The race for the Major League Soccer (MLS) title is hotting up after the favourites have all surprisingly exited. Only four teams are still left in the hunt for the North American championship. After a two-week break for international matches, this year’s thrilling battle for the title will continue on 23 November. Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers will meet in the Western Conference finals and Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City will face each other for the Eastern Conference title.
In the west, Real Salt Lake have put themselves in a good position to reach the final of the MLS championship after beating Portland 4-2 on 10 November. Houston and Sporting on the other hand finished all-square (0-0) in the semifinal first leg on 9 November. In contrast to the game in the western division, the match, as reported by "Sports Illustrated", USA’s the major sport magazine, was a less attractive “war of attrition”.
The final between the two conference winners on 7 December is certain to produce new champions as Los Angeles Galaxy, the victors in 2012 and 2011, were dethroned by Real Salt Lake. After a 1-0 win in the first leg of the Western semifinal (3 November), the Californians lost the second leg 2-0 after extra time. However, it wasn’t the only sensation as the New Red Bulls also fell. The Red Bulls had previously won the Supporter's Shield, the award for the regular season’s most successful team, when finishing top of the table after a fantastic run-in to the 34-game season.
The team entered the Eastern semifinal as the clear favourites after cruising to a 3-0 win in the last game of the regular season against Houston Dynamo on 21 October. However, the Texans then managed a 2-2 draw in New York (on 3 November) before winning 2-1 in the return leg on 6 November. It meant that New York, the league leaders after 34 games, had been downed by a Houston team that had only finished ninth in the Supporter's Shield race. In the past 11 years, the best team before the play-off stage has only gone on to win the MLS title on two occasions. But New York can at least content themselves with securing a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
In the thrilling competition, Galaxy, the champions in the past two years, played no part in turning the regular season’s placings upside down. Whilst New York headed the overall table of all 19 MLS teams – and as a logical consequence was the winner of the Eastern Conference – Los Angeles only came third behind Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference and fifth overall.
In the knock-out phase, the preliminary matches in the play-offs are contested by the fourth and fifth placed teams in the Conferences. The first round consists of a single match. In the west, Seattle Sounders won 2-0 against Colorado Rapids, the 2010 champions. In the east, Houston defeated Montreal Impact 3-0. The Canadian team, which had topped the table for a long time in the regular season, went off the boil in September and October to eventually only finish 11th in the Supporter's Shield overall ranking. San Jose Earthquake, the sixth best team in the west, headed Montreal on overall points but as only the top five teams from each conference can advance, it meant the Californian’s season was over.
After the win against Colorado, Seattle met Portland in the western semifinal. The club with the best average attendance in the MLS lost both matches. Seattle went down 2-1 at home in front of a 38,507 crowd (2 November) and were then defeated 3-2 away in the North Pacific derby (7 November). The encounter between Sporting Kansas City and New England Revolution turned out to be a tight affair. The "Revs" won 2-1 at home in Foxborough (2 November) but in the return leg in Missouri, Sporting took revenge by winning 3-1 to advance to the Conference final.
Now that the favourites have all fallen by the wayside, it means many of the top stars will only be spectators for the crunch matches to decide the MLS. Clint Dempsey, the league’s top star and captain of the US national team who returned to USA in summer from Tottenham, has missed out as has Obafemi Martins with Seattle. Others that have failed to progress are Landon Donovan, the former Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton player and probably the best-known MLS player in Europe, and Ireland’s captain Robbie Keane who is on the books at Los Angeles.
New York’s Frenchman Thierry Henry will be watching from the sidelines as will the Australian Tim Cahill, who after his great performance in the past months has become a crowd favourite in the Big Apple.
The return legs of the Eastern final between Kansas City and Houston will be played on 23 November and the second leg of the Western final between Portland and Salt Lake will follow one day later on 24 November. In between the US national team will travel to Europe for two friendlies against Scotland and Austria whilst Canada will play in the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Only the two countries’ international players that are no longer involved in the MLS play-offs will be making the journeys.