a joker to the deck along with the four wild-cards.
Six 2011 playoff teams got back to the postseason this year, so the turnover rate stands at 40 percent (Vancouver and San Jose also missed out in 2011). And while both MLS Cup finalists return, both are in the wild-card hopper this time around.
That’s the price you play for not finishing higher than fourth.