The regular season with 34 matches for each team is now over, San Jose Earthquakes won the Supporter's Shield and the North American professional football league has now started its decisive end-of-the-season 10-team play-off phase. The first preliminary knock-out matches in the Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Western and Eastern Conferences had already been played before the United States was forced to turn its attention to the devastating storm Sandy. Championship runners-up Dynamo Houston and reigning champions Los Angeles Galaxy have both reached the last eight.
In the duel between the MLS Eastern Conference’s fourth and fifth-placed teams, last year’s runners-up Dynamo Houston won 2-1 away against Chicago Fire on 31 October. The defeat in front of a crowd of only 10,923 meant that Chicago and the former German international player Arne Friedrich had been dumped out of the competition. In the preliminary play-off round, a single game determines who progresses to the next stage. Chicago finished the 10-team Eastern Conference season, which ended on the final weekend in October, in fourth place. Four points behind them in fifth was Dynamo Houston.
However in the very first play-off encounter on 31 October, the Texans found their old away form and Will Bruin’s two goals have booked them a berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals where they will meet Sporting Kansas City, who topped the final table, on 4 and 7 November. In the other Eastern semifinal, DC United (Eastern Conference runner-up) will face the league’s third-placed team Red Bulls New York on 3 and 7 November. "We felt right away that it was going to be our match,” said Bruin. "We were under a lot of pressure but after the first goal went in, we were sure it was going to be our day.” Houston was the MLS’ best home team in the first 34 matches but on the road the team was unexpectedly poor. Before the play-off in Chicago they had only registered one win in their last 15 away games.
Alongside Houston, the other MLS Cup 2011 finalist – LA Galaxy – also had to survive a knock-out match. The Californians only placed fourth in the Western Conference and therefore had to qualify for the following play-offs via the extra match against Vancouver Whitecaps. The match, which attracted a 14,703 crowd in Carson on 1 November, ended in a 2-1 win for Galaxy. Mike Magge and Landon Donovan turned the match on its head by scoring two goals in four minutes after the Canadians took the lead in the third minute. The title-holders will now meet San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Conference semifinals on 4 and 7 November.
The Earthquakes were the regular season’s top team. They secured the Supporter’s Shield after setting a new MLS points record. In topping the table, they also qualified for the CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean) Champions League for the first time. Sporting Kansas City is also certain of a place in the Champions League as they won US Open Cup – the United Sates cup competition – in August.
Behind San Jose in second place in the Western Conference was Real Salt Lake whilst Seattle Sonders FC finished third. The two teams will meet in the second Western semifinal on 2 and 8 November. The two-legged conference finals will be played between 10 and 18 November. The two winners will then contest the MLS final on 1 December.
The league’s outstanding player up to the play-offs was Chris Wondolowski who scored 27 goals in 32 appearances for San Jose. Last year he was also voted the MLS’ Most Valuable Player. This season the 29-year-old international striker, who was born in California, has once again improved upon his excellent 2011 performances. The versatile forward scored with both feet and also hit the back of the net with eight headers. In topping the goal-scoring list, he left Kenny Cooper (New York/18), Alvaro Saborio (Salt Lake/17), Robbie Keane (Los Angeles/16) and Thierry Henry (New York/15) trailing well behind.