Major League Soccer Playoffs, First-Round Review: Final Four Has Much To Like

Maybe the Galaxy aren't easy to like, but that doesn't mean they aren't fun to watch. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Say what you will about the inequities of playoffs deciding champions. Knock the conference structure, the timing of the games or any other aspect of the MLS postseason.

Just acknowledge that the first round at least gave us plenty of exciting soccer. It may not have all been beautiful, but all four matchups were compelling up to the final moments, even the Seattle Sounders-Los Angeles Galaxy playoff that was the only one decided by more than one aggregate goal.

It would be tempting to say the result was a less-than-ideal group of teams, some have even called it boring. Missing from the final four are the team most had picked as the class of MLS this season (Real Salt Lake), the side that entered the playoffs on the best form (Seattle) and the one that featured the most big-name players (New York Red Bulls).

The teams we're left with, though, have plenty of compelling storylines. All four are among the league's original clubs, two of which are among the most successful and two of which are among the least.

There's plenty of star power, too. Among them are the league's top two goalscorers, all three MVP finalists, arguably the most famous footballer in the world, one of the greatest players to ever don the American shirt and the league's top scoring duo.

These two conference finals are unlikely to draw in a ton of casuals. But for anyone who already appreciates MLS, there's not much this group lacks.

Los Angeles Galaxy

Despite winning the Supporters' Shield, many considered the Galaxy just the third or fourth best team in the playoff field (I'm looking at you, reflection in the mirror!). Now, they have to be considered the overwhelming favorite to win their third MLS Cup (which would leave them all alone in second place all time) to go along with their three Shields (already second most). 

If they do go on to win the Cup, they'd be the fifth team to win the MLS Double, and just the second since 2000 (Columbus Crew did it in 2008). A finals appearance would be their seventh, no other team has more than five.

More than their history, what makes the Galaxy compelling is their roster's star power. In the past, it's been easy to right that off as simple name recognition. If we take anything away from their victory over the Sounders, it should be that their big names are also very capable of big performances.

No one showed that more in the first round than David Beckham. In the first leg against the Sounders, he was dangerous on set pieces and proved to be a capable defender. In the second leg, his service was directly responsible for both goals, he again played all 90 minutes and checked back on defense throughout. Literally ever set piece he took in the second leg looked like it might lead to a goal. Basically, he looked like the kind of player people make movies about.

Less surprisingly, Landon Donovan did everything Bruce Arena asked of him, which mostly involved harassing the Sounders midfielders. Edson Buddle scored a goal in each leg and now has 19 goals this season. Omar Gonzalez was as dominant as ever at centerback and even scored a goal. Donovan Ricketts, the newly minted Goalkeeper of the Year, wasn't necessarily spectacular, but he came up with the big saves when he needed to.

Add in some very useful performances from players like AJ DeLaGarza, Sean Franklin, Dema Kovalenko and Juninho and the Galaxy are starting to look a lot like the team that ripped through the league during the first two months of the season.

Even if you don't like the Galaxy, they should at least be fun to root against.

FC Dallas

Of the nine original MLS teams that are still active, the Hoops are the only one that have never played in the MLS Cup final. This is Dallas franchise's 11th playoff appearance, but it's just the third time they've advanced out of the first round and the first time since 1999. As coincidence would have it, the last time Dallas won a playoff round was against the Galaxy.

MVP finalist David Ferreira could be the man to close the book on all that forgettable history. More than his two assists during Dallas' upset of RSL, it was his steadying influence in the midfield. Ferreira is really the kind of player you need to watch regularly in order to fully appreciate as his accurate passes and deft ball handling are really his best skills. 

As good as Ferreira was, the player of the round was goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. Coming off a six-week absence due to a knee injury, Hartman showed no signs of rust in the first round. He made several huge saves, none of them bigger than his kick save of a Fabian Espindola shot in the second leg.

They also have the man who will almost certainly retake the all-time MLS goals scored lead in Jeff Cunningham, who scored the first of Dallas' three goals against RSL. Also worth watching is 20-year-old U.S. International Brek Shea, who has had an up-and-down season, and still managed to score five goals and notch four assists. Shea has made some ill-advised decisions (that hair, that tatoo, a burro?), but he's got some undeniable talent.

Colorado Rapids

Every conversation about the Rapids needs to start with the forward duo of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey (from here on out referred to as C+C Scoring Factory). Including Casey's goal that came off a Cummings assist in the playoff against the Crew, the duo has combined for 28 goals and 11 assists. That's two more goals than the next highest scoring duo (Buddle and Donovan).

Casey was one of the higher-profile snubs from the U.S. National Team. Coincidentally or not, the period of the MLS season Casey would have missed to go to South Africa was also when both players' seasons kicked into high gear. The two combined for five goals and two assists during the five-game stretch Casey would have likely missed. In the 14 matches the Rapids have played since May 29, C+C Scoring Factory has produced 23 goals and 10 assists. The most recent of those goals proved to be the equalizer against the Crew and allowed the playoff to go into the penalty shootout where the Rapids emerged with a 5-4 victory.

When they are playing well, there are few players as fun to watch as these two. Cummings has blazing speed, is as good a crosser of the ball as anyone and possesses a rocket shot that he's able to unleash with minimal space. Casey is a much more physical player, who rarely shies away from contact, but who also has a soft touch and is a capable passer.

They are unquestionably the Rapids' heavy lifters, but there are some other interesting cogs in the machine. Centerback Marvell Wynne is finally making good on the visions many MLS observers have had of him, using his speed and muscle as an asset to a degree up til now unseen. Whether he's chasing down a speedy forward or kickstarting an attack, Wynne is finally showcasing the skills to go along with his obvious talent. 

In beating the Crew, the Rapids also got significant contributions from veterans like former U.S. International Pablo Mastroeni, four-time MLS Cup winner Brian Mullan and two-time Cup finalist Jeff Larentowicz. The Rapids have not been to the final since 1997, but this is a team that should be easy to root for.

San Jose Earthquakes

They have changed names (they used to be the Clash), gone dormant (their franchise records stayed behind as the players and coaches moved to Houston) and now play in a converted college baseball stadium. It's no wonder they are hardly considered one of the league's model franchises.

Still, they have two MLS Cups, a Supporters' Shield and can trace their history back to the days of NASL. 

Almost nobody picked them to beat the Red Bulls — especially after they lost their home leg — and the MLS head office undoubtedly was not pleased by this result. That doesn't mean they are undeserving.

Just like the franchise, the key players all seem to have resurrected themselves. Chris Wondolowski has transformed himself from MLS journeyman to Golden Boot winner. One-time wunderkind Bobby Convey has enjoyed a breakout season, and scored two goals in the Quakes' playoff-clinching win over the Red Bulls. Geovanni is Barcelona's former €20 million man, who is now the Quakes first ever Designated Player. Jon Busch went from being cut to being a backup to reestablishing himself as a top-5 goalkeeper all within the span of several months.

This might not be the team that makes neutrals pay attention, but it is one that can be fun to watch. They aren't nearly as conservative as their goal-total suggests and seemed perfectly comfortable matching the Red Bulls when they opened it up in the second leg.

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