From a Philadelphia Union standpoint, the season has to be considered a success. While they did fall short of the playoffs, how realistic was that goal? Consider that in the history of MLS, only three expansion teams had ever made the playoffs in their first season, with Chicago winning MLS Cup back in 1998. That same year the Miami Fusion also qualified for the playoffs. Since that time, only Seattle was a playoff team in their first year.
In year one, the Union were a very competitive and feisty side, reflective of their Manager Peter Nowak. They played an entertaining style of soccer, always playing to win, even though it ended up costing them a game or two. They discovered a rising star in Sebastien Le Toux, whose 14 goals, 11 assists, and consistent 90 minutes of hustle make him a legitimate league MVP candidate. The club showed it knew what it was doing when it came to the drafting of collegiate players, with Danny Mwanga stepping up to show he is a star of the future.
Off the field, the talk of the league was PPL Park and the support of its fans. The Union averaged over 19,000 fans per game, good for fourth best in MLS. The Sons of Ben were a presence at every home game. If you don’t believe me, ask any of the opposing players who came in to face the Union.
So the future for Philadelphia in MLS looks very bright. Now it’s time for the club to prepare for the expansion draft, and to look into ways to strengthen the team. It’s going to be an interesting and exciting offseason.
Elsewhere, it took the final game of the MLS season to determine the winner of the Supporters' Shield, and to finalize all of the playoff matchups.
When the dust settled, it was the LA Galaxy who were the league’s number one team. As a reward for being number one in the West, the Galaxy get to play a two-leg playoff versus the Seattle Sounders, with the first leg on the road in front of 36,000 plus green clad supporters. That sounds more like a punishment to me than a reward.
Seattle has been the league’s best team since the midway point of July. As for the Galaxy, they were by far the league’s best team at the start of the year. The loss of Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan to the World Cup slowed them down. More recently, the loss to injury of defender Gregg Berhalter left the Galaxy with a very young backline. Add in the fact that they had to play one way all year without David Beckham, and now that they have him must play a bit different. Make no mistake, Beckham is still a great player, but he and his teammates have had to get used to playing with him again.
LA needs a big effort in the first leg Sunday at Seattle. Otherwise, the top team in MLS might be the biggest team to be eliminated in the conference stage.
As for the other matchups:
Real Salt Lake vs FC Dallas
I think RSL is the most complete, most balanced team in the league. To me, they have the top central defense tandem in Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, plus the best four man midfield, led by Javi Morales. In goal, Nick Rimando is definitely in the top three playing in the league. Up top, Alvaro Saborio has been a star all season, and even more so on Saturday when he rallied his team from 2-0 down to get a 2-2 draw in Colorado. Both of Saborio’s goals came in stoppage time.
FC Dallas is led by MVP candidate David Ferreira, who has quietly scored eight goals while assisting on 13 others in 30 games started. Is goalkeeper Kevin Hartman okay to play? If he is completely healthy, then FC Dallas has a shot here.
New York vs San Jose
The Red Bulls have already made it from worst to first (Eastern Conference) in one season, but can they go all the way? Bouna Coundoul has had a great season statistically speaking, but those who watch him know how unpredictable his game can be. Will the big three (Ángel, Henry, and Márquez) be the Red Bulls' best players in this matchup? If they are, then New York should win.
Don’t discount San Jose though with Chris Wondolowski’s 18 goal campaign that made him the Golden Boot winner in MLS. San Jose also has the skill of midfielder Geovanni, plus veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch who has some strong playoff experience on his resume.
Columbus vs Colorado
Even if Will Hesmer was playing in goal, the Crew looked like a team that could be bounced early in the MLS Cup playoffs. Until Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Union, the Crew had gone winless in six, looking like a tired team in the process. No doubt the added games of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (made it to the final), plus games in the CONCACAF Champions League, took its toll.
Now you have the season-ending shoulder injury to Hesmer, which came after a collision with Philadelphia’s captain Danny Califf.
Up to the plate steps Andy Gruenebaum, who has not played a single minute in MLS this season. On the plus side, Gruenebaum played in a combined 10 games in other competitions, and did play in 10 MLS games last season. He now becomes the key player in this two leg total goal series.
For the Rapids, who host Game 1 Thursday (9:00pm ET, ESPN2), it’s their first playoff appearance since 2006. They are led by the one-two punch of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, who combined this season for 27 goals and nine assists. Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni are two players who could make it very difficult for Columbus in the midfield.
What a great time Kyle Martino and I had Sunday at PPL Park. We called the Union finale at Columbus off the monitor from our regular press box location in the stadium. Before the game we conducted the pre-game show in the Union Stadium Club in front of a large group of Philly supporters. Those Union fans gave the show a ton of energy, made it more vibrant, so hats off to you. On a personal note, it was nice to meet so many of you at the game. Maybe next season we can do more of these shows with some audience participation.