People’s enthusiasm surrounding soccer in the United States is seemingly at an all-time high. The only other soccer events that may have gotten Americans more into the sport were when the World Cup was held on US soil in 1994, or when the women’s team won in 1999 and came runner’s up in 2011. After the buzz surrounding the United States team at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, beginning with the Landon Donovan snub to being drawn into the Group of Death, people began to take an interest in soccer in the US. Getting into the knockout stage got people even more excited, and while that excite has died down a fair amount since the World Cup has ended, that excitement was still buzzing as the MLS season came to a close on Sunday, December 7.
Even before the playoffs began there was drama as teams jostled for the five playoff spots for each conference. In the Western Conference, four teams were vying for three playoff spots, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps. Dallas and Real Salt Lake had secured playoff spots and were playing for better seeds. RSL won their game against Chivas USA 2-0 to pull ahead of the other three teams with 56 points. Dallas and Portland’s final game was against each other, and the Timbers managed a 2-0 away win at Dallas. The loss left Dallas as the fourth seed with 54 points, the win gave Portland the final spot in the playoffs at 49 points. That was short-lived, however, as Kendall Waston scored for Vancouver to beat the Colorado Rapids 1-0 and finish with 50 points, knocking Portland out of the playoffs.
The other drama in the Western Conference was over the Supporter’s Shield, which goes to the team with the best record in the league. It is funny that the final game of the season for the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy was against each other, and would decide who took home the hardware. Both were tied at 61 points coming into the game, and had it drawn the Galaxy would have won the Shield thanks to their massive goal differential. But it was not to be, as substitute Marco Pappa scored two late goals for the Sounders, giving them the Supporter’s Shield, finishing the season with 64 points. The win gave the Sounders the first seed, and the Galaxy got the second seed. Real Salt Lake was the third seed, and FC Dallas, the fourth seed, would play the fifth seed Vancouver in the knockout game.
The Eastern Conference was a bit simpler, as all five teams had already qualified and were playing the final game to determine playoff seeds. Regardless of the outcome DC United would have the first seed after racking up 59 points, in stark contrast to last year when they managed just 3 wins all year. The New England Revolution won their final game in controversial style after a goal that was ruled offside then given as a goal, but the win gave them the second seed with 55 points. The Columbus Crew also won their final game 2-1 over the Philadelphia Union, securing them the third seed. That left the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City to play each other to determine who would get the fourth and fifth seeds, and whatever score line, the teams would play again in the knockout game. The Red Bulls got two goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips, putting him in a tie for the most goals ever scored in an MLS season with 27. The two goals gave them the win as well, giving them the fourth seed at 50 points and leaving Sporting Kansas City as the fifth seed with 49 points.
The knockout game takes the fourth and fifth seeds from each conference and has them play each other to determine who will progress to the Conference Semifinals. The Western knockout game was FC Dallas versus the Vancouver Whitecaps. The eventual Rookie of the Year winner Tesho Akindele put Dallas up in the 40th minute off a breakaway, but Vancouver’s Erik Hurtado equalized in the 64th minute off of Kekuta Manneh’s deflected shot. All eyes were on the referee, however when he called a handball on Kendall Waston in the box. Michel stepped up for the penalty in the 84th and scored it easily, giving FC Dallas the win and sending them to the Conference Semifinals against the top seeded Seattle Sounders.
The Eastern Knockout game was the New York Red Bulls against Sporting Kansas City. Two of the best scorers in the league made their mark on this playoff game. Dom Dwyer started the scoring in the 53rd minute off a poor pass from the Red Bulls. But the leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips doubled up Dwyer, scoring thanks to an assist from Thierry Henry in the 77th and then at the death in the 90th minute after being unmarked on a cross from Amroise Oyongo. BWP’s brace pitted the Red Bulls against DC United in the Semis.
The Conference Semifinals consist of a home-and-away playoff. The team that advances is the one that scores the most goals on aggregate. New this year to MLS is the away goal rule. If the teams were tied at the end of the second leg, the number of away goals each team scored was taken into account, since it is harder to score goals on the road. The team with more away goals advanced to the Conference Finals.
The away goal rule only had to be used in one matchup in the Conference Semis, in the matchup between the top seeded Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas. The first game was in Texas, and the scoring started in the 34th minute. Another penalty was awarded to FC Dallas after Marco Pappa tackled Andrés Escobar. Michel stepped up again, and buried it to put FC Dallas in the lead. Shortly after the break the Sounders got a coveted away goal in the 54th minute off a header from Osvaldo Alonso. They needed that away goal, too, since both teams were unable to score in Seattle, and the away goal rule put Seattle into the Conference Finals.
The other Western Conference matchup went down quite a bit differently. The first game was played in Real Salt Lake and saw neither team walk away with any goals, a score line suiting the Galaxy much more than RSL. And maybe LA felt like the second game needed some action after the first game had no goals, because they came out for the second game with purpose, winning 5-0. Much of the thanks for lopsided score goes to Landon Donovan, who scored a hat trick with goals coming in the 10th off a header, in the 54th on a break away, and 72nd thanks to a fantastic scoop pass. The Galaxy have the league MVP on their team as well in Robbie Keane, who got in the act as well with a strike in the 20th minute that he managed to slimly stay onside for. The fifth goal from LA came from midfielder Marcelo Sarvas in the 63rd after some great passes from the Galaxy and defensive lapses from RSL.
And if you like goals, then the Eastern Conference clash between the Columbus Crew and the New England Revolution was the series for you. The goal-fest began in Columbus when the Rev’s Charlie Davies put home a diving header off a set piece in the 34th minute. New England went up 2-0 in the 51st thanks to a fantastic free kick from Chris Tierney. Justin Meram got one back for the Crew in the 64th, but Lee Nguyen gave the Revs a two goal advantage again after a break away in the 70th. Charlie Davies added another in the 78th with a great finesse shot, and Federico Higuaín made it 4-2 at the end from the penalty spot. The second game was just as exciting, starting with a close-range half volley from Lee Nguyen in the 43rd minute, who had Teal Bunbury to thank for a great chipped assist. The Revolution added to their torrent of goals in the 55th as defender Jose Gonçalves ran the length of the field and scored from a pass from Nguyen. Tony Tchani halved the deficit in the 69th with a header off a free kick, but Teal Bunbury sealed the deal in the 77th after Daigo Kobayashi’s pass split the Crew defenders.
And in the last of the Conference Semifinals, Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls took on the Conference champs, DC United. The first leg was played in NY and the scoring started with an incredible back heel pass from Henry to the league’s best scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, who put the Red Bulls up 1-0 in the 40th minute. The lead was doubled in the 73rd, again from a fantastic pass from Henry who found Péguy Luyindula running into the box, and Luyindula put the ball by DC’s keeper Bill Hamid. In the second leg, DC looked to be mounting a comeback when Nick DeLeon netted a header in the 37th, but it was Luyindula again, silencing DC in the 57th minute after yet another Henry assist. Sean Franklin added another for DC in stoppage time, but it was not enough despite getting the win, and the Red Bulls advanced.
The Conference Finals were set, the Revs against the Red Bulls and the Sounders against the Galaxy. Just like the Semis, there is a home-and-away leg for the Conference Finals. In the Eastern Conference clash the first leg was played in New York, but the Revs got on the board first via an incredible strike from outside the box from Teal Bunbury in the 17th minute. Péguy Luyindula nearly notched his third playoff goal in the 27th minute, but it was Wright-Phillips who scored after Rev’s keeper Bobby Shuttleworth saved Luyindula’s attempt, then Luyindula hit the bar before Wright-Phillips headed it in. The Revs were victorious, although the Red Bulls thought Jermaine Jones was offside when he scored in the 85th minute. Available replays look like Jones was in line with the ball, which means that he was in fact onside, giving New England a 2-1 win. Back in New England, it was Tim Cahill who put the Red Bulls up in the 26th minute after he fought off Jose Gonçalves and scored between the defender’s legs. Charlie Davies tied the game up for the Revolution in the 41st minute with a header from a free kick, although the ball may have glanced off his shoulder or arm. Luyindula gave the Red Bulls the lead again in the 52nd minute after New England failed to clear the ball. But Charlie Davies saved the Revs again when he scored his second of the game in 70th minute after several failed clearances for the Red Bulls, Chris Tierney sent in a cross that Davies headed home, booking the Revs a spot in MLS Cup for the fifth time, although they have never won it before.
As for the Western Conference, LA and Seattle met again to decide who would advance to the MLS Cup. The first leg was played in Los Angeles, and was a relatively quiet game besides some close shots until the 52nd minute when Marcelo Sarvas scored thanks to a deflection off a Sounders defender. Their lead held on till the end and the Galaxy headed up to Seattle with a 1 goal advantage. In frigid temperatures in Seattle the Sounders scored first in the 26th minute when Clint Dempsey shot across goal and Brad Evans was there to knock it in. The Sounders then doubled their lead 6 minutes later in the 32nd minute after LA keeper Jaime Penedo bobbled Clint Dempsey’s shot and let it into the net. The Galaxy were the one’s going into the Finals, however, when in the 54th minute a corner kick for LA bounced all the way out to Juninho, who took the shot on the half volley and scored off the post, putting LA into MLS Cup thanks to the away goal rule.
And so MLS Cup was set, the third time the Los Angeles Galaxy had met the New England Revolution in the final game to determine the champion of MLS. LA had won both previous meetings, in 2002 and 2005, both by a score of 1-0 after having extra time. It was a beautiful day in southern California, and the game kicked off at 3 PM EST. The pace of the game was crazy fast in the opening minutes, with teams running at each other every opportunity they got. The Galaxy seemed to be controlling the game in the beginning, but once it started to settle down, ball distribution was fairly even. Each team had a few opportunities, but besides that the first half was relatively quiet. The second half began with Lee Nguyen going down in the Galaxy box with a good appeal for a penalty, but the referee Mark Geiger did not whistle for a PK. Then the breakthrough for the Galaxy came in the 52nd minute from California native Gyasi Zardes. Stefan Ishizaki sent in a cross that was deflected and landed at the feet of Zardes. He controlled the ball, shrugged off Revolution defender AJ Farrell, and scored past Bobby Shuttleworth to put the Galaxy up 1-0. But the Revolution did not go down without a fight. In the 79th minute Jose Gonçalves sent a harmless looking long ball into Galaxy territory, and Revs rookie Patrick Mullins was able to track it down. He settled it, then picked out the oncoming run of Chris Tierney, who skipped past LA defender Leonardo and buried it past Jaime Penedo to tie the game up at 1 goal apiece. Teal Bunbury hit the bar for the Revolution in the 85th minute, but the two teams were unable to muster up any more goals and they headed for extra time. Patrick Mullins had an on target shot in the 103rd minute that Penedo was forced to make a save on, and then in the 111th minute the deciding goal was scored. A chipped through ball over the top from Robbie Rogers found an onside Robbie Keane who chased after the ball and hit it first time past a diving Shuttleworth to give the Galaxy the 2-1 advantage. New England tried desperately to find an equalizer, and Mullins had another shot saved by Penedo in the 116th minute. But the referee blew for full time in the 123rd minute and the Los Angeles Galaxy secured their 5th MLS Cup title, and their 3rd in the last 4 years. The MVP went to Robbie Keane.
The 2015 season is poised to be even more exciting than this past MLS season, with the addition of 2 new clubs to the mix, NYCFC, led by superstars David Villa and Frank Lampard, and Orlando City SC, whose big signing was Brazilian legend Kaká. The future of MLS is very bright, with the league wanting to have 24 teams by 2020, they are well on their way the way, with a team in Atlanta set to start in 2017, the revamped LAFC, formerly Chivas USA, will also start in 2017. There are talks of starting up teams in Minnesota, Las Vegas, Miami, and Sacramento, which would make MLS even better than it already is.